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Kanna Delivers Major Brain Health Benefits — From Mood To Cognitive Flexibility*

Kirsten Nunez, M.S.
Contributing writer
By Kirsten Nunez, M.S.
Contributing writer
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Beacon, New York. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Texas Woman's University and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta.
Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN
Expert review by
Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN
mbg Vice President of Scientific Affairs
Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN is Vice President of Scientific Affairs at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's degree in Biological Basis of Behavior from the University of Pennsylvania and Ph.D. in Foods and Nutrition from the University of Georgia.
Image by PLT Health Solutions, Inc. / mbg creative
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For many people, brain health is something to think about when you're "older." But why wait? It's never too early to flex your brain (aka neuroplasticity) and optimize cognitive longevity and well-being via brain-supporting habits. The best part: There are many ways to make it happen, from staying physically active to eating plenty of colorful, antioxidant-rich plant foods.

However, if you want to be as proactive and intentional as possible, it's worth adding targeted and functional brain-loving bioactives like Sceletium tortuosum, aka kanna, to your routine.* The powerful botanical is one of the main active ingredients in mbg's brain guard+ trio, our comprehensive nootropic supplement—and it might very well be your brain's new BFF.* 

What is kanna? 

Kanna is the colloquial name for Sceletium tortuosum, an indigenous medicinal succulent plant from South Africa. It's also known as kougoed and channa, which translates to "something to chew" or "is chewable."

The plant has been used as an herbal remedy by Indigenous tribes for hundreds of years, according to a 2021 review article1 in Molecules. Its first use has been documented as early as the 17th century2 (1685, to be exact). While kanna teas and tinctures dominated its use for centuries, in the 21st century, the nootropic botanical extract can now be found in select capsule, tablet, and raw powder formulas.

Kanna uses.

As mentioned, Sceletium tortuosum has a long history in indigenous cultures. It's been traditionally used to support diverse facets of brain health, including relaxation, mood, and overall mental performance—just to name a few.*

Today, kanna is popping back up in mood-boosting teas and some targeted nootropic supplements, and for good reason, too: Its benefits have garnered a compelling body of mechanistic and clinical research, providing science-backed support for diverse aspects of brain health, including executive function, cognitive flexibility, stress resilience, and mood balance.*

So much so that it's a star ingredient in mbg's newest nootropic supplement, brain guard+. In this powerful neuronutrient-powered formula, Sceletium tortuosum is delivered as Zembrin® (the clinically researched, premium form).

Quick Note:

The reason you'll see Zembrin® so much throughout this article and in your own research is because it's a unique patented extract of kanna (Sceletium tortuosum) that is sustainably cultivated and harvested from South Africa and that the large majority of clinical trials have been conducted on.

Kanna benefits.

The main compounds (i.e., phytonutrient bioactives) in kanna are mesembrine, mesembrenone, mesembrenol, and mesembranol, collectively known as mesembrine alkaloids. 

Alkaloids are essentially compounds that contain nitrogen, says registered dietitian Maddie Pasquariello, M.S., RDN. They exert a wide range of health effects on the body, and in Sceletium tortuosum specifically, are responsible for the plant's multidimensional functional brain-related actions and benefits:*


Provides mood support.

If you're looking for an all-natural way to support your mood, consider kanna.* As mbg's nutrition research scientist, Emma Engler, M.S., explains, "Preclinical animal data providing mechanistic insight3 into kanna demonstrate this plant's actions on serotonin and a specific enzyme known as phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) via the main alkaloid bioactives present in this unique plant. This synergistic dual action on the central nervous system supports kanna's ability to enhance or lift mood and promote relaxation."* (At the same time).

Specifically, in terms of serotonin, the alkaloids in kanna enhance serotonin reuptake inhibition actions in the brain, thereby increasing levels of serotonin, explains Pasquariello.* Translation? These compounds help kanna delay the body—neurons, specifically—from quickly reabsorbing serotonin, ultimately extending its availability and activity in our brain and body, according to Engler.* Pretty cool, right? 

Needless to say, kanna can be a game-changer for balancing emotions, as serotonin plays a key regulatory role in supporting mood, behavior, and other important functions related to the nervous system, Engler explains.* "These actions are also supported by clinical trial evidence4 where kanna has been shown to promote stress resilience, demonstrating a positive impact on emotional brain response,"* she adds.


Promotes a healthy stress response.

Although we can't avoid stress altogether (nor should we try), it's possible to nurture your stress response via botanicals like kanna.* But take note: This is not the same as supporting your mood.

As mbg's vice president of scientific affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, explains, "Mood support is like the mothership health area, and an important one, but honing in further are specific benefits like stress resilience and anxiolytic pathways (i.e., fewer feelings of anxiousness and stress). The South African botanical kanna supports our cognitive ability to be emotionally tougher when coming up against stressors (um, daily). How? By interacting with our brain."*

Ferira dives deeper: "Mechanistically, this unique, adaptogenic Sceletium tortuosum plant has been shown in clinical research using advanced MRI brain imaging to buffer our brain from stress by positively impacting our neurocircuitry."* She points to a robustly designed randomized clinical trial4 leveraging 25 milligrams of Zembrin® kanna extract, which focused on the amygdala section of the brain and reactivity to threats. As seen in the results, participants were less reactive to these fearful stimuli.*

As mentioned earlier, we also know from preclinical animal research3 that Zembrin® kanna extract exerts dual-action benefits in the central nervous system by increasing serotonin levels and inhibiting PDE4.* "These two pathways net sustained neurochemical benefits for mood, as well as neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties—all of which are certainly helpful for our very active brain cells and resilience to inevitable stress in our life,"* says Ferira.


Delivers a sense of alert serenity.

If Mother Nature had a chill pill, kanna would be it. Basically, as the mesembrine alkaloids in kanna support serotonin reuptake inhibition (and therefore, increased serotonin levels), they also pave the way for relaxation and calmness.* Serotonin, after all, is known as one of the "happy hormones," and enhanced levels of this neurohormone can promote alert serenity and a sense of mental well-being.

Specifically, in a six-week clinical trial, daily intake of Zembrin® kanna extract significantly increased alpha1 and alpha2 brain frequencies during various cognitive tasks.* As Engler notes, an uptick in these brain-wave frequencies is associated with greater calmness (plus, as mentioned before, helps with mood and memory).

The result is what we call "alert serenity." As Jeremy Appleton, N.D., director of scientific and medical affairs at PLT Health Solutions, explains further, "The clinical research has shown impact on improving executive function and cognitive set flexibility while at the same time attenuating activity in the part of the brain that registers threat and stress."* Together, these effects maintain your ability to stay on your A-game without feeling tense or uptight.


Supports executive function.

As Ferira outlines, "Executive function encompasses massively important, higher-level cognitive functions ranging from attention and problem-solving to memory, abstract thinking, self-control, and even moral reasoning and decision-making—many of which involve the prefrontal cortex area of our brain." It also happens to be vital for sustaining cognitive balance5 to meet life's (sometimes challenging) demands.

Fortunately, it's possible to support executive function with premium botanicals like kanna.* In a compelling clinical study examining the cognitive effects of 25 milligrams and 50 milligrams of Zembrin® kanna extract, "both doses increased [the] power of certain brain-wave frequencies related to attention and memory,"* notes Appleton.

As Engler expounds, this includes alpha2 brain waves—which are associated with memory and shown to be significantly influenced by Zembrin® kanna extract during various cognitive tasks—as well as delta and theta brain waves, which are related to mental activation during processing (i.e., attention and performance).*

But how does this kanna benefit work, exactly? Ferira explains: "The mechanisms behind these beneficial cognitive effects are thought to be driven by the stress resilience impact on key brain circuits4, as well as the mood-lifting impact of blocking reuptake of serotonin (i.e., keeping it around longer) and inhibiting the PDE4 enzyme."*

Several of these key mechanisms have been elucidated via important preclinical research3. "Indeed, the PDE4 enzyme pathways are major cascades involving cellular signals for processes like apoptosis (programmed cell death), neuroplasticity, and connections of neurons," shares Ferira. "What's more, PDE4 inhibition has anti-inflammatory and longevity implications at the cellular level."


Improves cognitive flexibility.

"Kanna extract as Zembrin® taken daily (25 milligrams) has been clinically shown5 to positively affect cognitive flexibility, which happens to be a key subset of executive function,"* shares Ferira.

A quick explainer: Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt our thoughts and actions based on our environment, demonstrating agility and flexibility in our thinking and doing, Ferira explains. Additionally, it enables us to seamlessly pivot between mental tasks (i.e., task switching), which has obvious implications for juggling life like a pro, she adds.

Ferira breaks it down further: "If we think of our brain as a muscle (though it's technically not), it's useful to explain cognitive flexibility. Imagine the actual muscles in your arms, legs, core, etc. (which are interestingly controlled by your brain), were rigid and lacking in flexibility, so you were lacking full range of motion to move, walk, run, dance, etc. Flexibility is so important, right? Now imagine that your brain was rigid and slow to react and adapt, instead of quick and flexible. We need to be able to flex, whether it be our muscles or our brain. In this way, kanna helps us flex our brain for agility and resilience."*

Kanna side effects.

Between preclinical6 animal research and human safety and tolerability clinical studies7 (not to mention its long history of traditional usage), kanna has demonstrated a strong safety profile, Engler notes. She continues, "In clinical studies at doses up to 50 milligrams, significant side effects or complaints are simply not commonplace. Also, the bulk of clinical studies are at a dose of 25 milligrams, so higher doses are unnecessary when trying to reap the targeted brain benefits of this particular botanical bioactive." 

If the rare case that side effects do occur, they may include mild gastrointestinal upset5, headaches, or bowel movement irregularity

It's important to remember that "kanna does have clinical trial evidence demonstrating increases in serotonin neurotransmitter levels (which directly supports cognitive and mood-enhancing benefits),"* explains Engler, "so, for those with specific psychological and psychiatric considerations, have a chat with your doctor before incorporating kanna into your routine."*

The serotonin reuptake inhibition actions of kanna may interact with other medications and/or supplements, so it's wise to speak to your health care team before introducing kanna (or any new supplement, for that matter) to your regimen, notes Pasquariello.*

The takeaway.

Sceletium tortuosum, colloquially known as kanna, is a powerful indigenous plant with many hundreds of years of historical use behind it. Kanna contains unique compounds called mesembrine alkaloids, which provide multidimensional brain support by enhancing myriad aspects of brain health—including executive function, cognitive flexibility, alert serenity, mood, and a healthy stress response.*

If you want to leverage the brain-supporting effects of kanna, a premium nootropic supplement containing the ingredient might be just what you need.*

mindbodygreen's brain guard+ features 25 milligrams of kanna extract as Zembrin®, the premium clinically researched form of the plant. Our scientifically advanced formula combines botanical kanna with the brain nutrient citicoline (Cognizin®) and polyphenol resveratrol (Veri-Te™), resulting in a powerful neuroprotective trifecta in just two daily capsules.*

Who's ready to flex their brain?

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.
Kirsten Nunez, M.S. author page.
Kirsten Nunez, M.S.
Contributing writer

Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Beacon, New York. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Texas Woman's University and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta. Kirsten specializes in nutrition, fitness, food, and DIY; her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including eHow, SparkPeople, and international editions of Cosmopolitan. She also creates recipes for food product packaging.