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For most people, the thought of brain health doesn’t arise until old age starts to become noticeable. But it’s never too soon to start improving the functioning of your billions of neurons, or brain cells. There are lots of ways to get your brain building new chemical pathways because your brain is flexible in that regard (something called neuroplasticity). You can improve your cognitive abilities and longevity using brain-supporting techniques such as keeping physically active and eating antioxidant-rich, nutritious plant foods.

Good healthy habits like working out and eating right are great, but if you really want to get a jump on boosting your cognitive functions you’ll want to consider taking a nootropic — a compound with natural cognitive-enhancing qualities. One of the best nootropics is kanna (Sceletium tortuosum). Up until just recently the kanna herb was essentially unknown outside of its native habitat of South Africa. Only lately has it begun to garner interest as the Western world discovers its many brain-boosting characteristics.

What Is Kanna?

Kanna (also referred to as channa, canna, kougoed, or its scientific name of Sceletium tortuosum) is a medicinal succulent plant that is native to South Africa. The kanna plant has green leaves and blooms with yellow and white flowers.

kanna plant flowers

While it is beautiful, kanna is considered much more than simply a pretty plant. The South African Khoikhoi and San people use the word channa, which translates to chewable thing or something to chew.

Documentation of the South African Indigenous tribes use of kanna goes back to the late 1600s. For centuries these people have chewed channa to help with a variety of ailments including fatigue, pain, stress, anxiety, and depression, and to improve brain function. This traditional medicinal herb has also been smoked and brewed into teas.

Nowadays, kanna extract is available as a nootropic nutritional supplement. Kanna extract powder is sold in tablets, capsules, or in loose, raw powder form.

Kanna Benefits and Uses

As you’ve just read, kanna has a long history of medicinal use by South Africa’s indigenous cultures. Its primary uses have been in support of a number of facets of brain health, including mood, relaxation and general mental performance (such as stress resilience, cognitive flexibility, and executive function).

Bioactive compounds are animal or plant based compounds that cause actions in the body that contribute to good health — they provide health benefits to humans. If the source of a bioactive compound is a plant it is said to be a phytonutrient bioactive compound — also called a phytochemical. Examples of phytonutrient bioactives include flavonoids, terpenoids, and alkaloids.

Alkaloids are a class of plant-based compounds that contain nitrogen, and have strong physiological actions on people (they affect the physiology, or working systems, of humans, such as the cardiovascular system, digestive system, or nervous system). Examples of alkaloids include morphine, caffeine, and nicotine. The primary phytonutrient bioactives in kanna are a family of alkaloids called mesembrine alkaloids. Kanna includes several of these alkaloids, including mesembrine, mesembranol, mesembrenol, and mesembrenone. Collectively these alkaloids are responsible for many of kanna’s positive brain-related benefits.

Kanna Supports Executive Function

Executive function, or EF, is the set of mental skills that include flexible thinking (cognitive flexibility), working memory, and self-control (inhibitory control). It’s referred to as the management system of the brain because these functions allow us to plan, set goals, and get things done. Needless to say, executive function is crucial for successfully navigating life.

Nootropics like kanna are very useful in supporting executive function. Clinical studies have shown that kanna in dosages of as little as 25 milligrams increase alpha brain waves (a wavelength associated with memory) and delta brain waves (a wavelength associated with attention and performance).

In the brain, stress resilience relates to protecting against stress-induced changes, particularly regarding the connectivity and activity of the prefrontal cortex — the brain’s mood, memory, fear, and executive control centers.

One study has shown that kanna has an “attenuating effect” (reduction in signals) involving important brain circuits related to threats and stress. The effect was to increase stress resilience — to better allow the brain to carry out the cognitive tasks that make up executive function.

Kanna Increases Serotonin for Mood Support

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that carry chemical signals (the messages) from a neuron (brain cell) to a target cell. The target cell can be another brain cell, a muscle cell or a gland cell. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is synthesized (chemically produced) by brain cells.

Serotonin’s roles are important and complex in that it plays a role in regulating several body functions, including memory, learning, reward, and mood. It also plays a role in controlling anxiety and reducing symptoms of depression. Serotonin plays such a key role in mood that it is often referred to as a happy hormone (with the mood-affecting neurotransmitter dopamine being the other hormone sharing this happy hormone label). After being released, serotonin does not endlessly travel throughout the body — eventually serotonin transporters (SERTs) stop the effects of serotonin by transporting the serotonin back to neurons.

Serotonin transporters end serotonin’s actions by transporting serotonin back to its originating source. On the other hand, serotonin transporter inhibitors block, or inhibit, transporters from carrying out their task. When serotonin transporter inhibitors are present in the body released serotonin remains free longer, and thus acts on the body longer.

And now we arrive at the reason for this long discussion on neurotransmitters, serotonin, serotonin transporters, and serotonin transporter inhibitors — kanna is a very powerful serotonin transporter inhibitor. Kanna inhibits the action of serotonin transporters, thereby extending the availability and activity of previously released serotonin. In doing this, kanna improves mood, lessens anxiety, and reduces the symptoms of depression.

The above isn’t just theory. The journal Molecules report on a study that showed kanna elevated mood, reduced tension and stress, and had a tranquilizing, calming effect. It turns out that it is the previously mentioned mesembrine alkaloids in kanna that are partly responsible for this plant’s actions as a serotonin transporter inhibitor.

Kanna Instills Both Alertness and Calmness

It may sound contradictory, but kanna can bring about both alertness and calmness in a person. It isn’t really contradictory, though, as being alert does not have to coincide with being excitable — a person can be both calm and aware of, or alert to, their surroundings and events.

You’ve just read that the mesembrine alkaloids in kanna contribute to kanna acting as a serotonin transporter inhibitor — an action that keeps released serotonin flowing in the body for a longer period of time. More serotonin means a more positive mood. And a more calm and relaxed feeling and attitude. Interestingly, along with this sense of mental well-being and serenity comes a greater alertness.

Kanna is sometimes referred to as Zembrin®. Zembrin® is the product name for a patented extract of kanna. If you buy a supplement and it has Kanna or Zembrin® or both in the product name, you’re getting an extract of the kanna plant. If Zembrin® is in the name, it simply means the product is using kanna from a company that has a registered trademark for their name for kanna. In discussing their branded version of kanna, the developer of Zembrin® (HG&H Pharmaceuticals) describes kanna as one that supports “calm focus” and “alert serenity.” Those two short, simple phrases may be the best possible descriptors of kanna.

In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study, subjects were given either 25 mg of kanna or a placebo daily for a period of three weeks. Compared to the placebo group, the kanna group experienced positive mood, stress, sleep, and cognitive function changes.

cognitive flexibility diagram

Kanna Enhances Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the brain’s capability to alternate between various action plans or rules based on the circumstance. Cognitive flexibility is crucial to many of a person’s regular daily tasks and activities. As an example, picture yourself driving on a freeway at 65 miles per hour. As you exit the freeway on to a local street, you immediately recognize that the situation has changed and that you now have to decrease your speed.

When you shift between different contexts as in this case, your brain has kept many different sets of rules in mind to enable it to switch over to the proper one as needed. These neural representations (also called mental representations or cognitive representations) of task or activity rules are retained in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain in control of planning action.

Kanna has been demonstrated to enhance cognitive flexibility. In a randomized controlled study of kanna’s effects on cognition it was found that the group given a daily dose of kanna had “significantly improved cognitive set flexibility and executive function.”

Kanna Side Effects

Kanna is recognized as safe, with very few side effects reported — even at high doses. Some first-time users may experience mild nausea, but that effect disappears with subsequent usage.

Kanna has an extremely long history of medicinal use by South African cultures, and has always been considered an extremely safe medicine within those cultures. Rarely are side effects reported, and when they are they are typically mild cases of headache or nausea.

Kanna acts as a serotonin transporter inhibitors, meaning it keeps existing serotonin in the body for longer periods than normal (it delays the reuptake of the serotonin). In that sense, kanna acts as a natural version of some prescription antidepressants. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a commonly prescribed class of medications prescribed for depression. If a person is being prescribed an SSRI they should not additionally take kanna, as the combined effect of the SSRI and kanna could allow too much serotonin to be present for extended periods.

Kanna Dosage

There is no universal dosage of kanna that is considered standard for every person to take. With that said, the recommended dosage of kanna is 25 mg to 50 mg per day. That range is common for people interested in obtaining the cognitive-enhancing effects of this plant.

For people more interested in the mood-enhancing benefits of kanna — such as in improved sense of well-being and decreased anxiety — dosages of 100 mg to 200 mg per day are often taken. This is the dosage that many South African psychiatrists prescribe for their patients who suffer from major anxiety and depression

While 25 mg to 50 mg per day is very common, much higher amounts have been taken without any reported adverse effects. According to some research it is quite safe for a healthy adult to take up to 420mg per day.