*This article is sponsored by KA! Empathogenics.
“Meaning is the central piece in not just humanity, but in life itself,” says “Miguel.” Miguel isn’t his real name, but he’s been giving people Kanna for decades. He explains how the psychoactive succulent from South Africa affects imagination, the universal language closely tied to mean-making. “In the West, imagination has been relegated to the philosophy of mind,” which, he says, “doesn’t really support the fullness of what imagination is.”
Miguel traveled the world studying plants and shamanic traditions after his own initiation more than 50 years ago. He met Kanna in South Africa, where the plant is a part of ceremonies for connecting to ancestors and healing, as well as a practical daily energizer, medicine, and recreational lubricant. Kanna features an impressive array of alkaloids, chemical compounds which many have therapeutic value. It can be energizing and mood-boosting, as well as induce heightened states of presence and connection: A doorway to feeling and imagination dubbed by some an “intelligence of the heart.”
“Kanna is considered heart medicine from a shamanic standpoint,” says Stephanie Wang, founder of KA! Empathogenics. KA! is a company offering kanna-infused chews and tinctures. Stephanie was introduced to kanna by Miguel. Her connection to kanna started while sitting in the ceremony. “It takes you to an altered reality in a different way than hallucinogens do; it’s a more empathic way of perceiving reality and also feeling yourself.”
Kanna isn’t psychedelic: It’s psychoactive. In the Western world, kanna supplements are sold as natural antidepressants, but, like most traditional plant medicines, it’s hard to reduce kanna’s impact to one pharmacological action. Advocates say the effectiveness of Kanna depends on dose and intention, and when used right, the plant can be a remedy for modern-day disconnection and isolation. With this hope, the plant has spread quietly (and legally) from Africa around the world for people seeking medicine for the heart in modern times.
The Origins of Sceletium tortuosum (Kanna)
Kanna, or channa, is a tradition of the Khoi Khoi and San people in South Africa. The San are some of the oldest hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa, while the Khoi Khoi were a separate group of nomadic pastoralists before European colonization. In Afrikaans, Kanna is called “kougoed,” meaning “chewing stuff,” after the popular method of consumption. There are wide varieties and potencies of kanna plants, with the most commonly cultivated being Sceletium tortuosum. In the wild, kanna crawls along the ground of the Cape Provinces of South Africa, mostly hiding in the shade from the desert heat and producing white, yellow, or pale pink flowers.
Kanna has long been part of life in the desert; it’s difficult to say exactly how long the Khoi Khoi and San have used it. In European history, written reports surfaced in the 1600s from traders sailing for Asia. In 1700, the plant left the shores of Africa, with Europeans trading the root in Japan. Kanna was popular for its energizing effects and marketed like ginseng for a profit.
Small amounts of kanna roots are still chewed regularly in South Africa as an energy booster and health tonic. The herb improves stamina while negating thirst and hunger, which makes it popular among people enduring intense work or labor. Concoctions like tea or alcohol extraction are consumed, too, often as medicine. Records show kanna has been used to treat pain, sedation, nausea during pregnancy, as a laxative, and to treat alcohol addiction. There is also a spiritual side: the plant is associated with the sacred eland antelope, which serves as a symbol connected to divination, rain-making, and ceremony. Kanna is used in ceremony with trance-inspiring drumming and dance, practices which establish a connection to ancestors and healing.
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Kanna is also favored for simply being enjoyable and can be snorted or smoked for more pronounced effects. “It became a conduit for people to socialize, to get to know one another from a heart place,” explains Miguel. Like many psychoactive plants, kanna is now being used in new was. Today, kanna is found as snuff at dance parties from Capetown to Ibiza. It’s also used as a natural health supplement and in contemporary ceremonies around the world. The plant has quietly continued its relationship with humans and found a place in modern society, avoiding the bounds of prohibition.
How Does Kanna Make You Feel?
“The first ever ceremony I did was with kanna, and it had a deep impact on me […] I felt completely connected to this overpowering love that was profound and also all-encompassing. Not just for fellow humans, not just for myself, but for everything around me,” Stephanie recalls. The description might remind one of MDMA, but Stephaine is firm the plant is its own experience. She compares it to San Pedro, a psychedelic cactus also described as heart medicine.
“I was also with other people. I noticed how they were interacting with each other, that no one gave a damn of what their job was. No one asked us, ‘What do you do?‘ which is the usual opener.” Stephanie is a lifelong seeker, passionate about personal transformation, and kanna was impactful. “People were just connecting soul to soul as human beings, right there heart to heart, and that cut through a lot of the bullshit quickly and just really got to the crux of things. And so, it’s an amazing experience, and you got to know each other in an accelerated way, which is rare, right? And we all had our masks down. We were not wearing any masks. There was something that was so authentic as well.”
“What I’ve found is that when you’re on ceremonial doses of Kanna, you really can’t lie,” she says.
Stephanie developed her relationship with Kanna over the past ten years. She says it’s helped her become aware of the ways we make decisions from pure logic while ignoring other types of intelligence. “Everybody knows that the gut is our second brain, right? That’s now become common knowledge. In the same way, I hope people will become more aware of, and connect to, their heart intelligence.” She says kanna helped her access intelligence, not just in the brain, but through the whole body and soul.
“I think in order to have the conversation about the importance of heart medicine, and why that is, it’s also important to make that connection between heart and mind and how that physiologically works,” pointing to the heart’s known electromagnetic field and the idea the heart may play a greater role than only a pump. Stephanie also suggests kanna can trigger “heart coherence” a state of harmony between the body’s systems associated with optimal physical and mental health. This state of heart-mind coherence is often referred to by renowned scientist, author, and lecturer Dr. Joe Dispenza as leading to greater creativity and higher consciousness.
What Does Kanna Do?
In spiritual communities, kanna is often called a heart-opener. Yet, in clinical science, “heart medicine” means something a little different. “Before talking about the heart connection or the heart consciousness of this plant, it’s helpful to understand the science behind it,” says Stephanie, who spent years studying kanna to develop the formula for her supplement. The spiritual meaning of the plant is bespoke to every person who consumes it. But, kanna contains an extensive list of interesting compounds that may have therapeutic value.
Most scientific research focuses on three compounds: mesembrine, mesembrenone, and mesembrenol. Several other succulents produce these compounds, yet they are particularly abundant in kanna. Various other alkaloids also occur in the plant, but published research on their specifics is scarce. Mesembrine alkaloids seem to behave in a way comparable to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, a class of antidepressants affecting how the body uses serotonin.
“There are many other beneficial effects of Kanna on the body,” says KA!’s Chief Scientist Dr. Alex Ott, highlighting trends in emerging kanna research, “ranging from anti-inflammatory action, elimination of hedonic cravings (eating for pleasure), as well as anti-addictive effects on a convergence in the brain called the medial forebrain bundle where we adorn all kinds of cravings with special status: gambling, drinking, medicating, and many more vices that add to our bad health.”
Keeping up with the cascade of potential actions is a whirlwind, but perhaps the plant’s potential shouldn’t be a surprise—the Khoi Khoi chew kanna daily—and elders favor it.
Still, kanna does come with some safety considerations, too. Combining the plant with MAOIs, SSRIs, SNRIs, and CNS depressants could be dangerous. It’s also not recommended during pregnancy; you should consult a healthcare provider before mixing it with other medications.
Teachings of Kanna
The science is essential for safe use (kanna isn’t known to be toxic) and for a deeper understanding and acceptance of the plant. Yet, like any psychoactive plant, listing neurotransmitters doesn’t capture its essence entirely. Stephanie reminds me it’s “a very felt sense.” She says kanna calms the nervous system and “actually connects you back to what you normally dissociate from.”
For Stephanie, “it’s about restoration.” She says we’re cut off from our feelings and that life cannot be only about trying to feel happy. “Being human is the whole gamut of being alive and feeling all your feelings.” Kanna, she says, “takes you out of your head where most people are all the time, and it brings you back into your heart and body.” And in her view, it’s here that it’s possible to access our whole being and intelligence outside our brains. “That includes sadness, pain, anger, and sometimes all of it. And it’s honoring and embracing all of it that helps us process these emotions to flow through life instead of being deadened by fear.”
As part of a longstanding interest in translating shamanic ways into chemical processes, Miguel also holds a PhD. Along with his travel and facilitation experience, Miguel sees patterns that he calls the “basic cartography” of traditions everywhere. “Kanna provides access to a meaning-making that is more in alignment with one’s own heart expression. Rather than fear or trauma,” he says.
“I think the destruction happens from fear. You know, it’s the fear that provokes not only destruction, but also alienation—the sense of not belonging. So, kanna and plants and chemicals like that contribute to the connection, the belonging, and belonging heals trauma.” This shift “allows for free expression without hesitance, without anything taking you away,” and access to feelings of safety and access to creativity. He adds this means being available in the present moment, with compassion replacing judgments.
“You cannot be present without connection. To be present is to be connected,” says Miguel.
Sustainability and Reciprocity with the Khoi Khoi and San People of South Africa
Hearing of kanna’s merits makes it easy to understand why the Khoi Khoi and San have valued kanna for so long. Yet, Stephanie explains while people still use traditional medicine in South Africa, many have lost touch with their roots. In the wilds of South Africa, kanna has become a rare find. Generations of harvest, mainly for sale in local African markets, have made wild kanna harder to come by. However, the herb is not considered threatened and is assessed as Least Concern (LC) on the Red List of South African plants. To meet the demands of a new global interest, the plant is becoming a common crop and business opportunity. In this emerging market, brands like Stephanie’s KA! can now source from suppliers who profit-share with Indigenous communities.
“The core ethos of KA! is about bringing people together through deeper connection to themselves, each other, and nature. We believe in the power of plants to help us remember this vital interconnection,” Stephanie told DoubleBlind. “It’s, therefore, very important to us to connect with the origin of kanna and to honor its Indigenous Khoi Khoi and San stewards by giving back and bringing this relationship full circle. It’s taken us many months, but we feel we are close to finding the right partner organization in South Africa.”
Giving back to traditions who have shared their plant knowledge is essential, and sourcing sustainable sources of kanna may be one way to start building meaningful connections. Stephanie now sees an opportunity to bring kanna to more people while also giving back by learning on the ground and creating sustainable relationships. Be it through imagination or chemistry, the unique properties of kanna have more meaning to uncover and lessons to teach those willing to listen.
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Important Medical and FDA Disclaimers
Any content in this article and the KA! Empathogenics website is for educational and product information purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Information and statements regarding herbal supplements in this article and on the website have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Do not use any KA! products in conjunction with Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs), Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) or Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants.
Avoid KA! products while pregnant or nursing. Keep all products out of the reach of children.
Consult your healthcare provider before use or buy Kanna if you have a medical condition or if you are taking any prescription medications. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking professional advice because of something you have read in this article or on the website. You should always speak with your physician or other healthcare professional before taking any medication or nutritional, herbal or homeopathic supplement.