The world of natural medicine is full of plants to promote wellness; here’s a little on kanna, and what it can do for you.
What is kanna?
At first glance, it might look like this is a shortened version of ‘cannabis’, spelled with a ‘k’ rather than a ‘c’. If you say it out loud it also sounds like you’re right about to say ‘cannabis.’ In reality, the two plants have very little in common except a name that sounds a bit similar.
Kanna is technically named Mesembryanthemum tortuosum, or Sceletium tortuosum, which are both obviously quite a mouthful. It also goes by the nicknames channa, and kougoed; the latter of which translates to ‘something to chew.’ It’s a succulent plant that hails from South Africa, particularly the Cape Provinces, where it was used primarily by the San and Khoikhoi peoples. It’s in the Aizoaceae family of plants.
The plant has small full leaves (as it is a succulent), and yellow and white flowers. The flowers are more yellow in the center and white around the outsides; and the petals are long and thin, and resemble spears shooting out from the center.
The plant has been used in South Africa since pre-historic times, or at the very least, a super long time. It wasn’t written about formally until 1662, when Dutch navigator Jan van Riebeeck first mentioned something about its use. The plant is usually dried and then chewed; although it can be made into a tea, or a snuff to smoke. In modern times, it’s often seen as a capsule, powder, or tincture, as well.
Traditionally, the plant was/is used to deal with issues like stress, and depression. Native cultures use it to promote relaxation and general wellbeing. It was/is also used as a pain medication, and as a way to suppress the appetite. Furthermore, it’s been studied for its ability to help dogs and cats which are suffering from dementia, from barking or meowing excessively at night.
Is kanna psychoactive?
Oftentimes, a plant’s name is derived from a major (or important) component within it. Such is the case for Mesembryanthemum tortuosum, which contains the active compound mesembrine. Mesembrine is an alkaloid, with about .3% in the roots of the plant, and .86% in the leaves, stems, and flowers.
In research, this compound shows the ability to work as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. This might sound familiar, as a major class of antidepressant drugs, is called ‘selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors;’ which indicates the plant might have some of the same benefits. Common SSRIs include the heavily prescribed Zoloft and Prozac. As kanna has been used traditionally to combat stress and depression, this connection makes sense. It also makes it a natural version of what pharmaceutical companies produce.
Beyond this, mesembrine has also shown some ability as a weak inhibitor of the enzyme phosphodiesterase 4. Such drugs are associated with memory improvement, anti-inflammatory effects, increased wakefulness, and neuroprotective qualities. They’re thought to be possibly beneficial for a range of disorders, from depression, to Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, to multiple sclerosis, autism, strokes, and more.
All together, this indicates (along with recent research), that mesembrine, and the kanna plant as a whole, might be able to offer some solid benefits in terms of depression and anxiety management, as well as a treatment (whether alone or in conjunction with other compounds) for a range of other neurological impairments, pain issues, and inflammatory problems.
The plant contains another alkaloid called mesembrenone, which is thought to produce similar effects to mesembrine; and which is also thought to promote adaptogenic and antimicrobrial properties. Most plants that cause psychoactive effects (or really any medical effect), generally do so as a combination of compounds, not just one. In the world of cannabis, we specifically call this the entourage effect, but in general medicine its known as a synergistic effect.
What about pain?
Right now, pain is a particularly big topic in the US, as the desire to reduce it, led to what is one of the worst drug epidemics (essentially the worst) to befall civilization. Opioids certainly have a large recreational-only following, but they’re primarily pain medications. And it was their prescription for pain, that led to the mess we’re in. As such, pretty much anything that can help the pain issue, without causing the same problems of addiction, is greatly needed.
Another interesting compound in the plant is mesembrenol. This compound is associated with analgesic (pain-relieving) properties. Both this compound and mesembrine are thought to aid in pain reduction; and with none of the addictive side effects as synthetic opioid medications.
Traditionally, these pain-killing benefits were used mainly by native South Africans to treat headache pressure, abdominal pain, toothaches, for pain in the respiratory tract, and as a local anesthetic. In 2014 mesembrine’s analgesic properties were tested in rats, which were given up to 5000 mg/kg per day, with no adverse reactions. Investigators concluded that mesembrine “appears to have analgesic properties without abuse liabilities or ataxia.”
Human research into kanna safety
Before the rat study in 2014, a study came out in 2013, which investigated how safe and tolerable two different doses of kanna are for humans. The study, called A Randomized, Double-Blind, Parallel-Group, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Extract Sceletium tortuosum (Zembrin) in Healthy Adults used doses of 8mg and 25mg, which were given to participants once a day. The study lasted three months, and used all healthy adults. 37 people participated in the study.
The investigation was a randomized, double-blind, parallel-group, placebo-controlled, single center study. Let’s break this down. First off, there was a placebo group, which means some participants were given the kanna, and some were given an inactive compound. The randomized part means participants were randomly picked for the kanna or placebo groupings; and the double-blind part means neither the researchers nor participants knew which group they were in.
In terms of the parallel group part, this refers to some in the kanna group getting a smaller dose, and some getting a bigger dose; and that individual participants were given the same amount throughout the study. The last part, single center, refers to the study being conducted in only one location. 12 participants received 8mg kanna daily, 12 received 25 mg kanna daily, and 13 received the placebo daily.
Researchers found both doses of kanna to be tolerable. The most complained about adverse response was headache, followed by abdominal pain, and infections in the upper respiratory tract. However, more complaints came from the placebo group than either kanna group; indicating the complaints had little-to-nothing to do with the kanna.
In terms of unsolicited positive benefits (written in the journals of some participants taking kanna), these indicate increased feelings of wellbeing, and an improved ability to manage stress and sleep. As the study didn’t technically look into the effects or benefits of the drug, these unsolicited journal responses are the most that the study can show on the therapeutic front. Otherwise, it was mainly to assess safety and tolerability.
In terms of other physiological aspects, the kanna groups showed no difference in ECG, body weight, or in their physical examinations, which were all taken in the beginning and the end of the study. There were also no changes in hematology or biochemistry metrics, indicating the drug did little to change the body physiologically. Overall, kanna showed to be a physically safe drug at doses up to 25mg a day, regardless of therapeutic ability.
Kanna seems to offer a multitude of benefits to humans, like help with stress and depression, assisting in pain management, anti-inflammation benefits, and as an anti-microbial. Perhaps in the future we’ll see more of it; and perhaps big pharma will ensure that never happens.
Luckily, for those in the US who want to use this plant to help with a mental or physical issue, kanna, and its compounds, are currently perfectly legal. It can already be found in smart shops around the country; and as with anything else, interested users, should go at it responsibly.
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