Sceletium Tortuosum - Traditional Mood Enhancer
South African Medicinal Plants

© Alice Notten of Kirstenbosch
Sceletium tortuosum is traditionally chewed for its mood-enhancing properties.

This climbing or creeping plant - Sceletium tortuosum - has been known and used in South Africa for centuries. The Khoisan used the plant and introduced its mood elevating effects to the early colonisers around 1662. Known as tortoise fig marigold, ‘kanna’ or ‘kougoed’ (Afrikaans for ‘something to chew’) the dried plant material was chewed, smoked or inhaled as snuff.

It produced euphoria and alertness and gently induced relaxation. It was also used by shepherds and hunters to suppress appetite when out in the field for days. A tea made from kanna is sometimes used to wean alcoholics off alcohol and a teaspoon added to breast milk can treat colic in babies - it still used in some rural communities.

The traditional way to prepare ‘kanna’ is crushing, fermentation and then drying. The plant is harvested (often whole, but with roots removed), it is then crushed, put in a bag (traditionally animal skins were used) and left for a few days to ferment. Then it was spread in the sun to dry and thereafter powdered and smoked, chewed or taken as a tea. Crushing and fermentation is important to reduce the potentially harmful levels of oxalic acid. A yield of about 4 g is expected from 100 g fresh material.

Its natural habitat is the Succulent Karoo where it prefer quartz-rich soil and grows in the shadow of shrubs. It is easy to cultivate, grows from either cuttings or seed and can be grown in pots. It rests in summer and should not be watered. The plant is very sensitive to frost. Due to overharvesting Sceletium has become rare in its natural environment. Substantial plantings are found in Nelspruit and Tzaneen but the plant naturally occurs in the Namaqualand to Montagu (Western Cape) and Aberdeen (Eastern Cape).

Benefits of Sceletium Tortuosum

Modern preparations included Sceletium tortuosum in anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants. It contains mesembrine and the related compounds known for its effects on the central nervous system. These compounds also act as serotonin-uptake inhibitors, is used in the treatment of mild to moderate depression, alcohol and drug dependence, bulimia nervosa and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

The South African produced and patented Zembrin®, is an extract of Sceletium tortuosum. Zembrin® has been researched and developed for over a decade and is available in South Africa and the USA as an over-the-counter remedy to enhance mood, decrease anxiety and reduce stress.

It is also used as a supplement to help treat irritability in menopause, improvement in libido (when lack is due to anxiety) and helps with post-traumatic stress disorder, as part of a support program. ‘Kanna’ is not a hallucinogenic.

Medical Disclaimer

Information is for educational and informational purposes only and may not be construed as medical advice. The information is not intended to replace medical advice or treatment offered by healthcare professionals.

By Marinda Louw

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