Common name: Skullcap
Other names: Blue skullcap, Virginian skullcap
Latin name: Scutellaria lateriflora
Affinities: Nervous system, digestive system
Actions: Nervine tonic, sedative, antispasmodic, anticonvulsive, nervine trophorestorative, digestive bitter
Specific indications: Anxiety, insomnia, sharp shooting pains, seizures, benzodiazepine addiction withdrawal, tight painful muscles, muscle spasms, nervous debility
Diseases: Anxiety(1), depression(1), insomnia(2), epilepsy(3), ME/ CFS(3), fibromyalgia(3), migraines(3), neuralgia(3)
Parts used: Leaf
Energetics: Cooling, drying
Characteristics: American skullcap is a perennial member of the mint family and it grows in meadows and swamps in Northern American (Awad et al., 2003).
History: For many centuries, a relative of American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) called Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) has been used to treat allergies and as a sedative (Castleman, 2004). However, the two species have different traditional uses in herbalism and should not be confused. American skullcap was used by the Native Americans in North America as a sedative and tonic (Barceloux, 2008). The first introduction of American skullcap into the medical system was by Dr. Vandesveer of Roysfield, New Jersey in 1772 who claimed it could treat rabies, this was later disproven (Castleman, 2004). However, herbalists of time subsequently found skullcap useful for treating anxiety, insomnia, and other neurological complaints.
American skullcap was praised by America’s Eclectic physicians in the 19th century and John Scudder, in his text, Specific Medication and Specific Medicines, writes of skullcap, ‘Scutellaria exerts a direct influence upon the cerebro-spinal centers, controlling irritation….. it may also exert a tonic influence….. It has been employed with success in chorea, convulsions, epilepsy, mania… and that undefined condition that we call nervousness… I value the remedy highly, but only recommend it when prepared from the fresh plant.’ (Scudder, 1870).
Current applications: Probably the most important sedative nervine tonic herb in Western herbalism. I have found a fresh American skullcap tincture useful for restoring normal sleep patterns, it is gentle, non-addictive, and effective in low doses (e.g. 10-20 drops, twice daily). It combines well with milky oat seed for this purpose in equal parts, and as a basis for more complex nervine formula especially suited for persons with nervous over excitation (insomnia, etc).
A century later than the Eclectic’s, Dr. Christopher remarked that skullcap is a slow-working, but sure remedy, for practically all nervous affections, but it must be taken regularly for a long period of time to be of permanent benefit (Christopher, 1976). David Hoffman states skullcap relaxes nervous tension in the central nervous system and also has a renewing effect (Hoffman, 1988). It may be useful in the treatment of seizures, hysterical states, and epilepsy. It also may be useful in cases of exhaustion, depression, and easing premenstrual tension. David Winston recommends it for stressed people, and those with muscle spasms, nervous tics, or painful and tight muscles (Winston, 2007). Thomas Bartram recommends it for withdrawal from benzodiazepine addiction, migraines, insomnia, and says it has value in the treatment of ME (Bartram, 2013).
Science: Skullcap contains flavonoids that are of interest because of their anti-oxidant and anti-tumour activities (Cole, 2008; Wojcikowski et al., 2007), this gives skullcap potential to have a healthier profile than mainstream anti-anxiety pharmaceutical drugs. There are two human studies of acceptable quality that show positive effects against anxiety and depression (Wolfson, 2003; Brock et al., 2014), thus supporting the traditional usage of skullcap.
Safety: High. However, for those already taking sedative medication, there is a risk of an additive effect with harmful consequences so caution in dosing is recommended.
Dosage: Dose of tincture is 10-60 drops 2-3 times daily.
Form: The fresh tincture of skullcap is widely accepted to be superior to the dried, as the drying process occurs skullcap will lose all, or the majority of, its medicinal potency.
Research on models
Anti-oxidant activity: One ex vivo study found American skullcap was one of the 5 highest herbs in terms of radical-scavenging activity (Wojcikowski et al., 2007).
Anti-tumour activity: One ex vivo study found skullcap extracts containing flavonoids had anti-tumour activity (Parajuli et al., 2009).
Research on humans
Anxiety: A study (n = 19, double blind, placebo controlled) demonstrated a decrease in anxiety of individuals who were given American skullcap (Wolfson, 2003).
Depression: A recent study (n = 43, double blind, placebo controlled) demonstrated a significant improvement in mood in skullcap treated individuals compared with control (Brock et al., 2014). Skullcap increased overall mood without decreases in cognition. Further studies are warranted. Only mild side effects were noted in the skullcap group.
Awad, R., et al. “Phytochemical and biological analysis of skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora L.): a medicinal plant with anxiolytic properties.” Phytomedicine 10.8 (2003): 640-649.
Barceloux, Donald G. Medical toxicology of natural substances: foods, fungi, medicinal herbs, plants, and venomous animals. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.
Bartram, Thomas. Bartram’s encyclopedia of herbal medicine. Hachette UK, 2013.
Brock, C., Whitehouse, J., Tewfik, I., & Towell, T. (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), 692-698.
Castleman, Michael. “The new healing herbs.” Bantam Book, New York (2001): 465-471.
Christopher, John R. School of Natural Healing. Christopher Publications, 1976.
Cole, Ian B., et al. “Comparisons of Scutellaria baicalensis, Scutellaria lateriflora and Scutellaria racemosa: genome size, antioxidant potential and phytochemistry.” Planta medica 74.04 (2008): 474-481.
Hoffman, David. Holistic herbal. Element Books, 1988.
Parajuli, Prahlad, et al. “In vitro antitumor mechanisms of various Scutellaria extracts and constituent flavonoids.” Planta medica 75.01 (2009): 41-48.
Scudder, John. Specific Medication and Specific Medicines, 1870.
Winston, David, and Steven Maimes. Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co, 2007.
Wojcikowski, Ken, et al. “Antioxidant capacity of 55 medicinal herbs traditionally used to treat the urinary system: a comparison using a sequential three-solvent extraction process.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 13.1 (2007): 103-110.
Wolfson, P., and D. L. Hoffmann. “An investigation into the efficacy of Scutellaria lateriflora in healthy volunteers.” Alternative therapies in health and medicine 9.2 (2003): 74.