Antidepressants in the Herbal Kingdom–Kanna (SCELETIUM TORTUOSUM)

The reason this entry will be especially elaborate is because it’s actually an abridged version of my thesis I submitted before I became a Master Herbalist. This herb has a lot of potential to treat a variety of mood and sleep disorders, but there’s also a lot of misinformation out there. I have tried to cut through the hype and give a balanced view on both the scientific literature and folkloric uses. Because this was originally a thesis paper, I’m  going to be dividing this into parts since there’s so much content to cover. Needless to say, the same can be said for any of the herbs I have posted about; sometimes my entries can be quite brief and there’s tons of information out there that can be super useful. Just for starters, remember to please check out the blog-roll of suggested resources and sites!


It is time to investigate novel antidepressants from the herbal kingdom. More herbal options should be made available to those with depression and anxiety disorders such as OCD. Indeed, the World Health Organization estimates that major depression is the “fourth most important cause worldwide of loss in disability-adjusted life years, and will be the second most important cause by 2020. Depression affects an estimated 121 million people worldwide (Stafford et al. p.531, 2008).”

Sceletium Tortuosum, commonly known as Kanna, appears to be a promising and effective herbal treatment for such mood disorders, either on its own, as part of a synergistic formula with other herbs or (possibly with more carefully conducted research) an adjunct to synthetic antidepressants such as SNRIs like Cymbalta or Effexor.

This succulent has its origins in South Africa and was used by the San and Khoi tribes to ward off hunger and thirst during long hunts, as well as to reduce anxiety and worries about such hunts thus facilitating the removal of distracting thoughts. It is thought in this way that Kanna can act as a nootropic, an agent that improves cognition. Kanna reduces fear that the amygdala processes and since fear inhibits cognition, focus is indirectly improved in this way.

As I was studying a heavy text at the Toronto reference library I recall being gripped with a sensation of fear and anxiety likely related to an upcoming social event. Studying proved to be exceedingly difficult as I couldn’t focus on the words of the text. It was then that I placed two dropperfuls of a 1:4 Kanna tincture under my tongue. Within five minutes, I felt a calm, soothing warming sensation enter my body. The heavy text seemed manageable and I developed confidence that I could grasp the material. Later on and definitely only after the effects of the tincture intake were mentally noted for some time, I drank a cup of Green Tea possibly rich in L-theanine. This seemed to have a synergistic effect with the serene, calm focus I had already felt with the Kanna intake. After my studies I decided to walk to the engagement which was several miles away, and I did so with a renewed desire to interact with others—to empathise with others. This latter feeling—empathy, was only quite mild in its intensity yet was still nonetheless present. This is why Kanna has been referred to as an empathogen. During the walk I started to wonder more about Kanna’s practical applications for mood disorders and social phobias and questioned what it would be like if this potentially overlooked botanical was more mainstream in the Western hemisphere.


The origins of this botanical are both vast and intriguing. There is some speculation that it may have been one of the first mood-enhancing substances discovered by mankind. While the various South-African tribes kept no records, European explorers—particularly the Dutch—began to document its use.

“As early as 1662 it is reported that a man named van Riebeeck bartered with the local inhabitants for sheep and Sceletium, which was very plentiful and considered the ‘…greatest clearer of spirits, and the noblest Restorative in the world’(“Empathogenic Effects of Kanna” accessed 2015-07-30)”

Admittedly, though, there are problems in the historical record with the proper identification of species, and there is still a degree of uncertainty as to whether these earliest records refer to the Sceletium Tortuosum the latest scientific studies use for depression and anxiety research today. There is some speculation that Van Riebeeck may have been referring to Tobacco (Nicotiana Rustica), Marijuana (Cannabis Sativa), or Mandrake (Mandragora Vernalis). Further compounding the matter—but closer on track—there are plants of different genera, most notably the Ice Plant (Mesembryetheum Crystallum) that have similar properties to Sceletium Tortuosum and were also likely used by the early inhabitants near the South African region of the cape of Good hope, as well as by the Assyrians for its psychoactive properties (Ratch, Kindle location 16907).

However, while Dutch and other European records are often fragmentary, careful analysis by several ethnobotany researchers have lead to the conclusion that many records from 1685 onwards likely do in fact pertain to various Sceletium species, most notably Sceletium Tortuosum.

Pharmacologist Nigel Giereicke and A.M Vijolen note that (emphasis added) “the earliest unambiguous illustration of a Sceletium plant was found in the journal of Cape of Good Hope Governor Simon van der Stel’s from his expedition to Namaqualand in 1685 (“HerbClip: Review of the Alkaloid Chemistry and Pharmacology of Sceletium”, accessed 2015-08-29)”. He stated “They chew mostly a certain plant which they call Canna… it is held by them in great esteem as the betel or areca with the Indians. They chew its stem as well as the roots, mostly all day, and become intoxicated with it, so that on account of this effect…one can expect some profit from its cultivation.”

It was around this time that Kanna began to be prepared as tinctures, possibly to help preserve the plant as an export to the European market, where it had some demand and was considered by some to have “ginseng-like qualities” (“Psychoactive constituents of the genus Sceletium N.E.Br. and other Mesembryanthemaceae: a review”, accessed 2015-08-07). The European settlers would also prepare this plant as a tisane, although it’s not clear if the technique utilized was more typically infusion or decoction.

Further records elaborate Kanna’s usage in social and healing rituals in more detail.


In 1738, Kolben noted that kanna was the “greatest Chearer [sic] of the Spirits, and the noblest Restorative in the World.” Lewin noted in 1924 that Kolben, under the name kanna or channa, had been referring to the plant root used by the Khoikhoi as a means of enjoyment, which they “chewed, kept in their mouths for some time, thus becoming excited and intoxicated.” … According to Meiring (1898), S. tortuosum was widely used for its soporific effect on young children; one or two drops of fresh juice from the plant would be given to children, “who would enjoy a deep quiet rest for a few hours.” It has also been reported that the leaves of S. tortuosum were chewed to relieve toothaches and abdominal pain. More recently (20th century), extracts from the plant have been used to treat colic in infants (“HerbClip: Review of the Alkaloid Chemistry and Pharmacology of Sceletium”, accessed 2015-08-29).


It has become clear that it is especially important to note the traditional mode of preparation. The initial inhabitants would “cook” the whole plant under a process of fermentation.


The plant material… is harvested, crushed between two rocks, and allowed to ‘ferment’ for a few days in…animal skins or hemp bags….The first step entails setting the bag containing the plant material in the sun. During the day, the plant will exude its juice, which condenses…and is later reabsorbed by the plant material….After two or three days, the bag is opened and the contents are stirred well. Then the bag is sealed and placed outside again. On the eighth day after this procedure was started, the kougoed (ed: a synonym for Kanna) is taken from the bag and spread out to dry in the sun (Ratch, Kindle location 22107).


Crucially, it is believed by many preparers of Kanna who utilize this method that it achieves its antidepressant, anxiolytic properties only in this way and that the fresh plants lack the necessary potency. It’s been confirmed that fermentation and drying changes the alkaloid structure of the plant (Patnala and Kanfer, p.86, 2009). Afterwards, both the leaf and root were traditionally masticated for some time—by conventional standards at least 10 minutes—before ingestion ( Ratch, Kindle location 22107). It was also observed to be smoked. While there are no records of natives before the 17th century preparing the aerial and/or root parts as a tisane it is reasonable to speculate that this was also a tried method of consumption.

Culturally, Kanna has been regarded in its history as more than food or medicine. The leaf and root has been extensively used in South African tribal societies in elements of ritual celebration such as for rain and as an ode to the antelope, which the San observed to be an animal that went into trance-like states, possibly after eating the leaves of the plant. The Koikoi tribe certainly referred to the eland antelope and species of Sceletium by the same name, indicating that they associated the plant Kanna with inducing such trance-like states (“Psychoactive constituents of the genus Sceletium N.E.Br. and other Mesembryanthemaceae: a review”, accessed 2015-08-07).”

Next on Part 2: How Kanna is believed to alleviate mood and sleep disorders (mechanism of action)


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“Empathogenic Effects of Kanna.” 2015. Accessed July 30.

Frank, Kurtis. 2015. “Sceletium Tortuosum – Scientific Review on Usage, Dosage, Side Effects |” Accessed August 4.

Giesbrecht, T, J A Rycroft, M J Rowson, and E A De Bruin. 2010. “The Combination of L-Theanine and Caffeine Improves Cognitive Performance and Increases Subjective Alertness.” Nutritional Neuroscience 13 (6). Maney Publishing: 283–90. doi:10.1179/147683010X12611460764840.

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Loria, Melissa J., Zulfiqar Ali, Naohito Abe, Kenneth J. Sufka, and Ikhlas a. Khan. 2014. “Effects of Sceletium Tortuosum in Rats.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 155 (1): 731–35. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2014.06.007.

Patnala, Srinivas, and Isadore Kanfer. 2009. “Investigations of the Phytochemical Content of Sceletium Tortuosum Following the Preparation of ‘Kougoed’ by Fermentation of Plant Material.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 121 (1): 86–91. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2008.10.008.

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Simon Chiu, Nigel Gericke, Michel Farina-Woodbury, Vladimir Badmaev. 2014. “Proof-of-Concept Randomized Controlled Study of Cognition Effects of the Proprietary Extract Sceletium Tortuosum (Zembrin) Targeting Phosphodiesterase-4 in Cognitively Healthy Subjects: Implications for Alzheimer’s Dementia.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 682014: 9.

Smith, Michael T., Crouch, Neil R., Gericke, Nigel, Hirst, Manton. 2015. “Sceletium.Org – Information and Links on Sceletium Tortuosum.” Accessed August 7.

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Terburg, David, Supriya Syal, Lisa A Rosenberger, Sarah Heany, Nicole Phillips, Nigel Gericke, Dan J Stein, and Jack van Honk. 2013. “Acute Effects of Sceletium Tortuosum (Zembrin), a Dual 5-HT Reuptake and PDE4 Inhibitor, in the Human Amygdala and Its Connection to the Hypothalamus.” Neuropsychopharmacology : Official Publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology 38 (13). American College of Neuropsychopharmacology: 2708–16. doi:10.1038/npp.2013.183.

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About Eric

Interests: Books, news, politics, parrots, video-games, movies running, and of course, HERBALISM! Favorite Books: Isaac Asimov's FOUNDATION series, I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE, Arthur C. Clarke's RAMA series, THE KITE RUNNER Favorite Herbs: Rhodiola Rosea, Tea (Camelia Sinensis), Cacao (Theobroma Cacao)
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