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The History and Uses Behind Kanna — A Beneficial Herb

Krista H January 3, 2019

When it comes to the history of beneficial herbs and plant-based medicines, we often look to Ayurvedic medicine and ancient Chinese culture. However, there is one key herb that has deep roots in South Africa — Kanna.

Used as a mood-altering substance for centuries, it was traditionally dried and chewed. However, it is now gaining traction in Western medicine. Used to combat hunger, depression, and stress, although this substance can be euphoric, it is not hallucinogenic.


History of Kanna

Indigenous to South-Africa, Kanna has been used for millennia, allowing tribes to relieve feelings of thirst and hunger, combat fatigue, and so much more. It was also used for a range of spiritual and social purposes. Scientifically known as Sceletium tortuosum, this succulent plant has a long history of traditional use.

Before South Africa was colonized, this area was mainly inhabited by the Khoikhoi and the San tribes. Being hunter gatherers, Kanna played a key role in their way of life. Although the oral tradition of knowledge has since disappeared, there are some historical reports remaining.

The first report was written by a Dutch explorer in 1662, highlighting the plant’s effects. The indigenous people would gather and harvest a supply for the year, preserving it in sheepskins. Since it was mainly chewed during consumption, the Dutch began referring to it as ‘kougoed’ — or “good to chew.”

Being something of value to the local people, Kanna was often transported across large distances in order to trade for various commodities. It wasn’t until 1898 that an alkaloid from Kanna, known as mesembrine, was isolated. Upon testing the substance on guinea pigs and frogs, a fast physiological response was documented.

Today, Kanna is used mainly as a recreational substance, sold by online vendors around the world. Although the San population protested against the exploitation of Kanna, particularly by foreign interests, Kanna’s availability had since diminished. Currently, it is typically grown in nurseries across South Africa. However, many are still fighting to keep this local tradition alive.

As stated by Ben-Erik Van Wyk, a botanist from the University of Johannesburg, “Anyone who has chewed it and has experienced the sensation of the plant definitely knows there’s something happening.” His goal is to draw attention to the ancient wisdom associated with the San Bushmen, protecting cultural diversity around the globe.


What the Research Says About Kanna, Anxiety, and Depression

Although the properties of Kanna have been utilized for centuries, it is still largely unknown in North America. However, this mood-lifting herb is beginning to gain traction based on how it impacts the central nervous system.

Considering around 264 million people around the globe suffer from an anxiety disorder, and 322 million people live with depression, researchers continue to explore various alternative treatment options. For those who do not want to take conventional medication, there is a range of dietary options available.

Related: 4 Calming Essential Oils

Kanna is one such option, providing a potential solution for those who no longer want to rely on antidepressants. For centuries, it has been used as a mood-booster, helping users reduce feelings of stress and tension.

Containing an alkaloid known as mesembrine, Kanna may act as a natural serotonin reuptake inhibitor. It also contains three other core components, including mesembrenone, mesembranol, and mesembrenol.

This was shown in one pharmaco-fMRI study, published in Neuropsychopharmacology. Focusing on the anxiety-related activity in the amygdala, the researchers found that the effects of Kanna are likely due to the combination of serotonin reuptake inhibition and phosphodiesterase inhibition.

While the exact mechanisms behind Kanna’s anti-anxiety properties are not fully known, this research further supports the theory surrounding its influence on the amygdala — which is the brain region associated with emotional processing. In addition, Kanna has a high affinity for the serotonin transporter, strengthening the overall relationship between this herb and its calming effects.

Although some experts are wary due to the lack of well-established research, suggesting other options for anxiety, such as Rhodiola or St. John’s wort, Kanna is still a key herb of interest.

Additional Benefits of Kanna

Based on the way in which Kanna impacts the nervous system, it is best known for its impact on mental and emotional wellness. However, its benefits may not stop there.

Based on its ability to improve stress coping, users have also experienced improved sleep. This was documented in patient diaries, as stated in this 2013 study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.


Traditionally, it was used by South Africa’s indigenous people for tooth extractions and hunger suppression. However, based on modern science, researchers are now able to study other possible mechanisms of action. For example, scientists are interested in Kanna based on its potential ability to aid alcoholics.

One case study found focused on a patient living with a personality disorder. Upon taking 50 mg of

Kanna daily, her mood had lifted and she was more focused. Within ten days she was not as socially distant, was better able to cope with her anxiety, and felt less inclined to over-indulge in alcohol. In this case, Kanna may have helped her overcome overwhelming feelings of anxiety, reducing her need to rely on alcohol as a coping mechanism.

In addition, Kanna has not been shown to have any habit-forming properties. In this study, after rats were administered with Kanna, analgesic properties were apparent without any abuse liabilities or symptoms of ataxia.

Lastly, researchers are highly interested in Kanna’s effect on cognition, focusing on the potential implications for Alzheimer’s. In this proof-of-concept study, the objective was to examine the neurocognitive effects of Kanna in healthy control subjects.

What they found that was that upon taking 25 mg daily, Kanna significantly improved cognitive flexibility and executive function, in comparison to the placebo group. Positive changes were also documented in regards to mood and sleep. The researchers concluded that Kanna was well-tolerated and may provide support in relation to a potential treatment of early Alzheimer’s dementia.

Bottom line: Although Kanna is being studied based on its potential ability to relieve pain and improve sleep, the available research is limited at this time. Currently, it appears that the greatest benefits associated with Kanna include positive cognitive and mood-boosting effects.

Overall, Kanna is said to calm the mind, enabling users to express their thoughts and emotions more clearly. In that sense, it is often recommended to those who identify as obsessive thinkers in need of mental relaxation.

Based on its natural anxiolytic properties, Kanna has been shown to slow down the potential hyperactivity of the mind among those with an abnormally active autonomic nervous system. This means that if you are someone who suffers from anxiety and/or obsessive overthinking, Kanna may be of particular interest to you.

Kanna sceletium tortuosum: flower

Is Kanna Safe?

Preliminary studies on Kanna have not shown any apparent toxicological effects. This conclusion was made when humans were given supplemental doses of 25 mg over the course of three weeks, and rats were given higher than recommended doses.

In fact, during this study, rats were given doses that were 1,800-fold higher than the recommended human intake of 25 mg daily. At these doses, no mortality or treatment-related adverse effects were observed.

With that being said, researchers do warn that dosage does matter and overconsumption may lead to symptoms such as diarrhea. Like any new supplement or substance, it is important that you first consult with your physician and follow the directions on the label.


Take Control of Your Health

Whether you are looking for a natural antidepressant remedy or you would like to boost general wellness, it is imperative that you do your research before taking any new substance. Since not all supplements are created equal, especially when purchasing multivitamins.

While you continue to investigate whether or nor supplementation is right for you, it’s critical that you address your current lifestyle and dietary habits. After all, Kevin Mark Trudeau said it best, “Most people have no idea how good their body is designed to feel.”

Looking for additional guidance, information, and inspiration? If so, be sure to follow Curos today!

Krista H
The Ultimate Vitamin and Mineral Guide