Kanna plant

This Legal Microdose Holds Promise for Depression, Anxiety, and More

Indigenous communities have been taking kanna for healing and ceremonially for centuries, at all doses

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Updated January 13, 2023

DoubleBlind Mag is devoted to fair, rigorous reporting by leading experts and journalists in the field of psychedelics. Read more about our editorial process and fact-checking here.

*This article is sponsored by Hearthstone Collective.

Kanna, aka channa or kougoed (scientific name: Sceletium tortuosum), is a succulent with spindly white and yellow blooms native to southern Africa. With centuries of use by the indigenous San people and a slew of contemporary studies to back up its benefits for mental and physical health, Kanna is an as-yet-little-known plant medicine that’s growing in popularity. That’s due, at least, in part to the fact that it was hard to source quality, standardized Kanna extracts outside of South Africa until recently. But because of its wide potential benefits—from acting like a euphoric in larger doses to an antidepressant at smaller ones—the wellness and psychedelic communities are beginning to take note of the non-addictive and non-toxic plant extract.

“It completely changed my life, that first experience,” says Ryan Latreille, founder of Hearthstone Collective, when speaking of his first dose of Kanna over a decade ago. “I knew, in that moment, that if people could feel that, it could bring so much good and healing to the world.”

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Where Does Kanna Come From?

Kanna is native to an arid region known as the Karoo in the southern, western African continent and has many traditional uses among the indigenous San and Khoikhoi peoples of present-day South Africa and Namibia. Today, most of the Kanna extract on the market is cultivated in South Africa.

regions of south africa map
Wikimedia Commons

Read: The Forgotten History of Psychedelics in Africa

Kanna: History

The indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples of South Africa, known as the San, inhabit a rich heritage of plant medicine where Kanna shares a name with the Eland antelope—a central nutritive and spiritual figure symbolizing abundance, fertility, and love. From its adaptogenic properties alleviating hunger, thirst, and fatigue to its use as a gateway to trance states with the help of fasting, drumming, and dance, Kanna is still utilized by the San at all stages of the life cycle to support wellbeing.

“The elderly who use it regularly seem to be more lucid and have more grasp of their cognitive functions,” says Latreille. “I think that says volumes about its safety profile.”

Though it’s not known exactly how long the San and neighboring Khoikhoi knew of the plant’s many properties, a Dutch expedition to the Karoo documented a well-established use of Kanna as early as the 1600s.

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Traditional Use of Kanna

Kanna leaves, stems, and roots—naturally high in oxalates and therefore difficult to digest—are traditionally fermented before ingestion. San mothers help soothe colicky babies by mixing a drop of Kanna with breastmilk, and hunters microdose throughout the day by chewing on a braid of fermented, dried Kanna to ease hunger and thirst, as well as to boost stamina, positive mood, and mental focus. Though ingestion via chewing is the most common way for San to consume Kanna, it’s also possible to smoke or insufflate (snort). As a natural pain reliever and adaptogen with few side effects, Kanna serves the well-being of San people from birth to old age. In larger doses, Kanna is employed by the San as a ritual aid alongside fasting, dancing, and drumming to support the shamanic practices of divination and spirit communion.

The Science of Kanna (aka Sceletium tortuosum)

Kanna is a highly diverse botanical that’s rich in alkaloids and other bioactive plant constituents. Mesembrine is the alkaloid thought to be the main psychoactive molecule in Kanna. However, it’s likely that many of the plant’s compounds, including three other mesembrine-type alkaloids—as well as polyphenols, terpenes, and other constituents—work together synergistically in a full-spectrum plant extract. Mesembrine content, measured in milligrams, is the potency benchmark for Kanna products.

Sceletium tortuosum extract has light SSRI capabilities, helping regulate serotonin production and limiting its reuptake in the brain; it also acts as a PDE4 enzyme inhibitor implicated in depression treatment. Stress-induced anxiety and depression have also been shown to improve with Kanna extract in an animal model, and a 2020 study found ergogenic—performance-enhancing—benefits. 

Sceletium tortuosum extract is also available in nutraceutical form as Zembrin—a standardized alkaloid preparation for which numerous small but promising clinical trials have shown positive changes in mood, sleep, cognition, and executive function. Another Zembrin study explored the potent anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties of Kanna extract. Overall, Kanna’s efficacy and exact mechanisms of action are still being explored in a variety of case studies as well as laboratory and animal trials.

Kanna Effects: What Does it Do and What is it Used For?

Some accounts compare macrodoses of Kanna to MDMA because both are empathogens, known to increase feelings of empathy, openness, sociability, and connection. Kanna, however—lacking the “speedy” amphetamine quality and massive dopamine hit of MDMA—tends to feel easier on the body than MDMA, even in larger doses.

It’s traditionally used by indigenous San people to ease pain, curb hunger and thirst, and to boost mood, stamina, and focus. Today, Kanna extract is being studied for its role in easing anxiety and depression with fewer side effects than pharmaceutical SSRIs.

Kanna’s adaptogenic, nootropic, empathogenic, and aphrodisiac qualities are credited to mesembrine, its primary psychoactive component, though other alkaloids and plant constituents likely contribute to the overall effects.

Latreille describes Kanna’s “tonifying effect” on brain processes—including synapses’ ability to efficiently send and receive signals, as well as the concentration of important neurotransmitters like serotonin. Notwithstanding, Kanna is a gentle medicine. “It doesn’t hijack your agency,” says Latreille. “You’re still connected to who you are, but your triggers aren’t as loud.”

Kanna Supplement vs. Kanna Tincture

Taking Kanna sublingually (under the tongue) via tincture is probably the most bioavailable method, and Latreille considers Hearthstone’s Kanna tincture—stacked with extracts of black pepper, l-theanine, and mint—as the “anchor” of a microdosing protocol to support mental health. Customers report that three drops of the tincture is often enough to help shift perspective and feel centered; Latreille recommends dosing with the tincture 15 minutes before yoga or meditation, or anytime you need a subtle reset. Kanna tincture lasts from one to two hours and can be taken up to three times a day.

Kanna capsules take longer to come on (30-60 minutes) because they must first be digested and processed by the liver, but they also last longer (two to four hours). Hearthstone’s Kanna capsules come in five formulas geared toward different moods, such as Play—a full-spectrum Kanna extract containing 3 mg mesembrine stacked with mental health-supporting rhodiola, lion’s mane mushroom, theobromine from cacao, and methylated B vitamins.

How to Take Kanna

Though not well known yet, capsules and tinctures containing Kanna extract are available for purchase at some brick-and-mortar vitamin retailers and online. While some Kanna supplements contain plant extract only, others are stacked with supportive botanicals, amino acids, or other nutrients. FDA oversight of supplements is minimal, so it’s important to source clean, high-quality Kanna extract containing a standardized dose of mesembrine.

When microdosing Kanna, Hearthstone Collective’s Latreille generally recommends a protocol of five days on followed by two days off for about four weeks in order to gauge the plant’s benefits. “In terms of anxiety and depression,” he says, “that’s generally when people seem to see a big shift—within one to four weeks of doing Kanna consistently.” Because Kanna can be stimulating, it’s best to try it for the first time in the morning or midday.

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Read: Ibogaine and Iboga: Traditional Use, Conservation, and Ethical Considerations

Kanna: Dose

Hearthstone’s Kanna capsule formulas are standardized to 3 mg of mesembrine per serving, which, according to Latreille, is a well-vetted microdose. While research on psychedelics microdosing (such as with LSD and psilocybin) is still in its early days, centuries of indigenous Kanna use in both macrodoses and microdoses indicates a long term safety profile.

Hearthstone Kanna Tincture
Hearthstone Collective

“While you’re not necessarily having these huge shifts in consciousness with microdosing,” says Latreille, “it can have cumulative benefits that can be quite profound if you take it consistently and with intention.”

A Kanna macrodose, says Latreille, lands typically in the range of 30 mg to 60 mg of mesembrine. Like with all psychoactive substances, it’s important to educate yourself on the risks and benefits of macrodosing Kanna and to seek support from an experienced guide should you choose to embark on a journey.

How Long Does Kanna Last?

When taken sublingually in tincture form (the most bioavailable way to consume Kanna), effects come on within about 15 minutes and last for an hour or two. Kanna capsules, which are digested and processed by the liver, take effect within 30 minutes to an hour and can be felt for two to four hours.

 Is Kanna Safe?

Because Kanna acts in some ways like an SSRI—limiting the reuptake of serotonin in the brain and thereby increasing overall serotonin levels—you should talk to your health providers before starting Kanna if you already take an SSRI or MAOI. Optimum serotonin levels in the brain are crucial to mental health as we understand it, but excesses can lead to the dangerous, and potentially fatal, serotonin syndrome. Likewise, if you have any serious health issues or are taking medications, talk to a knowledgeable health practitioner and consider consulting a microdosing coach who can help you determine any potential risks and interactions.

Nausea and headache are occasionally reported side effects of taking Kanna, but these are usually mild. As evidenced by decades of South African doctors prescribing Kanna and thousands of years of traditional use, the risks of Kanna are relatively low—particularly in smaller doses.

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 Kanna and Sustainability

Though once abundant, Kanna was nearly over-harvested to extinction in its native habitat. While wild-sourcing remains unsustainable today, cultivators in the South African Kanna industry grow hectares worth of the plant for domestic and international use—and per the South African government, a portion of Kanna cultivation profits go to support native communities.

While USDA organic designation isn’t available, Kanna is a succulent well adapted to the southern African continent that thrives in sandy soil without the need for fertilizers or pesticides.

Is Kanna Legal?

Kanna is legal to cultivate and consume in South Africa, where most of the product found internationally is sourced. In the US, Kanna isn’t federally scheduled, so all parts of the plant can be legally bought and sold. (Louisiana, which has specifically prohibited consumption of mesembryanthemum species, is the sole exception.) Kanna is also regulated by Health Canada and legal to buy and consume there.

Supplements sold in the US must conform to industry-standard good manufacturing practices but aren’t otherwise regulated by the FDA, so it’s important to source clean and high-quality Kanna products with standardized mesembrine potency.

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