Alternative names: Blue Pimpernel, Blue Skullcap, European Skullcap, Helmet Flower, Hoodwort, Mad Dog, Mad-dog Weed, Madweed, Side-flowering Skullcap, Virginia Skullcap. Sometimes misspelt Scullcap.
Various species of the genus Scutellaria have become known as Skullcap, but the one considered medicinal by the U.S.P. into the early 1900s is the plant Scutellaria lateriflora L. While there is little research on the use of this plant, herbalists have for many years recommended it as a tonic, nervine, and antispasmodic. Skullcap is still used for these conditions in teas as well as capsules and tablets.
Skullcap has traditionally been used in combination with valerian as a mild sedative for anxiety. Skullcap has also been used in patent medicines for 'female problems'. Tests of skullcap extract did not reveal that it stops muscle spasms or that it slows down animals or makes them sleep. Most studies also indicate no effect on heart rate or blood pressure. Scientific research does not support the use of skullcap as a tranquilizing herb or for the treatment of hormonal problems.
Native Americans as well as traditional European herbalists used skullcap to induce sleep, relieve nervousness, and moderate the symptoms of epilepsy, rabies, and other diseases related to the nervous system. In other words, skullcap was believed to function as an herbal sedative.
The Physiomedicalists (followers of a 19th-century Anglo-American school of herbal medicine) first discovered skullcap's use as a nervine. They recognized that it has a "deeper" action on the nervous system than any other herb and used it for hysteria, epilepsy, convulsions, and rabies, as well as for serious, mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Its apparent ability to cure animals and humans of rabies is the reason for its common name in America being "mad dog" during the 19th century.
Skullcap is still popular today as a sedative. Unfortunately, there has been virtually no scientific investigation of how well the herb really works.
Skullcap is a member of the mint family and a native of North America, where it thrives in moist woodlands. This North American perennial grows in wet places throughout Canada and the northern and eastern U.S. as well as in other parts of the world, such as southeast Asia. The fibrous, yellow rootstock produces a branching stem from 1-3 feet high, with opposite, ovate, serrate leaves that come to a point. Skullcap's two-lipped flowers are pale purple or blue.
Skullcap still grows wild in much of the US and Canada, thriving in damp conditions such as riverbanks, and needs plenty of sun. Skullcap can be propagated from seed or by root division in spring. The aerial parts of 3- to 4-year-old plants are harvested in summer, when in flower.
A number of related species grow in Asia. At least one of these, Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi, has been used in Europe and China (where it is known as huang quin). Although these plants appear to have some active ingredients in common, the ways they are used is very different. The above-ground parts of skullcap collected during the blooming season (August and September) are dried and used as herb. It is, however, the dried root of huang quin that is used medicinally in China, and overall effects appear to be far different.
Scutellaria species contain a number of flavonoid glycosides, including scutellarein, isoscutellarein, wogonin, and baicalin. S. baicalensis root contains baicalein, baicalin, wogonin, and beta-sitosterol, bitter iridoids (catalpol), volatile oil and tannins.
Skullcap works mainly on the nervous system, acting as a sedative, both mentally and physically to calm and sustain an over-excited system. Skullcap can be used where there is stress and tension present. Some species of skullcap have been found to contain constituents which have anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic properties, and it is possible this extends to Scutelleria lateriflora, but further research has yet to be carried out. One species found in China has a beneficial effect in liver disorders such as hepatitis, actually improving liver-function tests. Skullcap's sedative effect also helps to alleviate period or ovarian pain.
Skullcap is taken mainly as a nerve tonic and for its restorative properties. Skullcap is rich in minerals necessary for a healthy nervous system, calms and relieves stress and anxiety, and is greatly strengthening and supportive during stressful times. Its antispasmodic action makes it useful for conditions where stress and worry cause muscular tension. Skullcap is often prescribed on its own or mixed with other sedative herbs, to treat insomnia and skullcap is also given to relieve menstrual pain. Research into skullcap is sorely needed and may reveal more uses for this valuable herb.
Chinese research has shown that extracts of S. baicalensis root are active against a range of bacteria and that the herb is an effective antiviral agent to treat the flu. Skullcap is prescribed for acute tonsillitis and strep throat. A constituent, baicalin, inhibits HIV-l. Baicalin also appears to inhibit tumor growth and has strong anti-inflammatory activity. Both baicalin and baicalein are powerful antioxidants, protecting red blood cells from free radical damage better than vitamin E can. They both show some promise in preventing the oxidation of blood fats, although baicalein appears to be more active here.
Skullcap by itself or in conjunction with valerian root makes an ideal sedative for nervous muscle spasms, twitches and general convulsions. Its antispasmodic action is useful for twitching or jerking muscles, trembling, epilepsy – both petit and grand mal – as well as heart palpitations. Skullcap is well worth using to aid withdrawal from orthodox tranquilizers and antidepressants, and is excellent when combined with hormone balancing herbs such as chaste tree or false unicorn root for PMS.
Skullcap also acts as an anti-inflammatory herb, and can be used for arthritis, particularly where it is aggravated by stress. Skullcap is also said to reduce fevers, to enhance the digestion and to stimulate liver function, due to the presence of bitters. Skullcap was used traditionally in North America to treat bites of poisonous insects and snakes, and for rabies, as well as to quieten sexual over-excitement and relieve menstrual cramps.
No standard dose of skullcap has been established in the United States or Europe. In China, baicalin is available in 250mg tablets. The dose prescribed for viral hepatitis is two tablets three times a day.
According to other sources, when taken by itself the usual dosage is approximately 1 to 2gm, 3 times per day. However, skullcap is more often taken in combination with other sedative herbs such as valerian, passionflower, hops, and melissa, also called lemon balm. When using an herbal combination, follow the label instructions for dosage. Skullcap is usually not taken long term.
Three capsules of each herb should be taken every 4 hours for the worst cases, less, of course, for minor symptoms. Either 1 1⁄2 cups of warm tea every couple of hours or 1⁄2 cup, as the case may be. In 1 pint of boiling water simmer 1 tbsp of cut, dried valerian root on low heat, covered, for 3 minutes. Then add 2 tsp of cut, dried skullcap herb, cover again, and simmer an additional 1 1⁄2 minutes., before removing from heat entirely and steeping 40 minutes longer.
Infusion – Use the herb fresh, if possible, to make a soothing tea for nervous exhaustion, excitability, over anxiety, and premenstrual tension. For insomnia, combine skullcap with wild lettuce or passionflower and take at night.
Tincture – Best made from the fresh herb, this is a potent remedy for calming the nerves. Take 5ml or combine with 10 drops lemon balm for nervous stress or depression.
Root Decoction – Use in combination with other cold, bitter herbs such as huang lian or goldenseal to purge heat from the system in gastric, chest, and urinary infections, including diarrhea, jaundice, gastroenteritis, bronchitis, and cystitis. Combine with herbs such as ju hua to reduce high blood pressure.
Swallowing scullcap at normal doses does not generally result in serious side-effects. Injection of S. baicalensis extracts, however, can cause fever, muscle pain, and lowered leukocyte count. In several instances, people taking scullcap have experienced liver damage. The danger of liver toxicity should, however, discourage casual use of skullcap.
American skullcap is dangerous when overdosed, is not recommended for children, and should be avoided by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. It should also be avoided by those with stomach or spleen problems. It can lower blood sugar levels, so diabetics should only take it under a doctor's supervision: the effects of diabetes medication are increased, and therefore so is the risk of hypoglycemia.
American skullcap increases the effects of sedatives and should not be taken in combination with them except under medical supervision. Examples include anticonvulsants, barbiturates, Xanax, Valium, treatments for insomnia, certain antidepressants, alcohol, valerian root, kava root, and catnip.