Traditional and modern use of kanna

A flowering kanna (Sceletium tortuosum) plant
A flowering kanna (Sceletium tortuosum) plant

Kanna (Sceletium tortuosum) has a long history with the Khoikhoi and San of South-Africa, who chewed on the fermented plant material to elevate their mood and dispel fear and anxiety. Colonialists, like Dutch Cape governor Van der Stel in 1685, reported that Sceletium tortuosum was consumed on a daily basis by local inhabitants.

‘Kougoed’ (literally: good to chew), as the Dutch called it, also had a role in rituals, social gatherings and healing. The plant was used by warriors returning from battle to help them overcome distress and fear.

More recently the plant gained worldwide attention for its stress-relieving and mood-uplifting qualities. Besides being used recreationally by a growing number of people, it has been commercialised as prescription medicine as alternative to synthetic antidepressants.

Kanna, the eland antelope

The Khoikhoi who lived as pastoralists and the hunter-gatherers known as San both consider the eland antelope a sacred animal. Strikingly it bears the same name as the plant: ‘kanna’. This shows the central place of Sceletium tortuosum in these cultures.

Kanna for tooth extractions and other indigenous medical treatments

The roots, leaves and trunk of the succulent plant can all be prepared into a substance that one can chew, smoke, snuff or make tea of.

When chewed the plant leaves an anaesthetic effect in the mouth, the San therefore also used it with tooth extractions. In small portions kanna has been used to treat children with colic. Some reports note kanna tea being given to alcoholics to help them quit their addiction. The indigenous people from Namaqualand and Queenstown made a tea of kanna leaves for its analgesic effects and to suppress hunger.

Is kanna vision-inducing?

In the earliest reports of colonists about the Khoikhoi (then known as Hottentots) kanna was described as an ‘inebriant’ and a ‘vision-inducing entheogen’. As kanna itself is not hallucinogenic, these visions most likely could be attributed to a herbal mixture the Khoikhoi smoked ritually, next to kanna it contained Cannabis sativa (which they called ‘dagga’). Ethnobotanist Christian Rätsch notes: “Its smoke was inhaled for divination, and it was sometimes smoked collectively for healing dances.”

Kanna as an alternative antidepressant

By blocking the reuptake of serotonin, kanna allows the brain to function with reduced levels of this neurotransmitter. Furthermore kanna gives the brain time to build up natural levels of serotonin. Once natural levels are restored the need for more kanna ceases to exist. This makes Sceletium tortuosum an effective natural antidepressant.

In 2012 a standardised kanna extract called Zembrin was introduced as prescription drug. It’s prescribed to cure light to moderate depressions and depressive phases, and psychological and psychiatric anxiety states. Additionally, it’s considered a useful aid in the treatment of alcohol, drug addiction, bulimia nervosa and compulsive disorders.

Kanna is also popular as a recreational drug. As such, it’s sold by smartshops and online vendors all around the world. Check our where to buy kanna page to find the recommended vendor(s).