American skullcap is a medicinal plant with long historical use.
It is widely known for its gentle, relaxing effects, particularly for anxiety and other nervous conditions.
In this article, we will look at the health benefits of skullcap, its safety, and its history.
Table of Contents
What is American Skullcap?
American skullcap is native to North America, growing in meadows and swampy woods.
Scutellaria lateriflora is the botanical name, while other common names include blue skullcap, Virginian skullcap, and mad-dog weed. It is sometimes spelled ‘scullcap.’
American skullcap is not to be confused with Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis). Although these two forms of skullcap share similar constituents, they are different plants with different health benefits. Chinese skullcap is commonly used for its health benefits regarding antimicrobial properties, anti-inflammatory effects, brain health support, and anti-cancer ability.
American skullcap, however, was traditionally used as a powerful nervine herb. Nervines are herbs that work to nourish and support the central nervous system. They have strong relaxing effects, which are often helpful for individuals with high levels of stress or anxiety. It’s also an effective herb for improving sleep.
Let’s dive into American skullcap and its benefits.
Health Benefits of American Skullcap:
While Scutellaria lateriflora has many purported health benefits, there is limited scientific research on it. Here we have listed the top research-backed benefits of skullcap and its active compounds.
1. May Reduce Anxiety
Many people commonly use American skullcap for anxiety. While this aligns with this herb’s traditional usage as a nervine, clinical research is starting to prove its anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects.
Researchers performed a double-blind, placebo-controlled study with 19 healthy participants. Those who received two 100mg capsules of skullcap extract daily, showed the greatest reduction in anxiety. This reveals that this herb has a notable ability to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Since this herb has been traditionally used to treat anxiety and nervous conditions, researchers analyzed the phytochemical compounds of skullcap and their anxiolytic action.
An animal study looked at the anxiolytic effects of skullcap extract. Findings revealed that the skullcap group showed less anxious behavior. The active phytochemical compounds in in this herb: baicalin and baicalein, appeared to contribute to the anxiolytic effects by binding to the benzodiazepine site of the GABA-A receptor.
The amino acid, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. It has a calming effect on the central nervous system, aiding in relaxation and sleep. It is thought that the compounds, baicalin and baicalein, might act as GABA agonists, thus providing anxiolytic effects.
Additionally, the British Herbal Compendium recognizes the use of skullcap for nervous disorders due to anxiety, tension, or stress; headaches; migraines, panic attacks; restlessness; sleep disorders; premenstrual tension and period pain; and to assist withdrawal from benzodiazepines.
Summary:A combination of human clinical trials and laboratory research shows that skullcap may be beneficial for individuals with anxiety. Larger-scale human trials are needed to verify the initial promising findings.
2. May Boost Mood
Research shows that the blue skullcap herb may be able to boost mood.
Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed for mood and anxiety disorders. These pharmaceutical drugs may have adverse side effects and lead to dependency.
The search for safe and effective alternatives is underway, leading to clinical studies on traditional herbal medicines such as Scutellaria lateriflora.
A clinical trial involving 43 participants examined the effects of this skullcap herb. Participants were given 350mg capsules of skullcap three times per day for two weeks. Findings suggest that this herb can significantly improve overall mood and reduce anxiety without negatively affecting energy or brain function.
Summary:It appears that skullcap can help to improve mood and feelings of wellbeing. However, further clinical trials are needed.
3. May Help Prevent Seizures
Blue skullcap has a relaxing effect on the body. This effect has recently been researched in regards to helping to prevent seizures.
With its anticonvulsant, parasympathomimetic (‘rest and digest’), and sedative properties, researchers investigated how skullcap may work to prevent seizures.
An animal study evaluated an herbal extract combination of skullcap, gelsemium (Gelsemium sempervirens), and jimson weed (Datura stramonium) on seizures. Findings showed that during the 30 days of treatment, those given the herbal extract combination displayed no seizure episodes. After the herbal treatment ended, seizure activity resumed.
Summary:Initial animal studies support the use of skullcap as a preventative for seizures. However, human clinical trials are needed. Also, research needs to be conducted solely on skullcap, versus a combination product.
4. May Improve Sleep Quality
Skullcap has a long history as being a herb used as a natural sleep aid.
A study was conducted to test the phytochemical compounds in skullcap and their role in binding to the serotonin-7 receptor (5-HT7 receptor). The 5-HT7 receptor is involved in the body’s circadian rhythm, regulating sleep and mood.
The findings of this study revealed that the flavonoids in this herb were able to bind to the 5-HT7 receptor. These results may help explain skullcap’s sedative and nervine effects in supporting sleep.
Additionally, the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia lists skullcap as a mild sedative.
Summary:Traditional medicine supports of the use of skullcap as a natural sleep aid. However, minimal research has been conducted on this herb’s sleep-inducing abilities. Human clinical trials are needed.
5. Antioxidant & Anti-inflammatory Properties
Another study was conducted to examine the phytochemical compounds in skullcap extract and their potential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory function.
There were several compounds tested in this study. Antioxidant activity was shown in wogonin, while anti-inflammatory activity was shown in chrysin, oroxylin, wogonin, and parthenolide.
These results indicate that this herb contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Summary:The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of skullcap are yet to be fully researched. However, the initial laboratory research shows that this herb may have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
American Skullcap Safety:
Safety Class: 1
Interaction Class: A
The Botanical Safety Handbook classifies skullcap as a safety class of 1, meaning it can be safely used when appropriately consumed. An interaction class of “A” suggests no clinically relevant adverse reactions are expected to occur.
Skullcap is often substituted or adulterated with other members of the mint family, primarily germander or Teucrium species. There have been some cases of liver toxicity reported due to the adulteration with Teucrium species, which contain a hepatotoxic compound.
Pregnancy & Lactation:
There is no information regarding the safety of blue skullcap in pregnancy and lactation, therefore safety has not yet been established.
Some research suggests that this herb is safe to consume during lactation with no adverse effects or increased risks.
Standard dosing for skullcap herb is as follows:
Tincture (1:5): 2-4mL 3x/day.
Infusion (tea): Add 1 cup of boiling water to 1-2 tsp. of dried herb and infuse for about 15-20 minutes. Drink 1 cup of tea 3x/day.
Capsules: Take 400mg capsules, 3x/day.
American skullcap is an easy-to-grow plant that spreads quickly. As such, there are no concerns in regard to the sustainability of this plant.
Naming & Taxonomy:
The scientific name for American skullcap is Scutellaria lateriflora. It’s a perennial plant and belongs to the Lamiaceae (i.e. mint) family.
The plant grows to about 3 feet tall and blooms little blue-purple flowers during the summer months. The plant’s aerial parts (leaves and flowers) are the parts that are used medicinally.
Scutellaria comes from the Latin word scutella, meaning a small dish, which resembles the sepals during fruiting. Lateriflora means ‘flowering on the side,’ which is the appearance of the plant’s flowers. The common name “skullcap” comes from the helmet-like shape of the flowers.
History & Traditional Use:
Native Americans used skullcap to treat menstrual disorders, nervousness, digestive, and kidney conditions.
The Cherokee tribe used skullcap as a tonic to promote menstruation in the ceremonial transition of young girls to womanhood. They also used herbal infusions to help expel the afterbirth and for breast pains. It was also used as a prevention of smallpox by the Iroquois tribe.
In the 1700s, skullcap earned its other common name, “mad-dog weed”, by its use to prevent and treat rabies in both humans and animals.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was often prescribed for nervousness conditions related to illness, mental and physical exhaustion, muscular spasms and twitching, hysteria, and tremors.
- Flavonoids including baicalein, baicalin, scutellarein, wogonin, quercetin, rutin
- Iridodids including catalpol
- Volatile oils
- Amino acids including GABA, glutamine
Nervine tonic, antispasmodic, sedative, anticonvulsant, mild bitter, anxiolytic.
Although there is limited human clinical research on American skullcap, it has been traditionally used as a nervine, sleep aid, for epilepsy, as well as for PMS.
It is essential to obtain your herbs from reliable sources and check if the source thoroughly tests for adulteration.
Skullcap may be the herb for you if you experience anxiety, low mood, or poor sleep. As always, make sure to consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or adding a new supplement.
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