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What is Kanna?
We know of kanna as the dried plant material of the genus Sceletium tortuosum, that is indigenous to South Africa. This material is specially prepared before being chewed, smoked, or used as a snuff.
The plant has been used by hunter-gatherers who inhabited what is now South Africa for well over 1000 years. Its primary use was by warriors returning from battle, who took it to help dispel the fear and depression that was common after violent conflict. More than 225 years ago, it was reported that the Khoikhoi employed a vision-inducing narcotic plant called kanna or channa. They chewed the root and kept the masticated material in the mouth for some time. "Their animal spirits were awakened, their eyes sparkled and their faces manifested laughter and gaiety. Thousands of delightful ideas appeared, and a pleasant jollity which enabled them to be amused by simple jests. By taking the substance to excess, they lost consciousness and fell into a terrible delirium."
The use of Kanna was also related with the hunt for the eland antelope, also called Kanna, which was a sacred animal to the San and is a predominant and widely recurring feature of rock art in southern Africa. After the arrival of the Dutch in South-Africa, the name Kanna was changed to Kaugoed (which means 'something good to chew').
This interesting narcotic plant has never been definitively identified. The vernacular name kanna now is applied in South Africa to species of Mesembryanthemum: M. expansum and M. tortuosum, the roots, leaves and trunk of which are chewed and smoked in the hinterlands. These two species have yielded an alkaloid, mesembrine, which has sedative, cocaine-like effects, producing torpor in man. More than two dozen other species of Mesembryanthemum are known to be an alkaloid.
The first documented use of it under Western auspices occurs in 1662, when an explorer/trader named van Riebeeck started to barter with local tribes for it, after finding out about its effects on stressed individuals. In 1685, the Governor of the Dutch Cape Colony, van der Stel noted how the native tribes prized it and would travel far to collect the best examples.
Over the ensuing years, the effects of this plant were known to only a small number of Westerners. But now, with the problems of depression and anxiety in Western society reaching unprecedented levels, the demand for safe, effective natural treatments mean that people are becoming acutely aware of Sceletium tortuosum.
In the drier parts of South Africa, there are altogether 1,000 species of Mesembryanthemum - many, like the ice plant, with a bizarre form. About two dozen species, including the two described here, are considered by some botanists to represent a separate genus, Sceletium. All belong to the carpetweed family, Aizoaceae, mainly South African, and are believed to be related to the pokeweed, pink, and cactus families.
Chemical analyses have yielded vastly different alkaloid levels and types, including 4'-O-demethylmesembrenol, mesembrine and mesembrenone, and tortuosamine.
Kanna elevates mood and decreases anxiety, stress and tension, and it has also been used as an appetite suppressant by shepherds walking long distances in arid areas. In intoxicating doses, it can cause euphoria, initially with stimulation and later with sedation. Long-term use in the local context followed by abstinence has not been reported to result in a withdrawal state. The plant is not hallucinogenic, and no severe adverse effects have ever been documented.
Mesembrine allows the brain to function with reduced levels of serotonin, allowing time for natural levels to build up, whereupon the mesembrine dosage can be reduced or eliminated. In other words, for people suffering from depression kanna might experience a relief.
Tablets and capsules of Sceletium are being used successfully by a number of psychiatrists, psychologists and doctors with excellent results for anxiety states and mild to moderate depression; and they can also be used by the lay public as supplements to elevate mood and for stress and tension.
If chewed in sufficient quantity kanna has a mild anaesthetic effect in the mouth, much like kava, and is used by the San tribes for people that are about to have a tooth extracted, or in minute doses, for children with colic. A tea made from Sceletium is sometimes used to wean alcoholics off alcohol.
Traditionally, the dried plant material is often chewed as a quid, and the juices swallowed, but it has also been made into teas and tinctures. It also has been inhaled as a snuff, or smoked, sometimes with the addition of other herbs, by the Khoikhoi and San tribes of South Africa. Doses: when used as a snuff, 20 mg is sufficient to produce a substantial effect. 50-150 mg mixed with chewing gum or placed under the tongue produces a more subtle effect. 200 mg can be added to a cup of tea. To be taken once or twice a day, after breakfast and/or after lunch.
Elevates blood pressure. In case of an overdose, nausea and headaches can occur and usually pass rapidly. A large overdose can result in palpitations and anxiety.
Very few people experience side-effects. The reported side-effects include occasional episodes of:
- A mild headache
- Slight nausea, no vomiting
- Soft stool or loose stool with no cramping
- Transient increase in anxiety or irritability an hour after initiating treatment, which resolves after an hour or so
- Insomnia: corrected by lowering the dose or taking the product not later than midday
- A feeling of sedation: corrected by taking the product as a single 50 mg dose at night
- NO severe adverse effects have been documented
Kanna in combination with alcohol and/or cannabis will enhance each other's effects.
For complete information on growing kanna, see The Kanna shop.
Links / Further reading
This article is based on the following pages: