What do we know about the "magic frog" from South America and its power to clean and heal?
Hey all. Yes I know, it has been a while, there was (and is) a lot to do atm that is keeping me from blogging.
Plus, since I haven't posted about nothing else for weeks, I am kinda bored with xenoestrogens. No worries, there will be at least three more posts in that series.
But first, this:
Some call this the "magic frog". It is a species living in the Amazon Rainforest.
And before you start asking yourself if good old chemist and toxicologist Sco suddenly discovered his faible for fancy amphibians: Hell no.
The reason why I write this is not the frog itself, but rather the secretion from his skin, the so-called "Kambô", that is used by some indigenous tribes in Peru and Brazil for cleansing rituals and for the treatment of various illnesses. It is also claimed to have a detoxifying and immune system - boosting effects.
Now, shamanism gains popularity in the Western world, as many people nurture a distrust against modern medicine and in particular pharmaceuticals.
And so does the magic frog sap and connected cleansing rituals, in which Kambô is administered via small sites of burnt skin.
A long time ago, @mammasitta wrote about her attendance of such a ritual. And another time, not so long ago (maybe 2 months?), she asked me if I would consider looking into the whole subject from the scientist's point of view.
I said yes, and then I forgot. Sorry for that. Today, I remembered. And one thing is sure: Kambô is not containing xenoestrogens. :P
So there we go!
According to "heartoftheinitiate.com", a gateway to a shamanic community in the US,
kambô treatments have short and long term effects. Short term, the effects are a state of alertness, good mood, enhanced resistance to tiredness, hunger and thirst, the capacity to easily concentrate and focus, and a still mind which can last for several days or weeks. Long term,
kambô empowers the immune system, overcomes fatigue and improves one’s state of health.ref
Others write that Kambô is known as a
powerful treatment for chronic pain and drug dependence.ref
And of course,
it detoxes the mind, body and soul.ref
Now, reading stuff like that will give any science-educated person an initial impulse to just debunk the whole stuff as a fairy tale and be done with it. Especially those whith an allergy to the concept of "detox".
Yes, that's me. The very word makes me sick like a dose of Kambô. Sorry, off-topic. Back on track.
Those sources quoted science, which intruiged me, so I resisted my emotions and poogled it (i.e., I made a PubMed query). First surprise: There is more science than you would expect for a fairy tale.
Scientific interest seemingly started in the 1980ies, when scientists discovered that Phyllomedusa bicolor excretes a cocktail of different interesting chemicals.
Some of them exert an extraordinary toxicity against microorganisms. In other words, these frogs produce some very potent antibiotics.
Those are the so-called dermaseptins, which are short-chain peptides able to break holes into bacterial cell membranes, thus killing the microbes.ref New antibiotics are always of interest for scientists, and research on dermaseptins seems to be ongoing.
But the magic frog doesn't stop at producing antibiotics. Its secretion also contains deltorphins and dermorphin, chemicals again belonging to the peptide class, which have been found to bind to opioid receptors. They work 30-40 times better than morphine to suppress pain, but apperantly are less likely to cause dependence.ref
Also those compounds have been studied extensively as pain killers and anti-depressants. There were even successful clinical trials in which they (as isolated, synthetic chemicals) showed better analgetic results than morphine, which comparable side effects.
I wasn't able to find reasons why they are not yet approved as drugs. What I can say is that research is ongoing. Poogling "dermorphin" will give you over 500 hits, with many studies from recent years.
Fun fact: dermorphin has a history of being used as an illegal performance-enhancing drug in horse races, as horses that don't feel pain can run harder.ref1, ref2
The chemical structure of dermorphin. Pic from wiki, public domain.
Further, Kambô contains also phyllocaerulein, phyllomedusin and phyllokinin which widen arteries and thus lower the blood pressure. They also lead to a sudden contraction of the smooth musculature of the stomach, which probably is responsible for the "deep purging" (i.e. excessive vomiting) during Kambô rituals.ref
And many more bioactive compounds which are not researched very well.
The biological function of this chemical cocktail is clear: to build a antibiotic barrier against infectious microbes, and to protect against hungry animals by a) forcing them to vomit hard as soon they the frog touches their mouth mucosa, leading to the release of the frog and b) killing them should they manage to swallow their prey.
Fact vs. Fiction
It is clear that Kambô contains lots of different chemicals, and that some of them can be used as pharmaceuticals.
I find it pretty amazing than indigenous tribes discovered antibiotics of their own, and it seems absolutly possible that Kambô can be used to combat infectious deseases.
Also the use as performance enhancer ("hunting magic"ref) by Amazonan tribes makes sense due to the pain-killing activity of the contained opioid peptides.
Indigenous tribes didn't have modern medicine. Why would you take a poisonous chemical cocktail to combat bacteria when you can also take penicillin or other antibiotics - which much less side-effects?
Would you take opioid pain-killers to enhance your physical performance when you know that pain is nothing but a signal from your body that your over-exercising is damaging it?
There are some claims that are unproven or even outright ridiculous:
- Detox: You don't get rid of poisons by getting exposed to a different poison (except it's an antidote). That's just not how our xenobiotic metabolism works. My sincere toxicologist's facepalm to that claim.
- Drug dependance: There are several (non-scientific) reports that combating alcohol and drug dependence with Kambo works. And while this hasn't been proven in a placebo-controlled study (yet), it seems possible it does - based on the concept of substitution therapy. However, I doubt that the Kambô mixture would be the best available treatment here... isolated demorphin might do a better job with less severe side effects.
- Vaccination/Immunity: The claim that the repeated exposure to strong poisons would boost your immune systems is wholly without rational foundation. There is no vaccination-like effect against viruses.
However, given the long persistancy of peptide antibiotics, it seems possible that persons enduring a Kambô ritual are somewhat immune against bacterial infections for several days or even weeks afterwards. Again, that's pure speculation and not proven.
Anyway, that'd be like constantly swallowing antibiotics as a phrophylaxis against bacteria. Not something that people usually do, I would say.
The hazard of Kambô
This is an important topic that we need to talk about. Because if you still choose Kambô rituals over Western medicine, you should be aware of that the magic frog is highly poisoneuos, and errors with the application of frog secretes can have ugly - and terminal - consequences.
As it increases in popularity, there are increasing reports of serious poisonings and even accidental deaths after cleansing rituals.ref1, ref2, ref3 Overdosing Kambô can and will kill you.
You should at the very least really trust your shaman here (something I would never ever do, I openly admit).
Also, there are no studies at all concerning eventual long-time effects of mildly poisoning yourself over and over again with magic frogs. So people are buying a chemical jack-in-the box, which by the way is something the very same people would never accept for a regular pharmaceutic drug.
Conclusions and personal remarks
Kambô is NOT an effectless hoax, that's for sure. It contains several substances of high antibiotic, pain-killing and sedative activity that are also of high interest for science and modern medicine.
For native tribes in the Amazon Forest, Kambô was a groundbreaking invention, I am sure.
For some - but not all - of the effects that shamans claim for their cleansing rituals there can even be logic explanations.
However, I can see no advantage over conventional drugs, at least not in the application of this wild mix of poisoneous chemicals. Especially as the risks are quite grave.
While researching, I had the strong impression that the whole Kambô movement is based on the somewhat romantic believe that treatments obtained from mother nature are always better and healthier.
As a professional toxicologist, I do not share this - sorry - illusion. Mother nature can sometimes be a fucking toxic assassin.
Utterly important, the disclaimer:
In my blog, I'm stating my honest opinion as a researcher, not less and not more. Sometimes I make errors. Discuss and disagree with me - if you are bringing the better arguments, I might rethink.