Is Kanna Really Nature's MDMA? Here's What You Need to Know

Woman sitting in teacup with kanna tea

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Key Takeaways

  • Kanna is an indigenous South African plant that's been used for centuries as an herbal remedy and natural mood booster.
  • Today, some people take kanna for its euphoric and anxiety-reducing properties as an alternative to party drugs.
  • More research is needed to understand the risks of long-term use.

These days, it seems everyone is looking for something to take the edge off. Lately, the trends are leaning toward all-natural options over manufactured drugs.

As an herbal remedy and natural mood booster, kanna, or Sceletium tortuosum, is a succulent plant native to South Africa that's served a healing, social, and spiritual purpose for thousands of years.

Kanna has been gaining a lot of attention recently for being a less-risky alternative for party drugs because it has been reported as having a blissful effect on users, but what's the verdict?

What is Kanna?

"Historically, kanna forms part of the traditional practices of South Africa's first people, Khoisan," says clinical psychologist Vincenzo Sinisi, SAPA, HPCSA, founder of Therapy Route. "The Khoisan populated parts of what is now South Africa even before the African people considered indigenous to the region today did."

It was typically consumed as a pinch of ground-up fermented plant matter and held under the tongue or chewed before swallowing. Today, extracts, tea, and supplements are available for easier ingestion.

The Western world, and its mental health professionals in particular, are taking an interest in kanna thanks to its calming and mind-clearing properties, which can work wonders for people dealing with anxiety and depression.

In the brain, kanna naturally bolsters serotonin reuptake and strengthens the mechanisms of attention and memory, effectively reducing stress, boosting mood, and promoting cognitive function.

Monika Wassermann, MD

I strongly support that this supplement is being used as an alternative to other party drugs. People are likely to experience similar euphoria effects with no adverse effects on their health.

— Monika Wassermann, MD

Being from South Africa himself, Sinisi is familiar with kanna's benefits through his own use and reports from patients.

"When it works, it works without question," Sinisi says. "Roughly two hours after consumption, people feel markedly calmer, more content, and happier. The world feels like all is as it should be, and life seems worthwhile."

However, he notes that research is limited and studies are typically small or animal-based. One small proof-of-concept study suggests kanna supplements enhance cognitive function and even have potential to treat early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Recreational Uses and Risks

In the media, kanna has been portrayed as an all-natural, legal alternative to party drugs like MDMA. There are even plant-medicine retreats that incorporate kanna into allegedly life-changing ceremonies.

But Sinisi points out that while kanna does have mood-brightening properties that can leave you feeling less anxious and inhibited, it likely won't get you high.

"Comparing kanna to MDMA is like comparing a high dose of caffeine to cocaine," Sinisi says. "Many people who use MDMA as a party drug will be disappointed by the subtlety of kanna's effect."

General practitioner Monika Wassermann, MD, first came across kanna years ago but more recently experienced the euphoric properties herself. As a substance with less harmful side effects than drugs like MDMA, kanna seems like a smarter choice, she says.

"I strongly support that this supplement is being used as an alternative to other party drugs," Wassermann says. "People are likely to experience similar euphoria effects with no adverse effects on their health, hence it's safer."

Vincenzo Sinisi, SAPA, HPCSA

Overly frequent use can reduce the effect and this can't be overcome by raising the dose. Consuming kanna in larger quantities paradoxically increases anxiety.

— Vincenzo Sinisi, SAPA, HPCSA

But for individuals who have a history of substance dependence or abuse, Sinisi advises against trying kanna. While kanna may not be addictive, it could trigger further drug-seeking behavior. And he doesn't recommend long-term daily use in any context.

"Overly frequent use can reduce the effect and this can't be overcome by raising the dose," Sinisi says. "Consuming kanna in larger quantities paradoxically increases anxiety."

Overdosing on kanna can cause stomach pains, but mixing kanna with other substances is where the real danger lies.

Wassermann warns against taking kanna when also taking MAO inhibitors, MDMA, 5HTP, and/or SSRI antidepressants. The combination can rapidly increase your serotonin levels and lead to fever, shivering, elevated heart rate, or even death in severe cases.

Of course, more research is needed to truly understand the safety and potential of kanna.

"Sure, it has been used in traditional practices for a long time," Sinisi says. "Still, this use was regulated by cultural norms that may not mirror recreational use."

What This Means For You

Kanna is a great all-natural option for coping with symptoms of anxiety or depression. But it's not considered a long-term solution. Consult with your doctor before incorporating kanna into your treatment plan.

3 Sources
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