Tobacco is a common plant medicine in South and Central America. Although millions of deaths every year are associated with the health risks of cigarette smoking, shamanic tobacco use looks very different.
This raises the question: is there any evidence that shamanic forms of tobacco, such as mapacho and snuffs like rapé, can have health benefits? Is it true that shamanic tobacco could overall do more good than bad?
Here we investigate whether there’s any evidence that shamanic tobacco could have medicinal properties such as antimicrobial or antiviral effects.
Tobacco: Plant vs. Preparations
When talking about any plant medicine, it’s important to know the difference between the natural properties of the plant, and what happens when humans ingest it.
For example, many plants naturally have antifungal and antimicrobial properties that protect them from many harmful infections. But ingesting the plant (whether through eating, smoking, or insufflating) may not have the same healing properties on your body, or protect you from infections in the same way.
Also, while some compounds in tobacco plants may have protective properties, the plants still suffer from viral diseases frequently! The same principle is true in humans: if tobacco does have medicinal properties in our bodies, it won’t be equally protective against everything.
The Tobacco Plant
The tobacco plant, which was mistakenly named by Western explorers after the pipe that indigenous Americans smoked it through (tabaco), mostly refers to the two main species of the Nicotiana genus: Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica. Tobacco was used by indigenous peoples to treat various illnesses, and to prevent disease; as well as for its pleasurable effects (Charlton, 2004).
The tobacco plant contains a number of antimicrobial and antiviral molecules, which prevent the growth of fungus, parasites, viruses and bacteria on its leaves. The cembranoids and polyphenols are two of the most important classes of protective molecules in the plant, mainly possessing insecticidal, antifungal and antimicrobial properties (Yan et al, 2019; Wang et al, 2008).
Nicotine itself, the main addictive molecule in tobacco, repels herbivores (Steppuhn et al, 2004), but there has not been much research into whether it has antifungal, antiviral or antimicrobial properties for the tobacco plant.
Despite the large number of protective molecules in the plant, when tobacco is smoked these beneficial properties don’t seem to be transferred to the human. In fact, tobacco smoke actually lessens the body’s ability to fight off bacterial infections (Moore et al, 2019), as well as causing a vast array of harms (see below).
This presents the possibility that while some compounds in the tobacco plant could have medicinal properties, smoking them is unlikely to be healthy.
The Effects of Western Tobacco Use
When tobacco was first brought to Europe in the 15th century, it was considered a panacea. Some even called it “God’s remedy.” It took hundreds of years for doctors to discover the harm that tobacco can do to the body when smoked.
Any medicinal benefits of regularly smoking tobacco are almost certainly outweighed by the cancer risk. Smoking makes you several times more likely to contract any kind of cancer, and especially likely to contract lung cancer.
In addition, smoking also damages your circulatory and cardiac system, making you more likely to get heart disease or suffer a stroke.
Finally, the damage that smoking does to your lungs can make you more at risk from conditions such as pneumonia, or bronchitis. This means that illnesses such as flu or coronavirus can become much more deadly for smokers than non-smokers.
Reports of the medicinal benefits of tobacco smoking are limited to anecdotes and case studies. There is no conclusive evidence that there are any health benefits that can outweigh the general harms of smoking.
Western Tobacco Snuffs and Other “Smokeless Tobacco”
While smoking tobacco is extremely unhealthy, users of Western tobacco snuff, or chewing tobacco, could theoretically be safer.
Generally referred to as “Smokeless Tobaccos,” snuffs and chews are highly popular in some parts of the world, especially Scandinavia and India.
Although smokeless tobaccos have been shown to be much less harmful than smoked tobacco, they still increase the rates of cancer, as carcinogenic substances within the tobacco plant are still being introduced to the body.
The fact that toxic smoke doesn’t enter the lungs is a big plus – but nasal snuffs still bring dried tobacco into the lungs, and this has been linked with an increase in rates of bronchitis and tuberculosis (Ayo-Yusuf et al, 2008).
Chewed tobaccos, also sometimes called moist snuffs or oral snuffs, are known to increase the rates of mouth and throat cancers, in some cases more than doubling your cancer risk (Boffetta et al, 2008).
On the other side of the coin, there are no studies into the medicinal properties of Western tobacco snuffs or smokeless tobaccos. The main benefits are frequently cited as being a somewhat healthier alternative to smoking, yet still with their own risks.
What is Shamanic Tobacco Use?
In shamanistic practices, especially in South America, tobacco is used differently than in the West. One of the most noticeable differences is the relative lack of processing, which contributes to the toxicity of cigarettes in the West.
There are several main uses of tobacco in South American shamanism:
- Strong tobacco (called mapacho) is smoked in cigars and often not inhaled into the lungs, but used to blow smoke over people or objects to purify and protect.
- A tobacco purge is carried out, where drinking a large volume of tobacco juice/tea causes a violent reaction that can expel parasites from the body.
- Tobacco juice is inhaled through the nose, usually through a small spoon or shell that is passed around from person to person.
- Tobacco dissolved in water is squeezed out over the person’s head, resulting in a “tobacco bath.”
- Tobacco snuff (called rapé) is insufflated, usually through a pipe that the shaman uses to blow the snuff into the participant’s nose.
- Tobacco salves are sometimes rubbed on wounds to promote healing or protect from infection (Charlton, 2004).
- Some ayahuasca recipes include tobacco leaves.
These approaches are variously used to either purge the body of negative energies and illnesses, protect the body from harm before or after another plant medicine ceremony, or send participants on their own journeys with plant spirits.
Tobacco is a fundamental plant spirit for many indigenous American cultures, and is highly revered. In Amazonian traditions, shamans train with tobacco in a similar way to ayahuasca; fasting with the plant and spending time becoming familiar with the spirit.
It has been used as a sacred and healing medicine for thousands of years. For many shamans, the addictive processed cigarette smoking seen in the West is far removed from their spiritual usage of the plant.
But are the protective shamanistic effects corroborated by science? Is there evidence that tobacco when used in these traditional ways can have antiviral or antimicrobial properties, or that it is less harmful than smoking Western cigarettes?
The Effects of Shamanic Tobacco Use
Shamanic tobacco is almost always freshly harvested and prepared without additives, unlike processed Western tobacco, and is likely less harmful. For example, we know that handmade rapé can be less carcinogenic than manufactured snuffs (Stanfill et al, 2015).
As with the reduced risk of chewing tobacco compared to smoking cigarettes in the West, it’s also likely that using snuffs and juices is less harmful than smoking tobacco leaf. Since snuffs and juices are more common in shamanistic practices than in Western tobacco use, it’s likely that shamanic tobacco use is overall less carcinogenic than Western use. There have not been any studies to confirm this.
However, it’s important to remember that any kind of tobacco being in contact with the inside of your body (mouth, nose or lungs) will undoubtedly increase your risk of cancer in these tissues. There are still carcinogenic molecules in the tobacco plant regardless of how little processing it goes through.
It’s possible that tobacco smoke itself could help to kill viruses and bacteria on surfaces, or on your skin, and this could potentially be the reasons for shamanic purification with tobacco smoke – but this has not been proven. All we know is that the plant itself has some antiviral and antimicrobial properties, but it’s completely unknown whether these protective molecules are still present in tobacco smoke.
As for whether the ingestion of tobacco into the body can have antiviral or antimicrobial benefits, there is no evidence to suggest this. In fact, it looks like the tobacco plant reduces your body’s ability to defend itself: nasal snuffs have been linked with an increase in rates of bronchitis and tuberculosis (Ayo-Yusuf et al, 2008), and tobacco smoke has been shown to reduce your body’s natural defences against bacterial infection when inhaled (Moore et al, 2019).
Although there have been no comparative studies of the harms of shamanic tobacco compared to Western tobacco, we know that the tobacco plant contains harmful molecules, and right now it seems unlikely that frequent use of any tobacco preparation would overall be good for your body.
Shamanic Tobacco and the Coronavirus
We’re seeing a lot of interest in people seeking plant medicines to help protect themselves from the coronavirus, or even find a cure. However, there is no evidence that tobacco would be effective in this manner. It’s unlikely that tobacco could provide any kind of protection from or treatment of any kind of virus or bacterial infection, and the evidence suggests that it may even harm your body’s natural ability to defend itself.
It’s also important to remember that the use of sacred snuffs like rapé or shared tobacco juices in plant ceremonies carries a high risk of spreading contagions like the coronavirus. Shamans often use the same snuff applicator or spoon for multiple participants, which is an excellent way to spread infections across the group. If the shaman is contagious (and they may not even be aware if they are), they can effectively infect every single participant.
Some people have suggested that the natural antiviral and antimicrobial properties of the tobacco plant could kill the coronavirus if rapé snuff became contaminated with it – but there is absolutely no evidence that this would happen. Remember that the tobacco plant has protective properties, but that doesn’t mean it can kill all viruses, especially novel ones like the coronavirus that we’re only just beginning to understand!
Read more about mitigating the risks of coronavirus in plant medicine ceremonies.
Can Tobacco Be Healthy?
Yes, tobacco can potentially be healthy. It can be used as a sacred plant teacher, and the risks can be minimized if it is used in moderation, preferably as a snuff or chew rather than smoked.
However there is no evidence that it has significant medicinal properties, and there’s plenty of evidence that it can cause a variety of cancers and reduce your body’s natural defenses against bacterial infections.
So we suggest using tobacco in moderation, with a clear intention, and with the awareness that it is a potentially very harmful plant and must be respected as such!