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Skullcap works well to calm anxiety and support one during times of stress

Skullcap

Scutellaria lateriflora Lamiaceae

This graceful herb, native to North America and Canada has a safe and effective role in anxiety and related disorders.

  • How does it feel?

    The infused tincture has a pleasant fresh, slightly sweet smell with an initially sweet taste and mildly bitter after tones. The dried herb has a gentle aroma redolent of fresh field mushrooms.

  • What can I use it for?

    Skullcap is a nervous system tonic, nervine and has antispasmodic activity. It is a great remedy where there is any nervous tension which can have a knock-on effect on the muscles, therefore it is useful in states of increased muscular tension such as in tension headaches, tightened shoulders, neck or lower back, palpitations,  menstrual cramps, tremors, muscle spasms and leg cramps or neuralgia.

    It can also be used in insomnia to quieten the mind enough to allow sleep to come. On its own it isn’t sedating, however in such situations it combines well with other herbs that do have this quality such as passionflower, wild lettuce or hops.

  • Into the heart of Skullcap

    Herbal practitioners are consulted for anxiety and stress-related conditions more widely perhaps than any other presentation.  To be able to have to hand this wonderfully nourishing herb for the nervous system within our herbal medicine chest is a very valuable resource indeed.

    As mentioned, it can be used for addiction and withdrawal symptoms concerning tranquillizers. Given the epidemic of analgesia addiction in the US and increasingly in European countries Skullcap has an important role in supporting the mind and body.

    Ayurvedic use of skullcap includes its use in lowering excessive Pitta and for helping reduce heat-driven emotions such as hatred or anger.

    It soothes the heart and is said to possess sattvic qualities, bringing about a clarity of mind. It is often combined with Gotu Kola for such situations.

  • Traditional uses

    Skullcap was used by Native American tribes to relieve breast pain, promote menstruation and in child birth to help expel the placenta. It was used within ceremonies for the transition of girls to womanhood and has been used variously for treating stress, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome and diarrhoea.

    In the 18th century Skullcap was being used in mainstream American medicine for the treatment of rabies, particularly for the hysteria associated with this awful disease.  This use as a ‘cure’ for rabies was subsequently discredited but not before earning it common names such as Mad dog weed. Undoubtedly it would have helped to calm any anxiety and reduce spasm in those with the disease.

    In the 19th century the Physiomedicalists were using Skullcap as a nervine for conditions of excitability, phobias, anxiety and seizures.

    It was considered a specific remedy for the convulsive twitchings of St Vitus’ dance now known to have been an umbrella term for various types of conditions with movement disorders.

  • Traditional actions

    • Nervine tonic
    • Anxiolytic
    • Antispasmodic
    • Antioxidant
    • Anti-inflammatory
    • Mild bitter
  • What practitioners say

    Nervous system: It is a remedy par excellence for relaxing an excitable nervous system. Widely used in western herbal medicine for anxiety and insomnia, palpitations, neuralgia, phobias, muscular twitching, tremors and in epilepsy.

    It relaxes at the same time as acting as a tonic for the nervous system. It has good use in debility within a picture of nervous tension. Often prescribed in combination with herbs such as St John’s wort and Oats or adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwagandha or Gotu kola. It can be of good benefit to aid withdrawal from barbiturates and tranquillizers.

    It can be taken at the onset of a panic attack and some people find it useful to carry a small bottle of the tincture with them to dose with if they feel acute anxiety coming on.

    Gynaecological: Useful in easing any associated nervous tension or emotional lability, skullcap can be put to good use in premenstrual syndrome.

    Cardiovascular system: Skullcap can be of benefit in palpitations or in hypertension (in combination with other herbs).

    Digestive system:  It can be given for digestive problems associated with stress, such as irritable bowel syndrome. The effects of relaxing the higher centres of the nervous system having a knock-on effect on the gut.

    Fatigue: Useful in fibromyalgia or post viral fatigue syndrome in combination with oats and certain adaptogens such as ashwagandha, skullcap can be excellent for situations where one feels ‘tired and wired’.

  • Research

    In terms of the medicinal effects of the whole plant, unlike Scutellaria baicalensis, little has been carried out in the way of robust scientific research on Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), when not in a combination product with other herbs.

    Antioxidant potential studies showed that there are no significant differences between S. lateriflora, S. baicalensis and a third species – S. racemosa.

    A piece of work was done in 2014 looking at clinical applications of certain herbal medicines for anxiety and insomnia concerning patients with bipolar disorder. Skullcap, with the proposed mechanism of action being modulation of GABA receptors, showed some efficacy in meta-analysis of RCT within the psychiatric population for insomnia and marked efficacy in at least one RCT on healthy subjects for anxiety.

    A small single-dose study was carried out on 19 healthy subjects with skullcap, the effects monitored and evaluated at regular intervals following administration. There was a noticeable decrease in anxiety with no adverse effects on cognition or energy levels.

    In a placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover study, 43 healthy, relatively non-anxious participants were randomised to taking 350 mg skullcap three times daily or placebo, each over two weeks. In this population there was no significant difference between skullcap and placebo, however, there was a significant group effect, suggesting a carryover effect of skullcap.

    With regard to Total Mood Disturbance measured by the Profile of Mood States, there was a significant decrease from pre-test scores with skullcap but not placebo. Skullcap significantly enhanced global mood without a reduction in energy or cognition.

    Further studies assessing the anti-anxiety effects of skullcap in notably anxious participants is required.

  • Did you know?

    Skullcap and valerian are used in combination by some vets to treat habitual nervousness and anxiety in dogs and cats. This blend can be particularly good for noise phobias such as with thunder or fireworks.

Additional information

  • Safety

    Authentic American Skullcap is generally considered to be a very safe remedy when given within the therapeutic dosage range.

    Limited studies on its use in pregnancy have shown no developmental or other harmful effects. It has a long history of use in women during pregnancy and lactation.

    Over-dosage is said to cause confusion, stupor, and sometimes involuntary muscle spasms and twitches similar to epilepsy, however the authenticity of the herb ingested cannot be always verified in reported cases.

    Adulteration or substitution can happen with any herb and Skullcap appears to have a bit of a reputation for this. Adulteration or substitution has occurred using other species of skullcap, or other herbs from the mint family and notably with hepatotoxic plants such as those of the Teucrium species. The 22nd edition of the US Dispensary (1937) described Scutellaria lateriflora as one of the most substituted and adulterated herbs in the Materia Medica. This problem was more prevalent in times gone by, however, it remains paramount to source from reputable stockists.

  • Dosage

    3-6 g per day of the dried aerial parts

    2-4.5 mL per day of a 1:2 liquid extract or equivalent capsule or tablet form

skullcap illustration
  • Recipe

    Calming tea blend

    Ingredients:

    • 20g American skullcap
    • 20g Passionflower
    • 25g Lime blossom
    • 10g Valerian root
    • 25g German chamomile

    Method:

    • Combine all ingredients and mix well before each brew. Take 2 heaped teaspoonfuls of blend to a cupful of boiling water.
    • Cover, let infuse for 8 – 10 minutes and then strain. You can add a small amount of honey if desired, then sit, sip and enjoy!
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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