What Is Kanna? Exploring “Nature’s MDMA” Effects, Uses & More
Kanna, or Sceletium tortuosum, is a mildly psychoactive succulent with spindly white and yellow blooms. Native to South Africa, kanna has been utilized by indigenous communities as a traditional medicine and sacrament for centuries.
Now, the West wants in.
Kanna contains active ingredients that give it mood-enhancing properties, working to relieve anxiety, stress, and depression. Kanna’s euphoria also gives it the nickname “Nature’s MDMA,” with fans saying it can open up the heart, increase empathy, and help them feel more socially connected.
This article explores kanna’s history, the science behind its effects, its traditional uses, and its modern applications.
Kanna’s Rich History
Kanna is native to an arid region known as the Karoo in southwestern Africa. Articles report the indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples of South Africa used kanna as an herbal remedy and natural mood booster.
“Kanna” translates to “something to chew,” and tribal people often chewed the plant to support wellbeing. For instance, the San and Khoikhoi tribes would travel long distances on foot for hunting and chew on fermented kanna to relieve their thirst, discomfort, and fatigue.
The plant shares its nickname with the Eland antelope, also known as kanna. To the Khoisan bushmen, the Eland was a conduit to the spiritual world and played an essential role as a magical ally in kanna ceremonies.
Kanna’s mildly psychedelic effects, assisted by fasting, drumming, and communal dances, served as a gateway to trance states and heightened awareness during rituals and ceremonies.
Kanna is a botanical plant rich in alkaloids, and organic compounds containing nitrogen found in plants that exert a wide range of cognitive effects.
Known collectively as mesembrine alkaloids, the main compounds in kanna are mesembrine and mesembrenone. These alkaloids work together synergistically to produce the plant’s mood-boosting effects.
- Mesembrine is the primary psychoactive molecule in kanna. It works as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SRI), which keeps serotonin in the brain longer. This action has mood-lifting effects, similar to many conventional antidepressant medications (SSRIs). Mesembrine also inhibits (blocks) the enzyme phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4), which has neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory impacts.
- Mesembrenone is the second most common bioactive compound in kanna. It works as an SRI and PDE4 inhibitor. By blocking PDE4, mesembrenone might help reduce inflammation. Preclinical research indicates it may also have antioxidant, neuroprotective, and mood-enhancing effects.
The synergy between mesembrine and mesembrenone gives it mood-enhancing and relaxing properties.
Kanna’s traditional uses support various aspects of brain health, including relaxation, mood, and overall mental performance. Small-dose effects from kanna provide:
- Feelings of euphoria and well-being
- Relief from anxiety and stress
- Increased self-confidence
- Meditative tranquility, allowing a deeper focus on inner thoughts
Kanna’s mesembrine alkaloids help increase serotonin levels, a hormone that works as a natural mood booster. Serotonin also plays a crucial role in regulating behavior, fear, and other essential functions related to the central nervous system.
Here’s how kanna works with serotonin:
- Kanna delays neurons from quickly reabsorbing serotonin, which extends availability and activity in the brain and body.
- By maintaining serotonin levels longer, kanna can help stave off depression and promote well-being.
Healthy stress response
Kanna’s serotonin action and PDE4 inhibition can help people better handle anxiety and stress.
- Clinical trial evidence shows kanna can promote stress resilience by supporting the mind’s ability to rebalance when coming up against stressors.
- PDE4 inhibitors like kanna are popular anti-stress medications because their anti-inflammatory actions allow blood vessels to relax and widen, improving circulation and lowering blood pressure.
Today, some people take kanna for its euphoric properties, earning it the nickname “Nature’s MDMA.” Some accounts compare large doses of kanna to MDMA because both are empathogens, known to increase feelings of empathy, openness, sociability, and connection.
However, kanna is mildly psychoactive compared to MDMA. It also contains very different active compounds and effects.
Kanna lacks the “speedy” amphetamine quality and massive dopamine hit of MDMA. Because kanna is more subtle, comparing it to MDMA might be like comparing a high dose of caffeine to cocaine.
Science-backed support shows that kanna has diverse implications for stress relief and brain health. It also has the potential to ease anxiety and depression with fewer side effects than pharmaceutical SSRIs, giving it applications in modern psychotherapy.
Most studies surrounding kanna revolve around Zembrin, a unique patented kanna extract sustainably cultivated and harvested from South Africa. Numerous small but promising clinical trials show that Zembrin positively affects stress, mood, sleep, and cognition function.
- Research shows that this kanna extract can decrease the stress hormone cortisol, suggesting it might be helpful in people with high stress and high blood pressure.
- In a randomized clinical trial, 25 milligrams of Zembrin kanna extract positively impacted neurocircuitry in the amygdala section of the brain, which reacts to threats. Kanna successfully buffered the brain from stress, and participants were less reactive to fearful stimuli.
- Taking Zembrin kanna extract daily over a six-week clinical trial significantly increased alpha1 and alpha2 brain frequencies associated with greater calmness, mood, and memory.
- In a clinical study, 25- and 50-milligram doses of Zembrin kanna extract increased the power of brain-wave frequencies related to attention and memory.
- A study on cognitive effects revealed Zembrin as a potential drug target for treating early Alzheimer’s dementia.
Traditionally, native people consumed kanna as a pinch of ground-up fermented plant matter held under the tongue or chewed before swallowing. That’s because kanna contains oxalic acid, which can cause irritation and allergies. Fermenting kanna breaks down oxalic acid.
Today, extracts, tea, and supplements are available for easier ingestion.
Taking kanna sublingually (under the tongue) via tincture is the most bioavailable method. Some shops also stock various tinctures and extracts containing kanna and other plant medicines, such as supportive botanicals, amino acids, and other nutrients.
Kanna is also available in dried herb form, which users can make tea with or smoke. Some who smoke kanna combine it with cannabis or other powered supplements, such as Lion’s Mane, to enhance these compounds with kanna’s heart-opening qualities.
Legal Status and Safety
Kanna is legal in all countries when sold as an herbal preparation based on its traditional use. Kanna isn’t a federally scheduled drug in the United States, so it is legal to buy and sell.
Louisiana, which has strict drug laws and specifically prohibits mesembryanthemum species, is the one exception.
Kanna demonstrates a strong safety profile. In clinical studies, doses up to 50 milligrams of kanna extract did not cause significant side effects. Due to oxalic acid, users should avoid consuming fresh or partially fermented kanna. In the rare cases that side effects do occur, they are usually mild and temporary, such as:
- Loss of appetite
- Mild gastrointestinal issues
- Stomach pains from overdosing
The main risk when using kanna occurs when mixing kanna with other drugs. As a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, kanna may interact dangerously with other substances, especially SSRI medications. Too much serotonin in the nervous system can cause serotonin syndrome.
- In minor cases, people who experience serotonin syndrome report symptoms such as tremors, twitching, anxiety, insomnia, and increased heart rate.
- If serotonin levels get high enough, serotonin syndrome can cause seizures, delirium, and coma in extreme cases.
The Bottom Line
Kanna is a powerful indigenous plant with centuries of historical use. It contains unique compounds called mesembrine alkaloids that work to increase serotonin reuptake. Early studies show kanna can strengthen attention and memory, effectively reduce stress, and boost mood. Kanna also acts as a PDE4 enzyme inhibitor, which has substantial implications for treating depression. Future studies aim to see if kanna can be a viable alternative to SSRIs.
Kanna is legal, yet the FDA does not regulate supplements sold in the U.S. As an industry leader in testing psychoactive products for potency and safety, ACS Laboratory encourages consumers to source high-quality kanna products from trusted brands with standardized mesembrine potency.