As one of the most ecologically diverse regions in the world, South Africa is home to thousands of distinctive plants. From arid grasslands to subtropical forests, the country’s flora has provided a rich backdrop for generations of human history.
However, few plants have played such an integral role in South Africa’s history like kanna, or Sceletium tortuosum. Human use of kanna dates as far back as the prehistoric era, where its mood-boosting and stress-relieving properties were coveted by early hunter-gatherers.
Despite kanna’s deep roots in the history of the world, the plant remains shrouded in mystery. And yet, while emerging research on kanna is promising, today’s researchers are left with many more questions than answers.
What is Sceletium Tortuosum (Kanna)?
The kanna plant is a succulent that belongs to the Aizoaceae family of flowering plants — a group that contains roughly 1,800 unique species. The first written account of kanna use was recorded in 1662 by Dutch navigator Jan van Riebeeck. The plant is often referred to as “kougoed” or “channa.”
Physically, Sceletium tortuosum is distinguished by its thick, moisture-rich leaves and thin-petaled white-yellow flowers. For centuries, traditional use of this plant has included chewing on the plant’s flowers. Today, most kanna for sale is generally available in one of three product forms:
- Fermented Kanna: A fermented product with a pleasant flavor and effects profile
- Kanna Powder: A processed powder made from the plant’s flowers
- Kanna Extract: A powdered kanna extract with heightened potency
Kanna’s properties are derived from several naturally-occurring compounds found in Sceletium tortuosum flowers. These compounds — called “alkaloids” — are mesembrine, mesembrenone, and tortuosamine. Mesembrine appears to promote improved mood by acting as a serotonin
reuptake inhibitor, while mesembrenone operates similarly, only in a more balanced fashion.
Although kanna has had various traditional uses throughout history, researchers have been fascinated with exploring the plant’s broader applications. In studies, research teams have found that kanna demonstrates potential in several pharmacological and therapeutic areas.
Kanna for Anxiety
In a study conducted in 2011, a team of researchers assessed kanna’s anti-anxiety properties. They administered either a placebo or a Sceletium tortuosum extract to rats and restrained them for a set duration. After observing the rats’ responses to the trial, the researchers concluded that their data demonstrated “a limited positive effect of Sceletium on restraint-induced anxiety.” However, they also noted that “numerous side-effects were evident,” and that more research would be required before an optimal kanna dosage could be identified.
In human trials, a separate team of researchers found similar success. They tested the effectiveness of Zembrin (kanna for sale as a supplement) in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study by surveying the emotional responses of sixteen healthy participants. They found that kanna reduced fearful activity in the brain, suggesting an anti-anxiety effect. In their conclusion, the authors stated that their findings “support the potential anxiolytic actions of Zembrin,” affirming Sceletium tortuosum’s potential as a treatment for anxiety.
Kanna for Pain Relief
In a study conducted in 2014, researchers assessed the pharmacological properties of kanna and one of its alkaloids, mesembrine. They concluded that “Mesembrine appears to have analgesic properties without abuse liabilities,” suggesting that the mesembrine alkaloid could help with pain.
Kanna for Stress
Researchers have also expressed interest in the stress-relieving properties of kanna. In a study conducted in 2016, a team of researchers examined the effects of a Sceletium tortuosum derived dietary supplement called Trimesemine on adrenal function. The authors concluded that the kanna product demonstrated “potentially beneficial effects … in the context of stress and hypertension.”
Risks & Safety
Despite kanna’s broad range of beneficial applications, the plant’s short-term and long-term impacts on health haven’t been well established. As a result, researchers have emphasized the need for more evidence and stricter quality control before they can comfortably recommend the plant’s use.
Other studies have illuminated the risks associated with purchasing kanna in an unregulated market. In an article written by researchers from South Africa’s Rhodes University, the authors noted the prevalence of unlabeled kanna products for sale. They also sought to explore the differences between Sceletium tortuosum and the seven other identified Sceletium species, which are sometimes mistakenly marketed as “kanna.”
Sure enough, the authors observed that the different Sceletium species contained varying alkaloid profiles, stating that “not all Sceletium species contain the mesembrine-type alkaloids usually associated with Sceletium.” Their findings highlighted the importance of purchasing pure Sceletium tortuosum rather than unmarked and unlabeled products of dubious origin.
Other studies have set out to determine whether or not kanna is safe for human use at all. A 2012 study evaluated the safety of Zembrin — a Sceletium tortuosum supplement. The authors surveyed their test subjects over three months by monitoring their health metrics, including vital signs and blood work. They found “no apparent differences” in the vital signs of the placebo and test groups. While some subjects complained of headaches, abdominal pain, and upper respiratory tract infections, these symptoms were more common among study participants who were receiving the placebo treatment.
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