Kanna is a medicinal plant with a strong traditional use within the South African culture.
In this article, we will look at the health benefits of kanna, its safety, and its traditional uses.
Table of Contents
What is Kanna?
The plant kanna is a short-lived perennial succulent native to South Africa.
The Latin name for this herb is Sceletium tortuosum. Kanna is also known as channa, kougoed, and sceletium.
Kanna has been used by the Khoikhoi and San people of South Africa for thousands of years. The plant has been known to help relieve thirst, hunger, and fatigue.
It’s also been said to improve mood and be used as a sedative.
Health Benefits of Kanna:
While Sceletium tortuosum has many purported health benefits, there is limited scientific research on it.
Below are the top research-backed health benefits of kanna and its active compounds.
1. May Reduce Anxiety & Stress
Kanna is thought to be an effective herb for anxiety. This herb is also thought to be useful in managing stress levels.
Anxiety disorders may present as social anxiety or shyness. If unaddressed, mild anxiety can lead to harmful coping strategies or more severe mental conditions such as depression.
Zembrin® is a standardized extract of kanna that contains four active alkaloids: mesembrenone, mesembrenol, mesembranol, and mesembrine. A standard dose of Zembrin® is 25mg per day. Zembrin® has been well researched through several human clinical trials.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study investigated Zembrin® on anxiety and cognitive function. Researchers used 16 healthy participants and studied their amygdala, which is the part of the brain that regulates anxiety and fear. The results of Zembrin® showed a reduction in amygdala reactivity to fear, thus showing potential anti-anxiety actions of Zembrin®.
Another double-blind study investigated the anxiolytic properties of Zembrin®. Findings showed the anxiety levels of the participants using Zembrin® were significantly lowered.
A clinical study examined the effects of Sceletium tortuosum extract on stress hormones, including cortisol. The study used a 1mg dose of kanna extract containing the alkaloid mesembrine. Findings suggest that the kanna extract positively affected stress hormone regulation, including glucocorticoid production, which are steroid hormones produced in the adrenal glands.
Summary:Research indicates that kanna can help to reduce anxiety and stress levels. Additional large-scale human clinical trials are needed to verify these findings.
2. May Improve Cognitive Function
Studies indicate that kanna benefits cognitive function and overall brain health.
The brain is the command center for the nervous system and enables thoughts, memory, movement, and emotions. Maintaining brain health is the uppermost goal in pursuing health and longevity.
A double-blind study examined the neurocognitive effects of Zembrin® compared to placebo. At 25mg daily for three weeks, Zembrin® was shown to improve brain function, specifically in processing speed, psychomotor speed, and complex attention. In addition, positive changes in mood and sleep were exhibited.
Researchers studied Zembrin®’s effect on brain activity during cognitive and emotional challenges in a randomized, double-blind clinical trial involving 60 participants. Findings revealed that Zembrin® had a positive effect on brain performance, attention, and memory.
Summary:Clinical studies show that kanna can help to support brain health.
3. May Have Anti-Depression Effects
Research shows that kanna may be an effective herb for depression.
Depression is a common mental disorder, it’s estimated that 5% of adults suffer from it. It is characterized by persistent sadness and a lack of interest or pleasure in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities. It can also disturb sleep and appetite.
Clinical studies have determined that the three main alkaloids of kanna: mesembrine, mesembrenone, and mesembrenol are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which could produce anti-depression effects.
A recent 2022 animal study compared Zembrin® and escitalopram, a common anti-depressant medication. Results showed that both Zembrin and escitalopram had similar antidepressant effects.
Summary:Small-scale trials indicate that kanna may be helpful for individuals with depression. Additional large-scale clinical trials are needed to verify these anti-depressive effects.
4. May Help Relieve Pain
The benefits of kanna also include it’s pain-relieving properties.
Kanna has been traditionally used as a pain reliever by native Khoi and San tribes of South Africa. The plant was chewed directly or smoked to help relieve pain.
An animal study showed that the alkaloid mesembrine of the kanna plant has analgesic (pain-relieving) properties without interfering with balance or coordination.
Summary:Traditional knowledge indicates that kanna may help to reduce pain. Human clinical trials are needed to verify this claim.
5. Antioxidant & Anti-inflammatory Properties:
Kanna benefits the body through it’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
An in vitro study showed that kanna extract is cytoprotective (provides cellular protection against harmful effects), has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and is rich in polyphenols.
Another in vitro study found that the extract of kanna may be beneficial for low-grade systemic inflammation due to its cytoprotective and mild-anti-inflammatory effects.
Summary:Lab studies indicate that kanna has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
There is insufficient information on the safety of kanna, as well as no known severe adverse reactions or herb-drug interactions.
However, it is suggested to avoid kanna if you are taking an anti-depressant or other psychiatric disorder medications.
Pregnancy & Lactation:
Traditionally, women chewed kanna during pregnancy to help alleviate nausea, indigestion, and constipation. If taken in large doses, it may have a sedating effect.
As a Masticatory (traditional use): chew plant material; 500 to 1,500 mg daily.
Zembrin®: 25-50mg per day (equivalent to 50-100mg of plant material).
Kanna is not on the United Plant Saver’s “at-risk” list of plants that are sensitive to the impact of human activities. Thus, it may be considered a low-risk plant. The plant may be grown commercially or wildcrafted.
Naming & Taxonomy:
Kanna’s scientific (Latin) name is Sceletium tortuosum. It belongs to the Aizoaceae (i.e., marigold) family of plants.
The genus name Sceletium comes from the Latin word “sceletus,” which relates to the plant’s characteristic of skeletonized leaves.
Its common name kanna means “something to chew” or “is chewable,” which relates to its historical use as a masticatory.
The plant’s roots are fibrous, the branches are slender, and the leaves are flat, succulent, and become skeletonized in the summer. The flowers are yellow, white, or pink in color.
Europeans often characterized Kanna as a “ginseng-like herb”.
Kanna is rich in various phytochemicals, including:
History & Traditional Use:
In 1685, kanna was first noted in the journal of Simon van der Stel, an early explorer of South Africa.
It was reported that Dutch colonists traded sheep for kanna from native tribes in South Africa.
In 1738, it was said kanna was the “greatest Chearer of the Spirits, and the noblest Restorative in the World”.
The plant has been used to elevate mood, reduce stress, tension, and anxiety, and is known for its tranquilizing and anti-inflammatory properties, and abdominal pains and toothaches.
Children were administered the fresh leaf juice of the plant to help them rest quietly for a few hours. The plant was added to breast milk to help infants with colic.
The plant was used as a tea or tincture for its sedative properties. It was also commonly consumed by smoking it.
In Namaqualand, indigenous healers used the plant to help treat alcohol abuse, calling it “onse droe drank” – our dry liquor.
Hunter-gatherers used kanna for endurance purposes while hunting.
U. P. Hedrick of 1919 noted that this plant has narcotic properties and is chewed by the Hottentots (Khoikhoi people) to produce intoxication.
Although there is limited human clinical research on kanna, it has been traditionally used for thousands of years.
As always, make sure to consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or adding a new herbal supplement.
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