Kanna, botanical name Sceletium tortuosum, is an ethnobotanical from Africa that has been used by various tribes in South Africa and the surrounding regions since long before the first colonists and explorers discovered the area. Initially, the only place where kanna grew was in South Africa and referred to as Kannaland. The Khoihkoi (formerly known as the Hottentots) and San tribes would ferment the foliage and chew it. It was considered a mood-lifter by the natives and explorers who discovered it along with the tribes.
Kanna was not only used as a mood lifter, however, it was part of both religious and social ritual. Kanna appears to be effective as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor which may be responsible for it’s mood lifting potential. By allowing serotonin to stay in the synapse longer, a little goes a longer way. This may be responsible for the anecdotal reports of kanna being used as an antidepressant and natural remedy for anxiety and stress.
Both the Khoikhoi and San (formerly known as the Bushmen) incorporated the use of the herb kanna in their lives. Some ethnobotanists claim that plants of the genus Sceletium have been used for thousands of years for relieving thirst and hunger, combatting fatigue as well as medicines and for social and spiritual rituals.
In the case of both tribes, kanna is associated with the sacred eland antelope, also in both cases the plant is known as “kanna.” The first Westerner to write of kanna was the Dutch explorer Van Riebeeck. Riebeeck reportedly discovered the plant in 1662 and would barter with the tribes for Sceletium and sheep. Riebeeck wrote of the indigenous tribes chewing the kanna plant which he describes as having properties similar to ginseng.
An 18th century explorer wrote of kanna and other herbs being combined in a smoking admixture. Some claim it was used along with wild dagga and cannabis in smoking blends and during rituals. Most recently, a kanna extract containing components of the herb (mesembrin, mesembrenon and mesembrenol had been patented as early as 2001. By 2012 it had been brought to the market as the prescription medicine by HG&H Pharmaceuticals under the trade name Zembrin. This despite the protestation of the local San population who were concerned about the possible results of kanna overharvesting by foreign companies.
Kanna is as versatile in its potential uses as it is in the manner of dosage forms it seems suited towards.
Traditionally, kannaf foliage is first fermented and dried before its use. Often it was chewed, in fact the name most likely describes how the plant was “pleasant to be chewed.” Generally when kanna is purchased it is already in the fermented form. Powdered extracts of kanna have even been insufflated as a snuff. Taking kanna over a period of a few days is said to increase the effects. In addition to some serotonergic effects, some have reported analgesic (pain killing) activity. Traditionally it was also used as a sleep aid or sedative as well.
Kanna may mix well with other herbs like dagga, damiana, blue lotus and other flowers as an incense or smoking blend but is equally enjoyed as a tea blend constituent. In addition to being smoked, used as a snuff or chewed, sublingual use (holding it under the tongue) has also been described as effective. Sublingual use may be most suited to tinctures and other extracted forms of kanna.