By Dr. Mercola
Upon hearing the word "skullcap," some people remember the hat (also called the "zucchetto") that the pope of the Catholic church wears during public appearances.1 However, skullcap can actually refer to two herbs: American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) and Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicallensis).2
Although these skullcap plants come from the same family, they aren't interchangeable because of their different purposes, physical characteristics and locations where they are found. For instance, American skullcap is native to North America (although it's now found in Europe and in other parts of the world), while Chinese skullcap can be traced back to China and parts of Russia.
The name "skullcap" comes from the cap-like appearance of the outer whorl of either plant's small blue or purple flowers. These flowers are hooded, tube-shaped and two-lipped, with the upper lip forming a hood and the lower lip having two lobes.
American skullcap is a slender and heavily-branched plant that grows to a height of 2 to 4 feet, with leaves that are 7.5 centimeters long by 5 centimeters wide, and are coarsely serrated around the edges.3 The Chinese skullcap plant, meanwhile, has single, narrow and erect stems that bear numerous 2.5-centimeter bluish-purple flowers. Chinese skullcap's skinless and yellow root anchors the perennial plant that grows up to 0.3 meters tall and 0.3 meters wide.4,5
Keep reading this page to learn about American and Chinese skullcap, and see how using these two herbs can positively impact your health.
Health Benefits of American and Chinese Skullcap
Studies showed that American skullcap has antioxidant properties that may help protect against Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, anxiety and depression.6
These antioxidant capabilities were also linked to increased antioxidant activity in the liver, considered to be one of the slowest-recovering organs. The herb boosts the liver's efficiency, helping with reduction of toxin levels in the body and blood, and consequently enhancing well-being. Furthermore, other properties discovered in American skullcap include:7,8
• Sedative: American skullcap is a known nervine, and it has potential as treatment for epilepsy, hysteria, panic attacks, anxiety and delirium tremens. Meanwhile, people with sleep problems can use American skullcap since it's able to help induce sleep naturally, without the negative effects of prescription drugs and over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids
• Antispasmodic: The herb can help minimize throat infections, headaches from stress, neuralgia and after-effects of incessant coughing. American skullcap can also be useful when treating withdrawal symptoms from tranquilizers and barbiturates, and may even benefit people with anorexia nervosa, fibromyalgia and mild Tourette's syndrome
People with nervous disorders who experienced seizures or other spasmodic side effects that occurred from a problem in the nervous system may also utilize American skullcap.
• Analgesic: This herb can help with pain relief all throughout the body, as it can reduce inflammation and deliver a major boost in wound healing and injury recovery
Aside from these, American skullcap may help treat asthma and serve as a remedy for hiccups or hangovers. On the other hand, Chinese skullcap has shown anti-histamine properties that can help relieve asthma and allergies like hay fever. It's also an antioxidant that can reduce the risk of heart disease and limit damage after a heart attack. Lastly, it can serve as an herbal treatment for hepatitis.9
Chinese skullcap is also a strong antiviral that can work against some viruses, and may exhibit mild antibacterial action against certain strains:10
• Influenza A (H1N1 and H3N3)
• Influenza B
• Sendai virus (parainfluenza)
• Respiratory syncytial virus
• Vesicular stomatitis
• Hepatitis A and C
• Hepatitis B (resistant and non-resistant)
• Coliphage MS2
• Chlamydia trachomatis
• E. coli
• Enterecoccus faecalis
• Helicobacter pylori
• Klebsiella pneumoniae
• Salmonella spp.
• Salmonella paratyphi
• Shigella flexneri
• Staphylococcus aureus (resistant and non-resistant)
Other properties attributed to Chinese skullcap include:
Animal studies have also suggested that Chinese skullcap can help lessen symptoms of diabetes and hypertension or high blood pressure, but more research is needed to see if these effects apply to humans.11
What Is Skullcap Used For?
Both skullcap plants are known for their medicinal purposes, although different parts are used: American skullcap leaves and Chinese skullcap roots. American and Chinese skullcap are typically available in powder and capsule forms. However, Chinese skullcap leaves and American skullcap tinctures, teas and extracts are sold nowadays too.12,13
It was said that American skullcap was widely used for nearly two centuries as a mild relaxant and as a therapy for anxiety, nervous tension and convulsions, although more research is needed to support this claim.14
Some Native American tribes used American skullcap to treat rabies and schizophrenia, which is why the herb is also called mad weed, maddog weed or maddog skullcap. These tribes also utilized American skullcap as an emmenagogue (to stimulate menstrual flow15) to bring young girls into womanhood. Large amounts of American skullcap were also used during spiritual ceremonies to bring on visions.16
Nowadays, American skullcap can be applied directly to painful areas by mixing the dried leaves into a paste. By applying this paste onto small scrapes and bruises, it can prompt quicker healing, since rich phenolic compounds and flavones in American skullcap may stimulate blood flow to the skin and help prevent infection.17
There is evidence suggesting that this herb can assist with weight loss, since it may stimulate the reduction of triglycerides. However, more research is needed to fully confirm this benefit.
Most of the studies conducted on skullcap herbs tended to focus on Chinese skullcap. While it's fairly known in the U.S. and in Europe as an ornamental plant, Chinese skullcap was prominent in traditional Chinese medicine for its ability to ease and relieve different "hot and damp" conditions like:18,19,20
✓ Common cold
✓ Infections accompanied by a fever
✓ Urinary tract infections
✓ Redness of the eyes and the face
✓ Abdominal pain
✓ Vaginal bleeding
How to Grow Skullcap
American skullcap prefers partial shade to full sun, and typically blooms from May to August. During this period, the plant's flowers are replaced by a two-chamber seed pod with four seeds each.21,22
Meanwhile, Chinese skullcap needs full sun and thrives on sunny and grassy slopes in high elevations. This plant is known to grow well in sandy, rocky and dry soils, and in cultivated planting beds.23 Blooming period is often during late spring, early, mid or late summer or early fall, depending on the climate of your area.24
Generally, skullcap plants can be easy to grow when in a partly shaded position and even if you use ordinary garden soil. It's best to sow the seed in early spring, after the danger of frost has passed.25
Skullcap seeds tend to germinate at a naturally high rate. These fare better if stratified for a week or so. Begin by placing the seeds in a sealed plastic bag with moistened vermiculite, sand or a moist paper towel. Keep the bag inside the refrigerator for a week. If you're using vermiculite, use three times the amount compared to the seeds and only slightly moisten, as excess moisture can result in moldy seeds.26,27
After the week-long period, start lightly tamping seeds into soil in flats that are about one-fourth to three-eighth inches deep, or in a similar starting container. The seeds will germinate in around two weeks' time. Once the first true leaves have developed, begin transplanting the plant outdoors, making sure to put a a 12-inch gap in between the rows.28,29
Water the plant moderately and ensure that the soil is well-drained. Apart from using seeds, you can also propagate skullcaps by dividing roots or cuttings. The grown plants will then spread and clump, and the plants that grow may eventually be resistant to major pests.
Harvest the skullcap plants once the flowers are in full bloom. Use a pair of scissors or shears to harvest aerial parts like flowers and leaves. Ensure that there are still plant parts at least 3 inches above the ground.30
Try This Skullcap Tea Recipe to Reap the Herb's Benefits
If you're keen on trying out skullcap, you can make skullcap tea at home by following this recipe:31
Skullcap Tea Recipe
- 1-2 teaspoons of organic skullcap herb to suit your taste
- 1 cup hot, but not boiling, water
- Bring water to a low boil. Add the skullcap herb.
- Cover with a lid to preserve essential oils from escaping.
- Steep for 5 to 10 minutes depending on how strong you like your tea. The longer you steep skullcap, the more benefits you may receive.
Purchasing high-quality leaves or teas from reputable sources is a must if you want to reap skullcap tea's benefits. This drink can be helpful in balancing your body's hormones, stimulating the release of endorphins and providing stability to your mood. These benefits are primarily linked to the phenolic compounds in skullcap that have different effects on hormonal balance.32
Side Effects of Skullcap
Before using American or Chinese skullcap, it's important to consult a physician or trusted health expert first. Skullcap is reported to have various side effects and interactions with other herbs, supplements or medications. For example, both American and Chinese skullcap were revealed to increase the effects of these particular sedatives:33
✓ Anticonvulsants like phenytoin (Dilantin) and valproic acid (Depakote)
✓ Benzodiazepines like alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium)
✓ Insomnia-treating drugs like zolpidem (Ambien), zaleplon (Sonata), eszopiclone (Lunesta) and ramelteon (Rozerem)
✓ Tricyclic antidepressants like amitriptyline (Elavil)
Pregnant and breastfeeding women must avoid skullcap as well due to the potential complications that can arise with skullcap intake. Furthermore, some American skullcap varieties were known to be contaminated with germander (Teucrium), a group of plants that were said to cause liver problems. To prevent this from happening, make sure to get American skullcap from a reliable source. High doses of this plant's tincture may also result in side effects like giddiness, stupor, mental confusion, twitching, irregular heartbeat and seizures.
Meanwhile, Chinese skullcap isn't recommended for diabetics, especially if there's no doctor supervision involved. The patient's risk for hypoglycemia or low blood sugar levels may increase if the herb is ingested, plus it may also strengthen the effect of diabetes drugs.
Chinese skullcap is also ill-advised for those with stomach or spleen problems. It may also interact with cyclosporines that are often used to prevent organ transplant rejection.34 Prior to using this herb, make sure to consult your physician to avoid experiencing these side effects.