Why Are People Purposely Poisoning Themselves With Amazonian Frogs?

A toxic substance secreted by giant monkey frogs has become the latest Silicon Valley wellness craze

Kambo amazon frog detox
How did a giant monkey frog from the Amazon end up as a hot wonder drug?
Ignacio Palacios/Getty Images

A recent feature by The New York Times examined the rise in popularity of the kambo wellness detox, a practice that involves “detoxifying” the system by applying the poisonous secretion of an Amazonian tree frog to small burns throughout the body. Similar to the hallucinogenic tea ayahuasca, the ritual has been administered in South America for hundreds of years, and was only recently adopted by California bohemians and tech titans.

Traditionally, indigenous people in Brazil capture the giant monkey frog, known scientifically as Phyllomedusa bicolor, and tie it up near a fire to induce a stress response. When the frog feels threatened, it discharges kambo, which can be extracted from its skin with sticks. In order to apply kambo to a human, a shaman uses an ember to make “gates” on a person’s skin (blisters) and then rubs a kambo-dressed stick into the burns.

During ayahuasca treatments, vomiting is common. During kambo ceremonies, it is guaranteed. People who regularly attend kambo ceremonies — a bit easier to do now, considering you can just travel to Malibu instead of Peru — report violent, sudden side effects. Within a few minutes, the face swells, nausea sets in, diarrhea is very much in play and the empty bucket in front of you turns full with bile. That physical hellscape can last anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes, and it never gets any easier.

Why do people do it? From a bodily perspective, to supposedly “flush out” the organs. Once the heart rate (and spewing) calms down, people report feeling “invincible,” like they’ve taken “warrior medicine.” Feel bad to feel good, basically, like condensing a week-long juice cleanse into a half-hour torture chamber. Some have even reported stunning long-term benefits, for treating migraines and psychological pain. More research is needed on that, but considering the growing scientific support for ayahuasca as a treatment for anxiety, depression, drug abuse and trauma, don’t be surprised if kambo is more ubiquitous a decade from now.

At the moment, the drug is legal in the United States, but unregulated by the FDA. Medical professionals warn those interested to do their due diligence before visiting a clinic. People have been hospitalized in the past — usually because whoever was running the practice used secretions from the wrong frog species.

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