Interview with Medicine Hunter Chris Kilham
Kicking it with the Indiana Jones of Herbal Medicine — Chris Kilham
You know that next morning feeling — right after a psychedelic experience? The sound of birds incandescently sparkles. Ideas zing. Your entire world is completely new and astonishingly free.
That’s how I felt after listening to this 40 minute conversation of world renowned herbalist Chris Kilham with Anthony Bear, Founder Of Bear Blend.
A world adventurer and author of 14 books on the plant-based medicinal kingdom, Chris is the founder of Medicine Hunter. He dedicates his life to herbal medicinals and the preservation of the natural world and indigenous cultures. Chris has journeyed to over 45 different countries around the world to study medicinal plants under the shamans and healers of countless indigenous civilizations.
Chris has been described as “part Sir David Attenborough, part Indiana Jones” by the New York Times. He’s a reborn ancient medicine man for modern times, a life-sized Yoda herbalist for the Internet age. You’ve got to see to see him to believe him. Halfway through his cup of herbal tea, your mind’s never going to be the same again.
There’s a lot to unpack. And it must be done leaf by leaf, ground up in an herbal tea ball — steeped ‘til it’s rich and bitter.
Here are some highlights:
We are Intimately Connected with the Plant Kingdom
Chris points out that plants are part of us; we are herbal vessels. Plants nourish us and heal us, provide not only sustenance but curative remedies for countless ailments. “We share biology in all kinds of clever ways,” Chris points out. “We have a more intimate relationship with plants than anything but water and air.”
Entheogens, Ceremony, & the Value of a Concert Joint
Chris also delves into the psychoactive realm of the herbal kingdom. His smile slips into the slyest grin, eyes twinkling as he describes “the states of mind and realms of spirit we don’t typically access” without these entheogens. He recalls first-hand experiences of ceremonial cannabis smoking in Himalayan temples, playing music and dancing with Holy Men.
These kinds of ceremonial acts tend to be “set aside time” approached with “a reverential attitude and an open mind and a willingness to pursue the truth.” But Chris doesn’t discount the parking lot joint at a concert or a ’shroom PB&J on an afternoon hike with friends.
“There’s also tremendous value in the so called recreational use,” Chris allows. “You get together with friends in the woods, eat some mushrooms — take off your clothes and jump in the river. That is in and of itself intrinsically healing, beautiful, bonding — lovely in all kinds of ways.”
Native Cultures Already Know. We Just Need to Ask.
Remember that movie Medicine Man from the ‘90s? Sean Connery plays Robert Campbell, a researcher who seeks a cure for cancer in the Amazon.
Turns out Merck, the pharmaceutical company, played a similar game in the ‘90s in Costa Rica — screening and lab testing the rainforest, acre by acre for the next wonder drug of the century. Nearly $50 million and 16 years into the project, the drug company packed up and left as empty handed as Medicine Man’s 19% Rotten Tomatoes rating.
“They came up pure bupkis because of what they didn’t do,” Chris remarks. “They didn’t go to the shamans. They didn’t ask the people, the grandmothers, the cultures that already know how to use this stuff. That’s how you find not only the medicines but the methods.”
The knowledge is out there. We just need to ask the people who already know.
“Much of the discovery that needs to be made is learning what is in use in other cultures, medicines that for any number of reasons simply haven’t been popularized outside of those cultures,” Chris suggests. “There’s an enormous amount of treasure there.”
Like we said, there’s a lot to unpack. Which makes sense — on a planet where there are over 50,000 purported medicinal plants and herbs used by cultures all over the world, Chris points out. Some of the best and brightest are growing right under our noses and feet in our backyards, city parks, and window boxes.
Well, our minds are certainly buzzing. Like sipping a strong cup of tea on a clear, new morning, it always helps to regard the vast and symbiotic herbal kingdom from a fresh perspective. And this is only the beginning.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll be publishing articles and blogs inspired by our conversation with Chris. We’ll discuss the benefits of the tobacco-less spliff and ceremony’s place in the psychedelic experience and how that shapes our culture. We’ll also write about Big Pharma’s role in the burgeoning opium crisis and the manufacture of hard drugs. We’ll explore medicinal plants and how nature’s prolificacy prompts drug companies to release and market copycat synthetics like the latest iPhone.
Stay tuned. There’s lots to come.
Anthony Bear: I’m just going to introduce you. I’m here with Chris Kilham. He’s an herbal expert and enthusiast, world traveler, somewhat of an Indiana Jones of the herbal world, exploring the world and gathering information for us about the herbs. We’re very excited to have you here today! I’m so interested in this relationship between people and the herbal kingdom and the wealth of the botanical world out there. How do you feel the natural world can help heal the body and the mind?
Chris Kilham: Well for one thing we would not be alive and could not be alive without plants. So fundamentally we need them to exist. We breathe the oxygen they generate, we eat them, swallow their nutrients and take those into our bodies, we’ve co-evolved with these plants for millions and millions of years so we share biology in all kinds of clever ways, whether it’s circulation, digestion, heat manufacture, it goes on and on. The chemistry is much the same. We wear their fibers, we use them as fuels, we build homes out of them, we use them as medicines, we adorn ourselves with them, we create environments with them. We have a more intimate relationship with plants than with anything but water and air. So plants are critical to us. How they can help us with our health is, on the one hand, nourishing us, the way they do when we eat grains beans nuts seeds fruits vegetables etc. And the other thing is that if we also use them as preventive medicines, during cold season, drinking lots of ginger tea eating lots of garlic and hot chilies, all of that. Or from a curative standpoint, “I’m completely congested, I need some Eucalyptus” or “my intestines are blocked up, I could use some Senna”. Whatever the case may be, those are just basically kind of symptomatic relief, but let’s say you live with chronic inflammation. You can on a regular basis eat turmeric and take curcumin supplements and aid yourself greatly and actually boost your health in ways in addition to helping to deal with the inflammation. And then on top of that of course the psychoactive plants give us access to states of mind and other realms of spirit that we don’t typically access without them, so the palette is pretty broad.
Anthony Bear: That’s amazing. What are some of the most surprising or eye-opening discoveries you’ve seen as far as the healing qualities of plants?
Chris Kilham: Well I can tell you my life saving experience was back in the first week of 1984. I was in Kathmandu, Nepal and I had a horrendous, horrendous case of dysentery. I had lost about 35 pounds, I was gravely sick. I was dehydrated, dizzy and could barely stand. I needed a doctor. And I asked where the nearest doctor was and they said “well we’ve got this Ayurvedic guy” and I said “No no no no no no.” Even though I had been using herbs for 14 years, I was like “No, I need real medicine” was my reaction, “I need antibiotics. I need a western doctor. I need someone who knows what the hell they’re doing.” And they said, “Well look this is the only person we have. So there you go.” So I went to see this guy, and I was not made confident by him particularly because all he did was have me lie on a table and he put his hand on my abdomen and he goes “Oh I know exactly what’s wrong with you.” And I thought I’m going to call the Amsterdam embassy and get medevaced out of here right after this, this is ridiculous. And then he gave me some powder and some little pellets that looked like rabbit droppings. And he said take a teaspoon of this powder in water 2 times a day before each meal and take 3 of these tablets with that, and you’ll be fine in short order. And I thought, yeah right. So then he charged me like, a buck ten or something, for the whole consultation and the medicine. And I thought, before I contact the embassy, since I’m so weak, I’ll go get some lunch. So I went and I did the thing with the water and the powder and the three rabbit droppings. And by mid-afternoon the diarrhea the fever and the chills had stopped. And I was like, “Oh.” Not only did it turn out to be life-saving, but I bothered to really closely read the card of the man I had gone to see, and he was the head of the entire Nepal Ayurvedic Association. So basically it was like going to the chief surgeon at Columbia Presbyterian or something. I was in very good hands. So that was a revelation for me because what it said was, oh this isn’t just good for gas, this isn’t just good for a sore throat, this isn’t just good for rubbing on abrasions, these things can save your life. And I think that experience profoundly changed the course of my path because then I was fully able to understand these are and can be life saving medicines.
Anthony Bear: Wow I love that story. That reminded me of an experience I had where I cut my foot really badly. We were out in the woods, we were with a native American herbalist, this guy by the name of Seven Song.
Chris Kilham: I love Seven Song! We all know Seven Song, he’s a legend.
Anthony Bear: He actually sowed my foot together with propolis. It was really cool he gave me this propolis stitch. It healed me right up, he used me as an example to all the students, he’s like well here’s what nature can do. So that leads me to my next question. Do you have any information as far as pharmaceuticals that are derived from plants? Why are we so rooted in pharmaceuticals? And where were some of those originally derived from?
Chris Kilham: It all has to do with patent law. This is the fact of the matter. Probably the most effective blood pressure medication ever was reserpine, from rauwolfia serpentine, discovered in the 30s. Probably one of the most effective cardiovascular medicines ever was recivit, a powerful multiple antioxidant combination derived from Spanish peanut skins. Cinchona quinine from Cinchona tree for malaria. The list is staggeringly long. The alkaloids from digitalis and digitoxin derived from a flower, Foxglove. Basically what happens is, these things run out of patent, then they become incredibly cheap, then the drug companies go well that’s no good for us, we don’t want to live in a generic drug universe pushing tablets for 3 cents apiece, we’ll go create something else. So it’s not that the drugs that have followed are any better than the plant derived drugs. It’s that they can be patented, and that’s really all. In many cases they’re far more toxic and far less effective. On the other hand, things like Peppermint for example is a registered medicine in the United States, not just the menthol from it. Senna leaf, I mentioned it before, but as a laxative, it’s just a common leaf and yet it’s a registered drug for occasional constipation. Eucalyptus in cough drops is also a registered drug. We also have some odd things. In the psychoactive world I just have to take a little stab at the pharmaceutical companies. Bayer invented heroine as a treatment for morphine addiction. It works, you don’t know any morphine addicts. Park Davis really got the United States hooked on cocaine more than anybody else. Merck invented ecstasy in the 30s. And LSD came out of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland. All of these things had their natural origins. When you look at where these came from though, even though those of us on the margins get blamed for these things, they all came from mainstream drug companies. Kava used to be a medicine in the United States until the 50s when it basically just went out of fashion, for disuse it wound up losing its status. Ibogaine from Iboga, the powerful psychedelic and also addiction treatment, that was a drug in the United States and France up until 1963. This list goes on and on and on Anthony, it does not stop.
Anthony Bear: Wow, that’s kind of mind blowing! You mentioned some of these pharmaceuticals are toxic. What kind of properties are you getting from the natural version versus the laboratory version?
Chris Kilham: Our bodies can better deal with things from nature because we share biology. We don’t share any biology with synthetic chemicals, so either we have to break them down somehow or excrete them or store them. I don’t want to suggest that plants can’t be toxic. Make someone a really good strong cup of Foxglove tea, that’ll be the last cup of tea they ever drink. They’ll be dead in short order. So it’s not as though these things are completely free of hazard. The difference between a medicine and a poison is very often the dose. If you look at the difference between purified cocaine (which represents one percent of the total volume of a coca leaf) and coca itself, which you can chew all week long until your facial muscles fall off, you’re not going to get high from this stuff. But it’s very very good for you because it has other compounds that are profoundly beneficial for the cardiovascular system. Why people in the Andes chew coca leaf so much is that it actually helps to protect the integrity of the physical interior walls of their fine blood vessels, which otherwise would more likely hemorrhage living at high altitudes. So it’s a very clever strategy, the chewing of coca leaf. That’s why they do it. You go into a hotel say above 9 or 10,000 feet in the Andes, I’ve been there like 30 times or so, there’s free coca leaf tea as much as you can drink because it helps you to acclimate. But it’s not a line of coke on the table and a rolled up hundred dollar bill, help yourself snort a few on us, that’s not what’s going on. These are very different things.
Anthony Bear: So the cocaine on the table, that’s a refined version of it that’s just a specific part of that plant? Help me understand the difference.
Chris Kilham: Cocaine is one molecule derived from a plant that may contain six or seven hundred different compounds. I don’t want to get too “woo woo” here, but nature puts things together in very wonderful ways. Nature creates in plants compounds that protect the plants, those same compounds often protect us. Antioxidants in plants, help the plants to retard the spoilage of cells in the plants due to exposure to heat, air, light, moisture and time. And when we take those same compounds into our bodies, they help retard the rusting process of our cells that we know as oxidation. So there’s this natural synergy between us and plants. You asked about profound healings, you consider something like ayahuasca, which is the only combinatory psychedelic on earth, it requires two plants or it won’t work. There are detoxifying compounds in there, purgative compounds in there, monoamine oxidase inhibiting compounds in there, psychedelic compounds in there, stimulating compounds. All kinds of things in rich, rich admittedly nasty tasting brew. So when you drink it, it is a far different thing than blowing a little pipe full of purified DMT. This is a whole plant medicine, and more than that if you want to a step further, it’s plant spirit medicine. When you’re dealing with whole plant extracts, you’re also dealing should you choose to be conscious and aware of it with the spirits of the plants themselves. Big difference.
Anthony Bear: Yeah that is a huge difference and something I’m very passionate about. I feel that the plants actually have information for us or some sort of wisdom. Even with our product when people smoke a bit for the first time, experience uva ursi for the first time, these plants that have been used in ceremony before, they have an experience that is beyond just the chemical or biochemical one but something like a communion with the spirit of that plant. This is leading me into my next thing, which is about the ceremony. I’d love for you to share with us some of the plant ceremonies you’ve experienced. You mentioned Ayahuasca, I know you’ve had quite a lot of experiences with that. What are some other plants you’ve experienced in ceremony? What is the value of ceremonial aspect of the plant usage to you?
Chris Kilham: One plant that I’ve had great good fortune to experience in ceremony especially in India and the Himalayas is cannabis. I would say one of the most remarkable psychedelic times I ever had was in Nepal. I went to a particular temple nine nights in a row and they had a little group of guys who had obviously been singing together their whole lives, probably since they were little boys, I think four of them. And they would play holy music for hours every night at this temple. And they would smoke ahead of time. From the very first time I walked in there they went, “You, come on, come with us.” So I don’t know what it was but I smoked with them before they played and they’d usually take a break in the middle and we’d smoke again. Being in this ancient temple in the Himalayas at night in the cold with these guys playing amazing holy music and being high on cannabis took me out into remarkably vast states. Ceremonial activity is like a set aside time. You’re not doing anything else. You’re not checking your email. You’re not going to Whole Foods to pick up coffee. This is a set aside time. You approach it with a reverential attitude and an open mind and a willingness to pursue whatever is your truth. In that way, you naturally make yourself more open to the expansiveness that is possible with the real psychedelics. And I certainly consider cannabis a psychedelic, especially when taken orally. I think that ceremonies are important in that way. Also, people tend to be much more intentional in a ceremony, “I really want to resolve the stress from whatever thing occurred in my life, whatever that trauma might be.” And further, if you have good ceremonial facilitators or leaders, like some of the types of shamans in the Amazon, then they’re really good at helping you to go further out than you may be able to on your own, and help you to navigate the space with their remarkable, if very strange, songs. I think there’s a massive amount of traditional technology and also human support for each other. You know, you go into a Native American church ceremony and everybody there is genuinely and legitimately praying for everybody else. So you’re in this ocean of consciousness of the peyote, and people are earnestly seeking resolution for their own personal pains but also there’s this tremendous sense of good will toward others in the space. That has to be profoundly powerful for everybody there.
Anthony Bear: Yes. It’s a religious experience connecting to something greater than ourselves. Maybe these experiences with the plants allow us that space. One thing I find really interesting is how a lot of these things have moved into what’s considered a recreational use of these herbs. Can you see a way of bringing that ceremony to that recreational use? Even if someone’s going out and smoking a joint with some friends at a show, can they have a mini ceremony or some way of connecting in that moment?
Chris Kilham: In that instance it’s probably more of a quick moment of remembrance, like “Om Shiva.” You know, something brief, because that’s what the moment requires. It doesn’t require getting out the dorjes and symbols and bells and doing some long yantra meditation on the back steps of the theater. I do want to say that while I’m a big fan of ceremonial experience of the psychedelics, I also recognize that there is tremendous powerful healing worth and value in the so called recreational use too. You know, you get together with some friends in the woods and you eat mushrooms and you run around and hang out and talk and take off your clothes and you jump into the river and you sit in the sun. That is in itself intrinsically healing and beautiful and bonding and lovely in all kinds of ways. I think in a way, the conversation in our culture is kind of positioning recreational as lesser, as somehow pejorative. And I really think that’s a mistake. I admit I’ve smoked probably more cannabis in non-ceremonial circumstances in my life, riding around with my friends, hiking in the desert, “Oh yeah time to have a smoke!” The thing is to not be mechanical about it, to not be so automatic about it that you actually miss the moment. But to take whatever little inner time you need to appreciate the experience you’re having. And that makes the experience richer.
Anthony Bear: I love that point of view. I think there was a time in human history when it was more natural, there was a connection to plants that was there all the time. Drinking tea, or if you’re not feeling well you might have some alcohol with poppy pods soaking in there, just drink that to feel better. It was just a thing that people did but there wasn’t a separation. But now in this day and age we have a little bit of separation. People are almost scared of herbs.
Chris Kilham: One of the great ethnobotanists in history was a guy named Richard Spruce. He was in the 1800s. He described an ayahuasca ceremony that was just flat out hilarious. This was in Colombia. They were dancing, there was a fire, they were drinking ayahuasca, they were blowing snuff up each other’s noses, they were smoking bat sized cigars of Amazonian mapacho (jungle tobacco), they were drinking masado which is a semi-alcoholic starch beverage that you make in part by spitting into it. It was apparently a very lively event. It wasn’t people sitting quietly on their mats in the dark. It sounded chaotic and funny and like they were just piling on the psychoactives for the day. So I don’t think that throughout history it has always been the case that, “Oh no no we only do this to heal somebody” it was like “Yeah we really got loaded on Saturday night man. We drank a ton of ayahuasca and then we sat around drinking masado until 3.” I think there was a lot of that too. I think sometimes we want to re-write history and imagine people to be more fundamentally reverential or somehow more put together in that way than we are, and I’m not convinced.
Anthony Bear: I see that. I was on the reservation on Christmas Eve one year. I was working in Big Mountain in Arizona helping the natives herd their sheep. I remember sitting around the fire on Christmas. The whole family gathered for Christmas, I was just blessed to be there over Christmas. I got to meet everybody in the family, hear all their stories. Even though Christmas isn’t part of their tradition, it is now because they all get off work. I remember we were all sitting around the fire and one of the guys pulls out some peyote and just starts chewing on it. And he hands me some peyote, like “Here you go!” So we had that experience that was very nonchalant. It ended up being a magical wonderful night. That was my first experience with peyote. There was no introduction there. I didn’t even realize what it was until later, I was just chewing on this thing, and they were all just laughing while I was hacking.
Chris Kilham: There was a documentary or article, I forget which, an account of I believe it was the Huichol natives, their walk to Wirikuta, their pilgrimage they would do every year. They would hunt it and also would eat it as they go along. There was an account of a couple of elders who were supposed to be holding the space. They were just so massively tripped out that they kept quiet for hours and going back and forth with each other, “Oh man I couldn’t really do much there, way too many buttons.” While I do think that a lot of ceremonial and ritual use of these mind enhancing agents has persisted throughout all history, people are constantly experimenting. What we think of as tradition, is truly even in the most effective circumstances, shit people made up. “It seems to work better doing this stuff in the dark. If you do less than this amount you’re good, and if you do more than this amount it blows your head off.” And they figure it out and that becomes tradition.
Anthony Bear: Wow, I love the diversity. There’s so much diversity of the plants. Do you think there’s any end to the discovery? Are you still discovering new things all the time? When you said, “this is just shit people figured out”, is there still more for us to figure out?
Chris Kilham: I do think so. There are purportedly 50,000 or so medicinal plants in use in the world totally. You look at Ayurveda, there are like 7 and a half thousand plants used in that system, same with traditional Chinese medicine. So I think a lot of the discovery to come is the ethnobotanical approach. As a medicine hunter, that’s what I do. I go into places and find out how people use stuff. Many years ago I was with a group investigating a plant that is widely used in China to help stroke victims recover better and faster. We don’t use it in this country. But in the hospitals of China, this is the life saving medicine. So a lot of it is learning what is in use in other cultures that, for any number of reasons, simply hasn’t been popularized outside of those cultures. I think there’s an enormous amount of treasure there.
Anthony Bear: Is it really the industry that’s holding that back?
Chris Kilham: Well, no. This takes time, energy and money. I think to the contrary, people want to discover these things, but it is difficult to do in many instances. It requires going to these places, which is what I do, and spending time there and hanging out. And then they say, “Yeah I know you’re here about that one particular herb, but let me show you something else.” And that something else might be mind-blowingly cool. Merck and an organization called INBio did a project years ago in Costa Rica. They decided they were going to screen the rainforest, ok, they were going to test the forest. What a stupid idea! And so they set up a lab and they blew $50million. And they didn’t find anything. They took certain plots of land and they tested every part of every plant on those plots of land. And they came up bupkis. And after blowing 50. Million bucks they went home. But what they didn’t do, they didn’t go the shamans, they didn’t go to the grandmothers! Saying “I got pain here” and they go “What you need is this route, and you need a vapor steam so let’s do both of those”. And then you can find out not only medicines but methods. So I think there’s plenty more to discover. Given the toxicity and the expense and the failure of the drug model overall, I think we really need these plant medicines. And to keep them around, that means that we need environmental preservation. And that means complete and absolute changes in everything to do with US policy and activity.
Anthony Bear: Yeah especially in this country. I was in Poland and my wife went to see the doctor there. And they prescribed her chamomile. So we went to the pharmacy and we got these little powder capsules of chamomile and that was her medicine. It’s interesting that’s something you can get as a traditional doctor even in Europe, whereas you’re probably not going to encounter that very often in this country. When I was studying in southeastern Ohio I met several different herbalists, and one of the things I heard from Tismal Crow, he told me that when he was doing house calls, he would find the different herbs that people needed would be popping up in their yards like weeds, somehow coming to find them. I think there is this way of nature to balance where there is imbalance. So I encourage people to go out and study those herbs or even look in their yards for things that are very common like dandelions, that can have good healing qualities, even clover has shown anti-cancer qualities and all kinds of things. It’s amazing what is out there right under our toes all the time.
Chris Kilham: Or right above our heads. We have tons and tons of chaga on our property here in western Massachusetts, and that is one of the great immune enhancers of all time.
Anthony Bear: And is that an adaptogenic? Can you tell us about what adaptogens are?
Chris Kilham: Sure. Adaptogens are a small class of herbs that help us adapt to all forms of stress, mental and physical. Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen, ashwagandha from India is an adaptogen, ginseng is, Maca is somewhat adaptogenic you could make the claim, shizandra berry is. Some of the characteristics are that they increase energy endurance and stamina pretty much across the board, they reduce stress usually by reducing stress hormones in the blood, and they have little or no known toxicity. In tests you can’t find a toxic level of these herbs, you really can’t, not that a person could actually consume. I take a lot of adaptogens because I travel very heavily. I travel millions of miles and it takes a bit of a toll. I find that if I’m taking these on a regular basis especially ashwaganda, rhodiola, ginseng and schizandra, I can stay stronger and I can get more done. We’re in a time now when the popularization and legalization of cannabis is really broadening throughout culture. It’s inevitable that cannabis will be paired with other herbs. It makes sense to have a cannabis sleep formula with passion flower and chamomile or lemon balm or other things that are sedative or relaxing. On the other hand, I have blended cannabis with the adaptogens, especially ginseng, but the others as well, for years. I’ll very often make a little herbal cocktail, a little bit of water and some extract of different adaptogenic herbs and do that when I’m also taking advantage of cannabis. And it’s a mental sharpening thing, very good for that. The adaptogens are a special class. If people want to know more about these botanicals they should go onto my website, www.medicinehunter.com. There’s a whole large break out section on medicinal plants, there’s a large section on ayahuasca and information on my book The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook. You’ll find a lot of material, written and also videos I’ve done on television, about the adaptogens.
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