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Q&A: KA! Empathogenics founder on channeling psychoactive plant healing in chews

By Asia Sherman

- Last updated on GMT

© Image courtesy of KA! Empathogenics
© Image courtesy of KA! Empathogenics

Related tags stress management mood support botanical startups

Stephanie Wang, former financial analyst and film producer, explains that she started KA! Empathogenics in response to the need for more heart-centeredness in the world.

During a shamanic ceremony a decade ago, she experienced what she describes as “a oneness with all things and the most profound love” she had ever felt. The ceremony was powered by the healing properties of Kanna, a succulent plant from South Africa central to the medicinal, social and spiritual culture of the indigenous Khoisan people for millennia.

The company launched last summer with its KA! Kanna chews, formulated with "synergistic, full-spectrum, life-giving ingredients" to lift mood, sustain grounded energy, nurture calm and promote deeper connection and openness to life's possibilities.

NutraIngredients-USA caught up with Wang, who shared a bit more about her startup journey and the opportunities she sees in spreading the love through empathogens.

NutraIngredients-USA (NIU): What motivated you to launch KA! Empathogenics? 

Stephanie Wang (SW): I wanted to make Kanna accessible to people in a form that can be easily integrated into their daily lives. Traditionally, it was taken by the Khoisan to lower stress, enhance mood, and focus and energy on multi-day hunts. After my plant ceremony experience, I started to learn about the science of how Kanna (Sceletium Tortuosum​) works in the body. After four years of R&D, we were very excited to be able to offer our first product, the KA! Kanna Chews. Kanna is a natural serotonin reuptake inhibitor and releasing agent. It's a legal psychoactive (not psychedelic) that's safe and non-habit-forming.

One in five adults in the U.S. suffers from mental health issues. Most of us have some form of stress and anxiety in our lives that's only worsened after the pandemic. Much of that stems from loneliness and disconnection and constantly being in fight-or-flight mode where our nervous systems don't have a chance to regulate properly.  I wanted to introduce a Kanna supplement that could help support the immune and nervous systems and help people feel themselves again so that they feel more open-hearted, alive and capable, while calming their mind and getting grounded in their bodies. 

According to the 2023 Global Wellness Trends Report by Global Wellness Summit, there is a growing desire for empathogens, substances that produce a feeling of emotional openness, empathy and love. We see strong demand in the market for an offering like KA!

NIU: What drew you to the plant-based wellness space? 

SW: I struggled with a number of health issues that were not addressable or treatable by conventional medicine and began exploring holistic health solutions and plant-based wellness many years ago. Plants have been a big part of my healing journey, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. Many pharmaceuticals derive from a particular plant species, but in the process of drug development, it loses holistic aspects of its healing properties. The more industrialized our society has become, the more contaminated our environment, the more disconnected we are with nature and the sicker we have become. Do you see the connection? We evolved with plants and are symbiotic with other life forms and the environment, so it's no surprise that plants are our allies and can help us heal and thrive. This sense of interconnection - to each other, to plants, and nature is healing in itself.

NIU: What went into building, funding and launching the brand?

Stephanie Wang
Stephanie Wang, founder & CEO, KA! Empathogenics

SW: A lot of hard work and a great team! I feel so blessed by the amazing, talented and heart-centered beings that I work with. They are KA! and have built the company into what it is. From the start we were very clear with our mission: to restore full-spectrum aliveness for all human beings. I believe people are attracted to this strong mission that everyone can get behind. Integrity is a big part of our brand values and that includes eco-consciousness, which is reflected in our products. The company has been self-funded so far, and we are in the process of seed round fundraising. 

NIU: What sets Kanna Chews apart in the market? Are you positioning them as a CBD alternative? 

SW: What distinguishes KA! Kanna Chews from other Kanna supplements is its high quality, patent-pending formulation of unique ingredients and its innovative production process. KA! uses precursor alkaloids to synergistically elevate and prolong the function of the other phytochemicals in our formulation. The blend of other plant ingredients in KA! Kanna Chews amplifies the ability for receptors to be activated in sync with Kanna – sensorially, biochemically, and through olfactory neuroscience. This natural empathogen engages all of your senses and your entire system, thus enlivening you and giving you a more full-spectrum and sustained experience. 

KA! Kanna Chews are made via an innovative process that does not use heat so there is no degradation of plant ingredients and their bioactivity. They are also free of sugars, elastomers, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives (no citric acid), and are pH neutral just like your body, making them healthier for you than conventional gummies or edibles. They are vegan, caffeine-free, keto, and diabetic-friendly.

Given the properties of the KA! Kanna Chews, they could definitely be a CBD alternative for some people. Everybody is different with unique genetics and neuroreceptor distribution, so how one particular plant works with someone may not be the same as with another person. KA! has calming effects and ingredients known to help ease inflammation. Although it has mild analgesic qualities, it is not specifically for pain relief like some CBD is. However, KA! also has many benefits that CBD does not, such as heart-opening, improved focus, and enhanced endurance. 

NIU: Who is behind the formulation? How were the ingredients selected for the KA! Kanna Chew formula?  

SW: KA! is formulated by a team of PhDs led by our Chief Scientist with expertise in biochemistry, molecular biology, nutraceuticals, herbalism, and flavor science. Our team also understands and honors the spiritual and energetic aspects of working with sacred plants, having had deep healing experiences with them personally. The ingredients were carefully selected to optimize their synergistic effects and benefits.

NIU: Could you speak to the psychoactive benefits and the science behind these benefits? 

The principal active ingredient in KA! is Kanna, which acts as a natural serotonin reuptake inhibitor and as a natural serotonin releasing agent through the activation of a protein called VMAT2 (Vesicular Monoamine Transporter 2) that transports neurotransmitters out of cells. Kanna also activates GABA, opioid, cholecystokinin, and melatonin receptors to help calm brain activity, decrease anxiety, improve focus, create a sense of wellbeing, reduce hunger, prevent inflammation in the gut, and improve sleep quality. Kanna also boosts energy use in the body by blocking an enzyme called PDE4 (phosphodiesterase 4), which contributes to the calming and grounded energy effect. The other ingredients like Snow Lotus and Acmella act synergistically with Kanna to enhance its benefits and support the immune and circulatory systems and reduce swelling. KA! Kanna Chews are neuroprotective and neuroregenerative and help recalibrate your brain to help you feel a fuller sense of aliveness. 

NIU: How have the KA! Kanna Chews been received since launch?

SW: We're happy to say that the KA! Chews are performing well and have been receiving some great reviews from customers. What we've learned is that there is a need to educate people on KA! and Kanna because Kanna is still a relatively unknown plant. Also, the body sometimes needs a bit of time to get "primed" to feel the effects, so the more consistently you take KA!, the more you will feel the benefits. This is true for other herbs and plant medicines. It requires building a relationship with the plants and listening to your body. 

NIU: What type of consumer stands to benefit most from the Kanna Chews? 

SW: Our target customer is anyone who is looking for a natural, safe and effective non-pharmaceutical solution for mild stress and anxiety relief, or looking to enhance cognitive function, improve mood and endurance to feel more alive and connected. For example: overworked moms, stressed-out business owners, meditators, and yoga practitioners (mind calming and centering), athletes (endurance improving), couples (intimacy enhancing). For the psychedelic community, the Kanna Chews are great as an integration tool and serotonin replenisher after journeys.

People who are on any  Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs) or Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) should not take KA! as there are contraindications. However, the KA! Kanna Chews could work well for people who are looking for an alternative to those pharmaceuticals. Of course, it is important to consult with your physician first before taking KA! if you are on any prescription meds.

NIU: What advice do you have for startups in this space?

SW: Know your customer and always put them first. Remember who you are in service to.

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