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Kanna (Sceletium tortuosum)

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Kanna is an ancient plant that has been revered by the southwestern African people since pre-history.  It started gaining popularity in other parts of the world in the seventeenth century and has seen a resurgence of popularity in today’s supplement era.  An extract of the Kanna plant is patented under the brand name of Zembrin® since 2012..

What is Kanna?

Kanna (Sceletium tortuosum or Mesembryanthemum tortuosum) is also known as Channa, Kougoed, Kauwgoed, Poudre de Sceletium, Racine de Sceletium, and Skeletium.  Kanna is a flowering plant with a long history of traditional and folkloric use as chewed leaves or tea.

Belonging to the genus Sceletium in the family Aizoaceae (Mesembryanthemoideae), it grows in the southwestern region of South Africa, primarily in the Northern Cape, Western Cape, and Eastern Cape Provinces.  It was once plentiful in Namaqualand in the Northern Cape Province, and the lands in that area were named “Kougoedvlakte,” which translates into “Chewing Stuff Plains”.  In the Western Cape Province, the plants were also so abundant that the district of Kannaland was founded there, as “the land of Kanna.”   [1, 2, 3, 4]

What is the history of Kanna?

The Khoikhoi people, also known as the Hottentots, are an indigenous ethnic group of southwestern Africans who gave the plant the name of “kanna” in their language of Nama.  The Khoikhoi people are nomadic and are grouped together with the hunter-gatherer group San in a compound description of Khoisan.  The San people spoke |Xam which is now an extinct language, and their name for kanna was !k”wai or !k”wai:n.  The |Xam language is a language of dental clicks which became extinct around 1910.   [4, 5, 6]

The first recorded knowledge of the Kanna plant came from Dutch explorers in 1610, but the San people and the Khoikhoi people used Kanna in the ancient pre-history of the African continent.  The Dutch explorers and traders found the plant to be so valuable that they named it in their own Dutch language as kaauwgoed and traded it in the Far East.   [4]

The seventeenth-century Dutch explorers and captains thought of kanna as a “Cape ginseng” and sometimes called it ningin root or ningimm root, a slang word for the names of ginseng roots that they had encountered in China and Japan.  The East India Trading Company instructed ships that stopped at the Cape on their way to Japan to stock up on food and water and to search for these roots for trading.  [4]

A detailed description from a trading expedition in 1687 wrote that Kanna was found in Namaquaas (Namaqualand) on the mountains and gathered in October; the roots and stem were chewed throughout the day by natives, and it was intoxicating to those tribes who ingested it.    [4]

What are traditional Uses of Kanna?

Though the Dutch who encountered Kanna took note of the euphoric properties of Kanna, the indigenous tribes of Africa used Kanna for many other therapeutic uses.  They often fermented the leaves to enhance its psychoactivity by mashing the entire plant until the juices came out, then placed the squashed plant in bags made of animal skins and left the bags out in the sun to ferment for 3 days.  After the 3 days, the material inside the bags was stirred and then left for 5 more days in the sun to continue fermenting, after which it was taken from the bags and left outside to dry.  Then the dried plant material was twisted, similar to chewing tobacco, or was ground into a fine powder.   [7]

The tribes have used Kanna in rituals, ceremonies, divinations, healings, communal trance dancing events, and ingest it before hunting trips to sharpen the senses.  The word for Kanna is the same word they attribute to the antelope, which is considered a magical creature in their culture.  The Hottentot tribe combines Kanna with Cannabis sativa for smoking during rituals and communal dancing ceremonies.   [7]

In addition to its sacred uses, the tribes often chew the leaf for pain relief of toothaches and to soothe stomachs.  The kanna leaves are drunk as a tea that suppresses hunger and provides pain relief for minor aches and pains.   [7]

What is kanna made of?

Kanna contains bioactive alkaloids responsible for its effects and comprise 1 to 1.5% of its chemical constituents. Modern Western science has not identified all of the structures present within the plant.  [8]

The total alkaloids include:

  • 4’-O-demethylmesembernol
  • Demethylmesembranol
  • Mesembrenol
  • Mesembranol
  • Mesembrenine: 2%  [2]
  • Mesembrine: when fermented this is converted to Delta-7-mesembrenone
  • Mesembrenone

Of the total alkaloids, the major alkaloids that are psychoactive are Mesembrine,

Mesembrenone, Mesembrenol, and Mesembranol.  The alkaloids are absorbed through intestinal and oral membranes.  The traditional use of chewing Kanna delivers the alkaloids through buccal membrane absorption.   [8]

Safety and Side Effects of Kanna

Serotonin Syndrome:

Because kanna influences the serotonin pathways in the brain, extra caution is needed when combining kanna with any of the medications, herbs, or supplements that also increase or work on the serotonin receptors or pathways. Using them together can cause serotonin syndrome, which is a serious condition where the brain is overloaded with serotonin and it can be life-threatening.

Kanna should not be combined with SSRI’s or MAOIs, found in anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications (such as Prozac, Zoloft, Cipramil, Seroxat, Fevarin, and many others).

Some herbs and supplements that should not be used with kanna are 5-HTP, L-tryptophan, SAMe, St. John’s wort, Hawaiian baby woodrose, Passionflower, Yohimbe, Syrian Rue, and Banisteriopsis Caapi.

Recreational substances should not be used in conjunction with kanna.


  1. Terburg, David et al. “Acute effects of Sceletium tortuosum (Zembrin), a dual 5-HT reuptake and PDE4 inhibitor, in the human amygdala and its connection to the hypothalamus.” Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacologyvol. 38,13 (2013): 2708-16. doi:10.1038/npp.2013.183
  2. “Sceletium”. Foods, Herbs, & Supplements. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com/search.aspx?q=Sceletium+tortuosum&go.x=4&go.y=12.
  3. “Sceletium Tortuosum.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sceletium_tortuosum.
  4. Gericke, Nigel. “Kabbo’s !Kwaiń: The Past, Present and Possible Future of Kanna.” McKenna, D. Et Al (Eds.), 2018, pp. 122–150., www.researchgate.net/publication/328942189_Kabbo's_Kwain_The_Past_Present_and_Possible_Future_of_Kanna.
  5. “Khoikhoi.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khoikhoi.
  6. “ǀXam Language.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ǀXam_language.
  7. “Sceletium Tortuosum – Kanna.” entheology.com/plants/sceletium-tortuosum-kanna/.
  8. “Sceletium tortuosum”. Examine.com, published Jan 13, 2015.  Last updated Jun 14, 2018. https://examine.com/supplements/sceletium-tortuosum/.
  9. https://www.zembrin.com/
  10. Harvey, AL, et al. “Pharmacological Actions of the South African Medicinal and Functional Food Plant Sceletium Tortuosum and Its Principal Alkaloids.” J Ethnopharmacol, vol. 137, no. 3, 11 Oct. 2011, pp. 1124–9., doi:10.1016/j.jep.2011.07.035.
  11. 11. Simon Chiu, Nigel Gericke, Michel Farina-Woodbury, et al., “Proof-of-Concept Randomized Controlled Study of Cognition Effects of the Proprietary Extract Sceletium tortuosum (Zembrin) Targeting Phosphodiesterase-4 in Cognitively Healthy Subjects: Implications for Alzheimer’s Dementia,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2014, Article ID 682014, 9 pages, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/682014.
  12. Nell, H, et al. “A Randomized, Double-Blind, Parallel-Group, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Extract Sceletium Tortuosum (Zembrin) in Healthy Adults.” J Altern Complemnt Med, vol. 19, no. 11, Nov. 2013, pp. 898–904., doi:10.1089/acm.2012.0185


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