Skullcap: A Restorative, Relaxing Herb

american skullcap

Story at-a-glance -

  • American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is an herbal plant native to North America that’s a member of the mint family
  • Skullcap has a long history of medicinal use, primarily as a mild nerve sedative or nerve tonic; during the 1800s and 1900s, skullcap was sometimes prescribed for nervousness or related symptoms, particularly muscle spasms, irritability, sleeplessness, tremors and restlessness
  • In addition to its uses for anxiety, skullcap has shown promise as an anticonvulsant and may have anti-allergy potential
  • Another compound in skullcap, scutellarein, may have anticancer potential and was found to stop the development and spread of fibrosarcoma, an aggressive cancer of connective tissue

By Dr. Mercola

American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is an herbal plant native to North America that's a member of the mint family. It has a long history of medicinal use, primarily as a mild nerve sedative or nerve tonic. During the 1800s and 1900s, skullcap was sometimes prescribed for nervousness or related symptoms, particularly muscle spasms, irritability, sleeplessness, tremors and restlessness.1

Named for the close-fitting metal skull caps worn during medieval periods, which resembled the plant's flowers, this calming herb has continued to receive praise for its stress- and anxiety-relieving effects, which it's said to exert without some of the side effects, like drowsiness, that other relaxing herbs may cause. Known as a nervine herb, which is one that acts on the nervous system, skullcap has such strong relaxant effects that it's sometimes used to treat barbiturate and tranquilizer withdrawal symptoms.2

Its popularity has been growing in recent years, with harvest and sales increasing 250 percent from 1997 to 2001, perhaps because many herbalists in Europe have taken to prescribing skullcap in lieu of kava kava, which has been linked to liver damage. Whatever the reason, if you're interested in herbal remedies, skullcap is one herb worth knowing, especially since it's easy to grow and has a variety of uses, from tea and tinctures to massage oil and supplements.

Skullcap May Boost Mood, Relieve Anxiety and More

In 2003, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study on healthy individuals revealed that skullcap had "noteworthy" effects for anxiety relief.3 Another study of 43 adults who took either skullcap or a placebo three times daily for two weeks revealed skullcap significantly enhanced global mood — without a reduction in energy or cognition.4 Although research into the herb is limited, as it is with many herbal remedies, surveys suggest that herbal medicine practitioners widely use skullcap.

"The results of the survey suggested that S. lateriflora is highly regarded amongst herbal medicine practitioners as an effective intervention for reducing anxiety and stress and is commonly prescribed for these conditions and related comorbidities," researchers wrote in the Journal of Herbal Medicine.5

When the herb was analyzed for its bioactive ingredients, 10 flavonoids and two phenylethanoid glycoside compounds were isolated. Further, at least 73 different compounds have been identified in skullcap essential oil.6 Phenolic compounds, particularly flavonoids, are believed to be responsible for many of skullcap's beneficial effects.7 In addition to its uses for anxiety, skullcap has shown promise as an anticonvulsant and has been shown to be effective in rodents with acute seizures.8

It may also have anti-allergy potential, including helping to alleviate food allergy symptoms by regulating systemic immune responses of T helper (TH) cells. "These results indicate that skullcap may be a potential candidate as a preventive agent for food allergy," according to researchers.9

Skullcap Is a Strong Antioxidant, May Fight Oxidative Stress, Cancer

Bioactive compounds in many plants have powerful antioxidant properties known to neutralize or scavenge damaging free radicals, thereby neutralizing oxidative stress that can play a role in diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, depression and anxiety. Skullcap is no exception, and it's been suggested that its antioxidants could be therapeutic against oxidative-stress-associated mental disorders.10

Another compound in skullcap, scutellarein, may have anticancer potential. In fact, the compound was even found to stop the development and spread of fibrosarcoma, an aggressive cancer of connective tissue.11 Traditionally, the herb was used by Native Americans for a variety of anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory and antimicrobial purposes, including to treat:12

Hypertension

Hysteria

Epilepsy

Diarrhea

Headaches

Nervous exhaustion

Nervous disorders of the digestive system

Heartburn

Fever

Snake and insect bites

Skullcap Was Traditionally Used as a 'Woman's Herb'

In addition to the traditional uses above, Native Americans, particularly the Cherokees, used skullcap to promote menstruation as well as to help remove the placenta following childbirth. It was also believed to be useful for treating "premenstrual tension" and has been suggested as a remedy for mood changes that occur with menopause.

Little modern-day research has been done to confirm these effects, but skullcap does contain vitexin, an active compound found in the herb Vitex agnus castus, or chasteberry, which is commonly used for menstrual disorders.

It's thought that skullcap's benefits for menstrual conditions could be due to effects on hormone levels or neurochemicals that affect mood.13 Because there is a possibility that skullcap could promote menstruation, it should not be used by pregnant women because it could potentially cause miscarriage.14

Chinese Skullcap Has Its Own Benefits

American skullcap shouldn't be confused with Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis). Although they belong to the same plant family, Chinese skullcap is native to China and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, most notably in the treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, hypertension, hemorrhaging, insomnia, inflammation and respiratory infections.15

Flavones in Chinese skullcap include baicalin, wogonoside, and their aglycones baicalein and wogonin, which are known to have anticancer, antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, anticonvulsant and neuroprotective effects. When Chinese skullcap is prepared using its roots, it's known as Huang Qin, and has shown antihistamine properties that can help relieve asthma and allergies like hay fever.

It's also an antioxidant that can reduce the risk of heart disease, limit damage after a heart attack and possibly serve as an herbal treatment for hepatitis.16

Be Careful With Adulterants in American Skullcap Supplements

If you're looking for a calming herb with the benefit of antioxidant properties, skullcap may be for you. But use caution when choosing to use the herb in supplement form, as its been plagued with problems of substitution and adulteration. In particular, American germander, sometimes called wild germander, wood sage and wild basil, which is potentially toxic, has been found to contaminate skullcap supplements since the 1980s, according to botanist Steven Foster.17

In one study of 13 skullcap-containing dietary supplements, four were found to contain American germander, three contained very low skullcap concentrations and one contained Chinese skullcap instead of American skullcap.18 It's unknown whether the adulteration was intentional or a case of mistaken identity. According to the American Botanical Council:19

"There are those who believe that skullcap and germander can look similar because they are both members of the mint family (Lamiaceae or Labiatae). Foster, and various herbal experts, believe that their physical characteristics are distinct enough to warrant an accurate identification with the naked eye, i.e., in the field

… [but] according to an extensive quality control and therapeutic monograph on skullcap … produced by the nonprofit American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), the relatively comparable appearances of skullcap and other herbs can lead to accidental adulteration."

Growing Your Own Skullcap

One way to ensure that the skullcap you're consuming is, in fact, skullcap, is to grow it yourself — and it's easy to do so. American skullcap is a perennial herb, which means if you plant it right, it will keep coming back year after year (be sure to plant is in a spot where you don't mind it spreading, which skullcap is known to do, rapidly). Skullcap should be planted in an area with moist soil and full to partial sun (partial sun especially if you live in a hot and dry area).

Keep in mind that many skullcap varieties require stratifying seeds before you put them in the ground. To do so, put the seeds in a sealed plastic bag with moistened sand (about three times as much sand as seeds) or a damp paper towel, then place them in the refrigerator for at least a week.20 The seeds can then be started indoors (germination will take about two weeks) and moved outdoors as seedlings, after the threat of frost has disappeared.

Seedlings can be planted 1-inch deep into compost-amended soil. Keep them well-watered and continue after the plant grows larger; they do best in moist soil.21 Skullcap can also be grown from cuttings or divided roots, which can be taken from a healthy, mature plant. Mature skullcap can grow to reach 1 to 3 feet tall.

Once the plant blooms, it's ready to harvest for use in teas or tinctures, and can be used fresh or dried. 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.

How to Use Skullcap

Skullcap can be used in tincture, tea or essential oil form. As a massage oil, which can be used for muscle relaxation, try the following recipe from the book, "Healing Plants of the Rocky Mountains," by Darcy Williamson:22

Skullcap Massage Oil

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups flowering skullcap tops
  • 1/2 cup fresh tall sagebrush leaves
  • 2 tablespoons dried cottonwood buds
  • 1/2 cup jojoba oil
  • 1/2 cup sweet almond oil

Procedure

  1. Combine ingredients in a quart jar and cover loosely with several layers of cheesecloth.
  2. Allow mixture to stand in a warm place for three weeks.
  3. Heat jar in a pan of warm water for 15 minutes to liquefy oil, and then strain.

To make a calming tea, which you can enjoy before bedtime or when you need to soothe your nerves, infuse 5 grams of skullcap into 8 ounces of water for 15 minutes. You can also try adding half an ounce of dried skullcap to one-half pint of boiling water to make an infusion, or try the recipe below:23

Skullcap Tea Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1-2 teaspoons of organic skullcap herb to suit your taste
  • 1 cup hot, but not boiling, water

Procedure

  1. Bring water to a low boil. Add the skullcap herb.
  2. Cover with a lid to preserve essential oils from escaping.
  3. Steep for five to 10 minutes depending on how strong you like your tea. The longer you steep skullcap, the more benefits you may receive.

If you don't happen to have skullcap in your garden but still want to experiment with the herb's beneficial effects, there are many herbal teas available that contain skullcap, often in combination with complementary herbs, but be sure to purchase high-quality leaves or teas from reputable sources.

As always, you may want to start using skullcap under the guidance of a holistic medicine practitioner, and use it in moderation. High doses of this plant's tincture may result in undesirable side effects like giddiness, stupor, mental confusion, twitching, irregular heartbeat and seizures.