The Science of Kambo

Updated: Jan 3

The effects of Kambo are well known and appreciated by those that have embraced it. But, what is known about the science behind this wonderful natural medicine?

Kambo is the secretion of the Giant Monkey Frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor), and like many natural amphibian secretions, contains a rich cocktail of biochemical compounds and peptides. These compounds have evolved to have a variety of specific effects when they enter the bloodstream of another animal, acting on the body and brain’s messaging and signalling pathways to influence biological responses and behaviour. In the case of Kambo, many of these responses seem initially unpleasant, but the longer term effects can be extremely beneficial in a variety of ways for both physical and mental well-being.

So what are some of these compounds and peptides? How do they work, and what effects do they have? I decided to dig in to find out more:

What are peptides and how do they work?

Peptides are chains of amino acids, much like proteins. The main difference between the two being the length of those chains: peptides are short chains of amino acids, proteins are long chains of amino acids.

Peptides bind to receptor sites on the outer surface of biological cells, and this binding serves a variety of functions in the body and brain. Often they act as a form of message or signal, causing the cell to change what it’s doing. For example to manufacture and release more of a particular hormone or neurotransmitter, or the opposite. In this way they can influence a variety of biological processes, ranging from moods and thought patterns in the brain to muscle contractions and digestion in the body.

Peptides found in Kambo

There are a wide range of compounds and peptides that are found within Kambo, many of which are still to be fully isolated or studied. Of those that have been more extensively studied, a few have very particular effects that are strongly related to both the Kambo experience, and its effects upon those that receive it.

Phyllomedusin - has strong effects on the digestive system and plays a role in the emetic effect of Kambo application - the vomiting and purging that occurs during a Kambo ceremony - helping to cause gut contractions. Works together with Phyllokinin to cause the contraction and relaxation of muscles associated with these gut contractions.

Phyllokinin - has an impact on the dilation of blood vessels, causing greater blood-flow in the affected areas, and also has a part to play in allowing other peptides in Kambo to cross the blood-brain barrier, creating the means by which Kambo can influence the chemical balance of the brain, as well as the physical symptoms it induces in the body.

Phyllocarulein - another vaso-dilator that acts to increase blood-flow. Specifically helps to lower blood pressure (through the increased blood-flow), as well as influencing an increase in the flow of gut contents and the secretion of stomach acid. Has a role in stimulating both the pituitary gland, as well as the adrenal cortex, which also leads to some of its painkilling effects.

Adenoregulin - regulates the action of a series of different neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, that has an initial calming effect that is later followed by increased focus, mental sharpness, and speed of response to external stimuli.

Deltorphins - helps to relieve pain and instils a sense of calm and even euphoric thoughts by its action on opioid receptors. Can have a positive influence on the addictive conditions of those with opiate dependence.

Dermorphin - also acts on opioid receptors, in concert with Deltorphins, again reducing the experience of pain and moderating mood. Again, acts similarly to Deltorphins in helping to alleviate some of the symptoms and issues associated with opiate dependance.

Sauvagine - helps to reduce the frequency and intensity of brain activity through its action on your adrenal glands, and in its triggering of increased dopamine release. Also has effects on the hormones and receptors that play a role in stress and depressive related disorders, plus those associated with addiction and other self-defeating behaviours.

Dermaseptin B2 - has strong antimicrobial properties that are important in fighting both fungal and bacterial infections. Is also believed to have an impact on the speed of tumour growth in cancer.

Antimicrobial and antiviral effects

Many of the peptides found in Kambo have antimicrobial and antiviral effects. Indeed, it is thought that one of the primary roles of the frog’s secretions is to act as a defensive shield for the frog’s skin against invasion of various parasitic fungi and other microbes that would otherwise have a relatively easy time getting through and infecting the frog.

In more recent studies, many of these same peptides have been examined for use in treating otherwise problematic and drug-resistant bacteria and viruses that can play havoc with patients that have weakened immune systems - either as a result of their general health, or, particularly those with immunodeficiency disorders.

Impact of your genes on Kambo’s effects

Everyone is different and Kambo affects everyone differently too. Part of this can be attributed to your DNA - particularly, which type of very specific genes you might have.

  • The sensitivity to particular types of pain is controlled by the OPRD1 gene, which comes in a variety of different types - one of which is associated with somewhat reduced sensitivity to some of the analgesic effects of Kambo.

  • Your response the pain relief offered by Kambo will be affected by which one of the 4 types of the OPRM1 gene that you may have.

  • There are numerous genes associated with the impact of serotonin in the brain, some of which impact susceptibility to addiction amongst other things. Different variations of these genes can mean that you have different reactions to the serotonin related effects of Kambo, particularly those caused by Adrenoregulin.

History of the science behind Kambo

Kambo was brought to the attention of the Western scientific community in the 1980s when an anthropologist Katherine Milton, and a journalist Peter Gormon, spent time living and studying with tribes in Peru and Brazil that practised the Kambo rituals. They provided samples of Kambo to a pair of biochemists who undertook the first analysis of the biochemical composition of the frog poison.

One of those biochemists was Vittorio Erspamer from the University of Rome - famed for his prior discovery of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter. He devoted much of his research to the study of peptides.

Erspamer was interested in the composition of Kambo as it likely contained undiscovered peptides that might have uses in medicine and beyond.

Other significant historical work on Kambo was carried out in the 1990s by a team headed by the biochemist John Daly at the National Institute of Health in the US. Amongst other discoveries they isolated and described the effects of Adenoregulin - an antimicrobial peptide found in Kambo.

The future of Kambo science

As you can see, a lot of work has gone into studying the science of Kambo and the biochemical makeup of the secretion itself. Indeed, at least 70 medical patents have been submitted based on compounds isolated from Kambo.

However, there is still much to discover and active research is ongoing to further study and isolate other compounds that may be beneficial to the broader medical field.

Vittorio Erspamer himself declared Kambo:

‘a fantastic chemical cocktail with potential medical applications unequalled by any other amphibian’.

Of course there is wisdom beyond the science. Wisdom formulated over thousands of years by the tribes that first embraced and ceremonialised Kambo.

Current medical science has only revealed the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true effects and impacts of Kambo for healing and health, and it may never reveal the full wonder of this fantastic natural medicine.

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