The last 50 years has seen a revival of herbal medicine as well as a resurgence of psychedelics as promising solutions for healing, mental health and elevating consciousness. Curiosity has been fueled by renewed interest in ancient entheogenic plant medicines (psychoactive plants that produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness) traditionally stewarded by indigenous peoples in Africa and Central and South America.
In particular, psychedelic plants such as ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms have entered the clinical arena in medicine for their ability to effectively treat mental health issues such as PTSD and drug-resistant depression.
Oftentimes, these healing experiences expand consciousness and also engender a new, positive perspective on existence. What may be lesser known but quickly capturing interest are entheogenic, tension-reducing and mood-lifting plants that are legal and not psychedelic such as sceletium tortuosum, commonly known as kanna.
In a world where a growing number of people are looking for non-pharmaceutical solutions for mental and emotional health, kanna is definitely worth considering.
What Is Kanna? Its Indigenous Roots
Kanna (sceletium tortuosum) is a succulent plant that is native to South Africa. Considered a sacred plant by the Khoi Khoi and San (collectively known as the Khoisan because of their similar languages), it was used as a socio-spiritual substance and botanical remedy that was central to their society, and was taken for centuries to improve mood, focus, and energy. The Khoisan traditionally took kanna when they went on multi-day hunts as it helped them enhance endurance, mental clarity, suppress hunger and feel a sense of oneness and connection with nature.
In a recent Harvard Divinity School video, Honoring the Indigenous Roots of the Psychedelic Movement, Beatriz Caiuby Labate, a Brazilian anthropologist and executive director of the Chacruna Institute says“…Indigenous knowledge keepers have, in one way or another, informed the birth of the psychedelic movement and continue to do so.” She continues, “And in many, many ways, all of us are indebted to indigenous peoples and their traditions and their knowledge when we are interested in these medicines.”
Kanna is psychoactive, not psychedelic.
Psychedelics (serotonergic hallucinogens), are a class of psychoactive substances that produce changes in perception, mood and cognitive processes. Psychedelics affect all the senses, altering a person’s thinking sense of time and emotions.
Psychoactive refers to a substance that affects the mind, mood, consciousness, and emotion and passes your blood-brain barrier. While both have an effect on your brain and its functions, not all psychoactive substances are psychedelic. Psychoactives offer a more approachable option for people looking for mental health solutions since they are not hallucinogenic.
“Wellness consumers embrace natural solutions, so the legal botanical kanna is starting to trend, which gets dubbed “nature’s MDMA.” It’s actually a far milder psychoactive empatho-active derived from a South African plant and used by indigenous people there for healing-social-spiritual ceremonies for millennia.” mentions the 2023 Global Wellness Trends Report: The Future of Wellness by Global Wellness Summit, “It’s touted for making people less socially anxious and more open to others.”
How Does Kanna Work In The Brain?
Kanna contains several active alkaloids, principally mesembrine and mesembrenone, that interact with the brain in various ways. One of the primary effects of this South African plant is enhancing serotonin levels, due to it being both a serotonin reuptake inhibitor and a serotonin releasing agent, which can positively affect mood and strengthen the mechanisms of attention and memory while enhancing cognitive function.
Kanna also has sedative properties that can help alleviate stress and calm the mind while simultaneously having the ability to increase grounded energy. It activates receptors for GABA, opioids, cholecystokinin and melatonin: GABA calms brain activity and decreases anxiety; natural opioids kill pain and create a sense of wellbeing; cholecystokinin reduces hunger and prevents inflammation in the gut, and melatonin improves sleep quality.
In addition, kanna also boosts energy use in the body by blocking an enzyme called PDE4 (phosphodiesterase 4). This is the reason why kanna has the simultaneous effect of calming and providing grounded energy at the same time.
Studies suggest it can be useful in treating depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues due to its ability to boost serotonin levels. In addition, Kanna may also have neuroprotective and neuroregenerative properties that could help protect against cognitive decline due to aging or other illnesses such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s.
What Is Kanna Used For?
Kanna is known to have broad-spectrum benefits, including:
- Improving mental and emotional well-being: Kanna can promote deep mental, emotional and bodily relaxation, calm obsessive thinking and help integrate the mind, body and emotions on a holistic level.
- Reducing stress and anxiety, including social anxiety: With its ability to calm brain activity and the autonomic nervous system, it can help to bring more ease and spaciousness in thought and communication both internally and externally, allowing people to feel more centered and able to enjoy life whether they are alone or in a social situation.
- Mood-lifting: Kanna's ability to boost serotonin levels may help improve one's overall mood and outlook on life without the multitude of harsh side-effects of chemical SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as citalopram eg. Cipramil, or fluoxetine eg. Prozac)
- Energizing in a grounded way: Kanna can help to boost energy levels without overwhelming the mind and body, unlike stimulants which can cause nervousness and irritability.
- Boosting endurance: kanna can aid in accessing more energy reserves so that energy can be sustained over longer periods of time.
- Heart-opening, feeling more connected: By boosting serotonin levels, Kanna may help one feel more connected and compassionate towards oneself and others.
- Increased Intimacy: Its calming and heart-opening properties may help couples connect on a deeper level.
- Enhanced focus: Kanna can help individuals stay focused and productive throughout the day.
- Heightening creativity: The energizing and stress reducing effects of Kanna may help unlock creative ideas and aid in problem-solving.
- Improving sleep quality: Its sedative properties can help relax the mind and body, leading to improved sleep quality.
- Curbing hedonic cravings: Kanna may help reduce excessive cravings without impeding homeostatic hunger (eating for survival to maintain proper bodily functions).
- Non-addictive and sober: Kanna nor its alkaloids are known to cause addiction and its euphoric effects are subtle. It is used in South Africa to treat addiction such as alcoholism.
With its wide range of benefits, Kanna can be a powerful ally in supporting and promoting mental health and emotional well-being. In addition, with its particular alkaloids and phytochemical compounds, Kanna has the potential to aid people with:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
- Addiction and alcoholism
How Is Kanna Different From Kava Kava, Cannabis, and MDMA?
Since kanna has sedative, anxiolytic and euphoric effects, it is often compared to other plants like kava kava and cannabis and synthetic drugs like MDMA. Although Kanna shares some similar effects with these substances, there are significant differences both in the way it works in the brain, how it interacts with other drugs and substances, and also how it impacts overall health.
Kava Kava (piper methysticum)
Kava kava is a calming root that is native to the Pacific Islands and has been used as a ceremonial drink there for hundreds of years. It has been used as a plant medicine for centuries and can help reduce stress, anxiety, and insomnia while promoting relaxation and mood elevation.
Besides being in pill or tincture form, Kava kava is available at non-alcoholic kava bars which have become quite prevalent. Quality and potency depend a lot on the extraction method. Kava kava produces a mild sedative effect and is not a hallucinogen or psychedelic. It is a natural monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) and slows the messaging time between brain and body, with a slight elevation of dopamine.
Unlike kanna, kava kava produces a euphoric sensation that can impair judgment and cause some lightheadedness. It increases liver enzymes which can potentially cause long term liver damage if not taken in moderation, and is not recommended to be consumed daily.
Class: Depressant substance
Legality: legal in U.S. and some countries
Mechanism of action: decreases levels of glutamate - an excitatory neurotransmitter, activation of dopaminergic neurons, interaction with GABA receptors, and elevation of dopamine levels via inhibition of monoamine uptake.
Metabolism: hepatic (liver)
Interactions: Negatively interacts with alcohol, anticonvulsants, anti-anxiety agents, diuretics, phenothiazine medications, levodopa, 5-HTP, Ambien, Adderall, Benadryl, CoQ10, Cymbalta, fish oil, ginko biloba, and all medications metabolized by the liver. Caution: increases liver enzymes and may cause long term liver damage with frequent intake.
Cannabis has been used for its healing properties all around the world for millennia. Shamanic and pagan cultures have used it to explore the realm of the subconscious, as well as deep spiritual and philosophical subjects and in pursuit of enlightenment. There are more than 100 potent compounds in cannabis with unique therapeutic potential known as cannabinoids.
Among these, cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), are the two most well-known and researched cannabinoids. The “high” that many people associate with cannabis is produced by THC whereas CBD is non-intoxicating and non-euphoric.
CBD has strong scientific evidence in treating epilepsy, and is known to help alleviate stress and promote relaxation. It may also help with insomnia, chronic pain, inflammation and addiction.
THC is known to relieve pain, lower anxiety, reduce nausea from chemotherapy, lessen muscle spasms in paraplegics, improve sleep, help with glaucoma and improve appetite. THC also has the potential to produce more intense side effects than kanna, such as paranoia, depression, anxiety and seizures. It also has the potential to be addictive and can cause long-term cognitive impairment if abused.
Interestingly, kanna is known to combine well with cannabis to enhance mood lifting effects and reduce paranoia that sometimes occurs with cannabis use, while also prolonging the positive effects of cannabis.
Class: natural phytocannabinoid and psychoactive
Legality: legal in U.S. and some countries
Mechanism of action: CBD has the ability to inhibit fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) enzyme, which metabolizes anandamide, consequently enhancing anandamide levels and indirectly increasing CB1 receptor activation. CB1 receptor activation has been thought to mediate the ability of CBD to regulate long-term learned fear processing.
Metabolism: hepatic (liver)
Interactions: CBD interacts with more than 540 prescription drugs, anti-epileptic drugs, antidepressants, opioid analgesics, acetaminophen, alcohol, benzodiazepines (such as Xanax or Ativan), antipsychotics, antidepressants, antihistamines (such as Benadryl), cancer drugs, blood thinners, and more.
Side effects: may include appetite changes, diarrhea, sleepiness and drowsiness, fatigue
Cannabinoid from Cannabis Sativa (THC)
Class: Natural terpenoids
Legality: legal in most U.S. states and some countries
Mechanism of action: THC is known to have interactions with several receptors in both the central and peripheral nervous system, which are known to regulate fear and anxiety. These receptors include the serotonin 5-HT1A receptor, the CB1 and CB2 receptors, and the transient receptor potential, vanilloid type 1 receptor (TRPV1).
Metabolism: hepatic (liver)
Interactions and side effects: Due to the fact that cannabis has more than100 cannabinoids, all, especially THC interacts with nearly 400 prescription medications, including Ambien, Benadryl, Warfarin, gabapentin, Zoloft, and cancer drugs like Tamoxifen.
Side effects: may cause temporary side effects such as anxiety, paranoia, memory loss, confusion, low blood pressure, lethargy, red eyes, dry mouth, increased heart rate and seizures (or seizure-like effect).
MDMA (a.k.a. Ecstasy/Molly) is a synthetic drug that produces feelings of euphoria and empathy. This substance is known as a popular rave drug, but it can also be used in a therapeutic setting and has been known to effectively treat PTSD and anxiety.
Although kanna is called “nature’s MDMA” by some, there are significant differences between the two. The main likeness is that they both have a euphoric and heart-opening effect, but the similarity ends there.
Unlike kanna, MDMA is synthetic and is known to cause negative side effects such as memory problems, depression, and an increased risk of addiction. Kanna is neuro-regenerative while MDMA is degenerative for the brain. MDMA can also cause hyperthermia, which is a dangerous rise in body temperature that can lead to organ failure.
Class: Synthetic Schedule 1 drug stimulant and psychedelic
Legality: Emerging legal in U.S. and illegal in most countries
Mechanism of action: activity at 5HT-1A and 5HT-1B receptors attenuates feelings of depression and anxiety, thus reducing the amygdala fear response and increases levels of self-confidence. MDMA stimulates release of monoamines (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine), elevates levels of the neuro-hormone oxytocin, reduces amygdala and right insular activity in response to negative emotional stimuli, increases superior frontal cortex activity, and increases connectivity between the amygdala and hippocampus.
Metabolism: hepatic (liver)
Interactions and side effects: interacts with alcohol, has a high potential for abuse because it is addictive, high mortality rate when combined with other medications and stimulants. Damages the neurotransmitter system and is degenerative for the brain.
Class: natural psychoactive herb and empathogen
Antidepressant, immunomodulatory, anxiolytic, antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory
Legality: legal in U.S. (except for Louisiana state) and other countries
Mechanism of action: kanna’s main alkaloids mesembrine, mesembrenone, mesembrenol, mesembranol, Δ7-mesembrenone, and tortuosamine are natural serotonin reuptake inhibitors and are also a natural serotonin releasing agent through the activation of a protein called VMAT2 (Vesicular Monoamine Transporter 2) that transports neurotransmitters out of cells. Kanna also activates receptors for GABA, opioids, cholecystokinin and melatonin, thus helping to calm brain activity, decrease anxiety, create a sense of wellbeing, reduce hunger, prevent inflammation in the gut and improve sleep quality. In addition, the mesembrenone in kanna boosts energy use in the body by blocking an enzyme called PDE4 (phosphodiesterase 4)
Interactions and side effects: interacts with Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs), Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) or Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and alcohol. Can cause nausea and appetite loss.
Kanna is an attractive option to consider as an alternative to kava kava, cannabis and MDMA for anxiety relief, mood lift and heart-opening. It is also legal (except in the state of Louisiana, where blue lotus and damiana plants are also prohibited).
Unlike kava kava, kanna supports cognitive function, clarity and focus and is safe to take daily. It does not have the hundreds of contraindications with prescription medications that cannabis has, nor is it addictive. In fact, it combines well with cannabis by reducing paranoia and prolonging the sense of calm while lifting mood.
Although kanna has a more sober euphoric effect than MDMA, it is nonetheless a powerful heart-opener and emotional regulator. Most importantly kanna is neuroprotective while MDMA is neurodegenerative for the brain.
Finally, Kanna benefits whole system health more so than the others that mainly target a single receptor to displace or block chemicals. Having said that, every person is distinct with their unique DNA and distribution of neuroreceptors, and how they interact with each plant and substance will be different with varying outcomes.
Healing is after all a personal journey. The good news is that there are more and more options available in these exciting times of rediscovering ancient plant medicines and advancing science.
Chews To Include Kanna in Your Daily Life
Kanna can be easily incorporated into your daily routine. Kanna comes in many forms, including powder, capsules, chews, tinctures, and teas. Dosages of commercial products available generally range from 15mg to 50mg of kanna per dose.
However, quality and potency can vary and it’s important to distinguish sourcing, alkaloid content to get a better sense of how effective each dosage would be.
Chews are an effective way to microdose kanna since chewing leads to greater bioavailability and a faster-acting effect due to longer and more direct absorption through the mucosal membrane in the mouth, so that benefits are felt more potently and quickly.
"KA! Empathogenics is the first-of-its kind kanna-empowered empathogenic supplement chew.” says The 2023 Global Wellness Trends Report: The Future of Wellness by Global Wellness Summit .
Kanna Chews by KA! Empathogenics are a chewable kanna supplement that offers a convenient way to experience the beneficial effects of this plant.
KA! Kanna Chews are made with 100% plant-based ingredients and are vegan, sugar-free, made without preservatives, caffeine, artificial sweeteners and flavors, and are sober and non-addictive. Their proprietary blend of synergistic plant ingredients elevates and prolongs the function of kanna and combines to work with the body sensorially, biochemically, and through olfactory neuroscience.
That means engaging all of your senses in smell, taste and feel, thus giving a more full-spectrum and sustained experience. “Our mission is to restore full-spectrum aliveness for all human beings through the power of plants” says Stephanie Wang, Founder and CEO of KA! “Plants invite us to come into relationship with them for our own healing. So it’s all about paying attention and listening to our bodies. Kanna helps us come into coherence with ourselves, physically, emotionally and spiritually, by grounding us through the heart – that’s a much healthier way of being”.
A Word Of Indigenous Wisdom
It would be egregious and incomplete to look at kanna or any other plant medicine solely from a western pharmacological perspective. “From an Indigenous perspective, healing is a comprehensive affair that involves relationships between humans and between humans and non-humans and the cosmos”. says Beatriz Caiuby Labate.
As indigenous knowledge is slowly being recognized as an important contributor in how the plant medicine and psychedelic industry can be shaped in a more effective, human and life-centric way, there are still many lessons to be learned and integrated from these wisdom traditions in the psycho-spiritual aspects of healing. Much of this pertains to the necessity for humanity to come back into sacred relationships with themselves, each other, and nature.
The understanding of how each living being has agency, and that the relationship one has with the other determines the health and wellbeing of the individual as well as the collective, is foundational wisdom that modern humans have lost touch with.
There is a huge opportunity for humanity to reconnect in this way, honoring both the intellectual and spiritual, grounded through the felt experiences in our bodies and centered in our hearts, with plants being our allies and teachers along the way.