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Can Kanna help with anxiety and depression?

Exploring Kanna: A Natural Remedy for the Modern Age

Can natural remedies like traditional herbs effectively combat modern ailments like anxiety and depression? This article outlines the world of Kanna, a plant with a rich history in South African traditional medicine, and answers this age-old question to uncover its potential role in mental health.




The Roots of Kanna: Cultural and Medicinal Heritage in South Africa

Kanna, known scientifically as Sceletium tortuosum, is more than a botanical specimen; it is a cultural and medicinal cornerstone in South African history. Kanna serves as a mood stabilizer and has been used by the Khoi and San tribes for centuries.

It also played a pivotal role in social and spiritual rituals. Traditionally people chewed, smoked, or brewed Kanna into teas and elixirs. It serves various purposes from pain relief to hunger suppression and can quench thirst in harsh environments.

The effectiveness of Kanna lies in its complex chemistry. Its primary active compounds, mesembrine, mesembrenone, and mesembrenol, are alkaloids that interact with the brain's neurotransmitter systems. These alkaloids actively function as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), modulating serotonin levels in the brain(1).

Kanna inhibits the reuptake of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to feelings of well-being and happiness. It potentially elevates mood and reduces feelings of anxiety and depression. This mechanism is similar to that of modern antidepressant medications, though Kanna's effects are typically milder and less direct.

Mesembrine, recognized as the most prominent alkaloid in Kanna, exhibits notable psychoactive properties. It primarily acts as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor but also interacts with other neurotransmitter systems. These facts contribute to its potential as an anti-anxiety and antidepressant agent.

Mesembrenone and mesembrenol, although less extensively studied, contribute to enhancing Kanna's mood-lifting and anxiolytic effects. Kanna's applications also extend beyond mental health, covering a diverse range of uses.

Kanna is well-recognized for its pain-relieving properties. In centuries past it was chewed or smoked to alleviate physical discomfort. The alkaloid mesembrine actively imparts the analgesic properties to Kanna, contributing to its pain-relief capabilities. This shows the potential to reduce pain without impairing motor functions, a unique characteristic compared to some conventional painkillers(2).

Kanna's interaction with neurotransmitters goes beyond serotonin. Kanna influences a variety of systems including GABA, natural opioids, and even the endocannabinoid system, demonstrating its broad impact on the body's physiological processes. This might explain its diverse range of effects, from enhancing mood to reducing pain and improving cognitive functions(3).

The traditional use of Kanna by South African tribes is a natural remedy for a variety of ailments. This has paved the way for modern research into its potential as a therapeutic agent. The plant's complex alkaloid profile offers a unique approach to managing mood disorders, pain, and perhaps even cognitive health. This makes it a subject of increasing interest in the fields of botany and psychopharmacology(4).

  Kanna plant

Understanding Its Alkaloids and Mental Health Impact

Kanna is available in forms like Kanna powder and Kanna extract powder. It has garnered attention for its potential in managing anxiety and depression. The efficacy of kanna in these areas largely stems from its alkaloids: mesembrine, mesembrenone, and mesembrenol.

The Role of Kanna Powder in Mental Health

Derived from the dried parts of the Sceletium tortuosum plant, kanna powder is rich in active alkaloids, the key to its mood-enhancing properties. When used correctly, Kanna extract powder can balance neurotransmitter levels in the brain, crucial for treating anxiety and depression.

Dosage Considerations for Kanna Powder

Determining the ideal kanna powder dosage is essential. It varies based on factors like body weight, tolerance, and symptom severity. It is recommended to start with a lower dose and gradually increase. This helps in finding the most effective and safe amount for each individual.

Kanna's Primary Alkaloids and Their Roles

  • Mesembrine: Known for its antidepressant and anxiolytic effects, mesembrine is a potent serotonin reuptake inhibitor. It enhances serotonin availability in the brain, regulating mood and emotional balance. Additionally, mesembrine has a mild stimulant effect, improving cognitive function and alertness. Thereby targeting both mood and cognitive aspects often affected by depression and anxiety.
  • Mesembrenone: Mesembrenone, mirroring mesembrine in serotonin reuptake inhibition, actively promotes calming effects. It contributes to Kanna's anxiolytic properties, reducing stress and anxiety without causing sedation. Beyond mood enhancement, mesembrenone contributes to neuroprotection, offering long-term brain health benefits.
  • Mesembrenol: Though less studied, mesembrenol complements the effects of mesembrine and mesembrenone. It actively boosts Kanna's mood-lifting and anxiolytic effects and is currently under research for its potential cognitive benefits.

South Africas coastline

Kanna's Potential in Anxiety and Depression Management

Kanna's active compounds, particularly mesembrine, act as serotonin reuptake inhibitors. This mechanism is similar to many prescription antidepressants, positioning Kanna as a natural alternative for managing symptoms of anxiety and depression(3).

Exploring the Many Benefits of Kanna

Kanna is renowned not only for its potential mental health benefits but also for its versatile therapeutic properties. This section explains the additional health benefits of Kanna.

Pain Relief Properties:

South African tribes traditionally used Kanna as a natural analgesic, actively employing it for pain relief. The alkaloids in Kanna, particularly mesembrine, actively contribute to its pain-relieving properties. A study highlighted the analgesic effects of mesembrine, showing its potential to reduce pain without impairing motor functions.

This gives it a notable advantage over some conventional painkillers and suggests that Kanna could offer a natural alternative for managing pain(4).


Enhancement of Cognitive Function:

Emerging studies on Kanna have indicated its potential to enhance cognitive functions. A clinical study demonstrated significant cognitive flexibility and executive function improvements in healthy adults. These findings are promising, particularly for individuals seeking natural cognition enhancers.

Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Properties:

In addition to its effects on mood and cognition, Kanna actively exhibits antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, contributing to its diverse therapeutic profile. Laboratory studies have shown that Kanna extract displays mild anti-inflammatory effects and exhibits cytoprotective qualities, helping protect cells against harmful effects. This suggests that Kanna might be beneficial in managing low-grade systemic inflammation(2).

Safety Considerations and Precautions for Kanna Use

The significant potential benefits of Kanna necessitate an equally important discussion about its safety considerations. These considerations are essential to address the precautions associated with its use and ensure informed, safe usage. This section aims to provide a balanced view, highlighting the importance of cautious use based on current knowledge.

Interactions with Medications:

Kanna's mechanism as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor suggests caution, especially for individuals already on psychiatric medications, such as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). The concurrent use of Kanna with these medications may lead to an excessive accumulation of serotonin.

This raises the risk of serotonin syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition. For individuals on any medication, particularly antidepressants, consult healthcare professionals before using Kanna​​.


    Potential Side Effects:

    Researchers have not yet thoroughly studied Kanna's safety profile in pregnant or breastfeeding women and children. Traditionally, some cultures have used small amounts of Kanna for infants and during pregnancy.

    Recommended practice is to exercise caution because of the lack of comprehensive research in these areas. Experts advise avoiding Kanna in these specific populations until more conclusive safety data becomes available.

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      Recommendations for Use:

      If considering Kanna for its potential health benefits, it's advisable to start with a low dose to assess tolerance. Users should actively monitor their usage of Kanna, considering the lack of comprehensive understanding regarding its long-term effects.
      As with any supplement or natural remedy, it's prudent to have an informed discussion with a healthcare provider before incorporating Kanna into a health regimen.


      1. Manganyi MC, Bezuidenhout CC, Regnier T, Ateba CN. A Chewable Cure "Kanna": Biological and Pharmaceutical Properties of Sceletium tortuosum. Molecules. 2021 Apr 28;26(9):2557. doi: 10.3390/molecules26092557. PMID: 33924742; PMCID: PMC8124331.

      2. Olatunji TL, Siebert F, Adetunji AE, Harvey BH, Gericke J, Hamman JH, Van der Kooy F. Sceletium tortuosum: A review on its phytochemistry, pharmacokinetics, biological and clinical activities. J Ethnopharmacol. 2021 Nov 15;280:114476. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2021.114476. Epub 2021 Jul 30. Erratum in: J Ethnopharmacol. 2022 Apr 6;287:114711. PMID: 34333104.

      3. Olatunji TL, Siebert F, Adetunji AE, Harvey BH, Gericke J, Hamman JH, Van der Kooy F. Sceletium tortuosum: A review on its phytochemistry, pharmacokinetics, biological, pre-clinical and clinical activities. J Ethnopharmacol. 2022 Apr 6;287:114711. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2021.114711. Epub 2021 Nov 8. Erratum for: J Ethnopharmacol. 2021 Nov 15;280:114476. PMID: 34758918.

      4. Reay J, Wetherell MA, Morton E, Lillis J, Badmaev V. Sceletium tortuosum (Zembrin® ) ameliorates experimentally induced anxiety in healthy volunteers. Hum Psychopharmacol. 2020 Nov;35(6):1-7. doi: 10.1002/hup.2753. Epub 2020 Aug 6. PMID: 32761980.

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