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.
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.
Anti-inflammatory herbs reduce inflammation in the body. There are different systems in the body that anti-inflammatory plants target. For example for the gastrointestinal tract chamomile, fenugreek and meadowsweet are useful. For the musculoskeletal system rosehips, turmeric and celery seed are useful. For inflammation against immune mediated inflammation gotu kola (centella asiatica), rehmannia (rehmannia glutinosa) and feverfew (tanacetum parthenium) can be useful.Antioxidant
Antioxidant substances that protects against oxidation and degradation from free radical damage. Plants rich in antioxidant include bacopa (bacopa monnieri), bilberry (vaccinium myrtillus), green tea (camelia sinensis) and thyme (thymus vulgaris).Antispasmodic
Antispasmodic plants reduce or relieve smooth muscle spasm. They can be helpful for an array of issues including menstrual cramps. Also known as spasmolytics, these plants include aniseed (Pimpinella anisum), blue cohosh (caulophyllum thalictroides), cramp bark (viburnum opulus) and lavender (Lavandula angustofolia).Bitters
Bitters stimulate digestion by enhancing digestive secretion and peristaltic movements of the gut. They act via a reflex from the taste buds to the brain then through the vagus nerve to whole digestive system. Often these herbs are combined with warming digestives to balance the cold nature of bitters. Examples include Artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus), Gentian root (Gentiana lutea), Wormwood leaf (Artemisia absinthium), Oregon Grape root (Mahonia aquifolium), Goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis).Nervines
Nervines are herbs that soothe the nervous system and have a calming effect on the emotions. Examples include Oatstraw flowering tops (Avena sativa), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), Lavender (Lavandula officinalis), St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Rosemary leaf (Rosmarinus officinalis), and Gotu Kola leaf (Centella asiatica).
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’.
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 (6).
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 (1,7).
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 (8).
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 (9).
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.
The genus Scutellaria in the Lamiaceae (mint) family has approximately 350 species, some of which are medicinally active. A perennial herb native to North America and Canada favouring woods, thickets and damp areas such as riverbanks and marshes.
The name Scutellaria comes from the Latin scutella, meaning ‘small dish’ and refers to the pouch-like appearance of the fruit’s calyx. It has slender, toothed leaves and pale blue, or occasionally white or pink flowers produced on one side of the stem.
Not to be confused with Baical skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), which is also used in western herbal medicine and one of the most widely prescribed herbs in Traditional Chinese medicine. Baical skullcap has denser racemes of larger purple/blue flowers.
It is important to ensure you have the correct species. Some skullcap labelled as S. lateriflora in garden nurseries can in fact be S. altissima, which is a showier plant. Scutellaria lateriflora can be adulterated, or substituted with other plants, so take care to ensure you obtain it from a reputable source.
The whole aerial parts are used, best harvested while in flower late in summer.
- Virginia skullcap
- Mad-dog skullcap
- Mad-dog weed
- Quaker bonnet
- Blue pimpernel
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.
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
- Flavonoids: predominantly baicalein and its glycoside baicalin, wogonin, scutellarein, scutellarin, lateriflorein. In addition – apigenin, hispidulin and luteolin (1,2,3,4)
- Iridoid glycoside: catapol (1,2,4)
- Volatile oils: limonene, humulene, terpinol (1,2,3)
- Tannins (1,2,3)
- Serotonin and melatonin (1,5)
Calming tea blend
- 20g American skullcap
- 20g Passionflower
- 25g Lime blossom
- 10g Valerian root
- 25g German chamomile
- 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!
- https://www.scu.edu.au/southern-cross-plant-science/facilities/medicinal-plant- garden/monographs/scutellaria-lateriflora/. (Accessed June 2021)
- Wohlmuth H. (2001). Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): the herb with an identity crisis. Botanical Pathways; 13:115-119.
- Chevallier A. (2000). Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine.2nd edition. London: DK Natural Health
- van Wyk BE, Wink M. (2004) .Medicinal Plants of the World. Oregon: Timber Press
- Grieve M (1931) A Modern Herbal. Tiger press. Ed 1992. ISBN 1-83-5501-249-9
- Cole, B et al. (2008) Comparisons of Scutellaria baicalensis, Scutellaria lateriflora and Scutellaria r acemosa: genome size, antioxidant potential and phytochemistry. Planta Med 74(4): 474-81
- Baek, Ji et al. (2014) Clinical applications of herbal medicines for anxiety and insomnia; targeting patients with bipolar disorder.
- Wolfson P, Hoffmann DL.(2003). An investigation into the efficacy of Scutellaria lateriflora in healthy volunteers. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2:74-78
- Brock, C, Whitehouse, J et al (2014) American Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): a randomised, double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study of its effects on mood in healthy volunteers. Phytotherapy Research. 28 (5): 692-8
- Osol A et al. (1947) The dispensatory of the United States of America ed 24, Philadelphia. Lippincott p 1580
- Frawley D, Lad V. (1994). The Yoga of Herbs. Lotus Light Publications. ISBN: 81-208-1172-0