Many know Skullcap to be a cap that you put on your head, but in this case, it’s actually a medicinal plant that’s long been used for healing purposes, particularly in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Skullcap, which is named due to its shape resembling that of a medieval helmet, is of the mint family, Lamiaceae, and ranges from blue to pink in color. This medicinal plant references two herbs: American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) and Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), with each treating different conditions. Other known names are: Blue Pimpernel, Blue Skullcap, Escutelaria, Grande Toque, Helmet Flower, Hoodwort, Mad-Dog Herb, Mad-Dog Skullcap, Mad-Dog Weed, Mad Weed, Quaker Bonnet, Scullcap, Scutellaria, Scutellaire, Scutellaire de Virginie, Scutellaire Latériflore, Scutelluria, Scutellaria lateriflora, Toque Bleue, Toque Casquée, Toque des Marais.
This herb has been used as an alternative medicine to help heal inflammation, provide relief from spasms, stimulate blood flow in the pelvic region, encourage menstruation, help eliminate headaches, reduce fever, treat gout and work a sedative for relaxation. Additionally, it’s been thought to treat conditions such as epilepsy, insomnia, hysteria and anxiety.
1. Help Fight Cancer Cells
Research shows that Chinese skullcap extract is toxic to cancer cells, such as brain tumor cells, prostate cancer cells, and head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cell lines. Studies indicate that aqueous extracts suppressed growth of lymphoma and myeloma cells.
It’s believed that certain flavones, which are antioxidants within the plant, are responsible for these anticancer effects, ultimately inhibiting the growth. This may happen due to the free radical scavenging characteristics it contains, which prevents viral infections.
One of these flavones is known as baicalein. In a study published in the Beijing Science Bulletin, it appeared as though the baicalein did not cause any mutations, which is a serious problem of many conventional anticancer drugs available today. (1)
Another study published in the International Journal of Molecular Medicine notes that fibrosarcoma is an aggressive and highly metastatic cancer of the connective tissue. This study investigated the effects of the extract from skullcap on fibrosarcoma and showed possible anticancer characteristics. The rate at which cancer cells grew was significantly suppressed by treatment through apoptosis, and the volume and weight of tumors were greatly reduced as well. It appears as though the plant helped prevent further inhibition and migration of cancer cells, indicating its potential as a natural cancer treatment. (2)
2. Calms Anxiety as a Nerve Tonic
For more than two centuries, American skullcap has been used by both Americans and Europeans as a nerve tonic to help treat anxiety. Studies have shown that the plant contains “anxiolytic activity” in animals and humans.
Oxidative stress affects some brain-related diseases, such as anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and Parkinson’s disease, yet research indicates that bioactive compounds found in medicinal plants, such as skullcap, may neutralize and even eliminate toxic free radicals. When this occurs, oxidative stress is greatly reduced. Skullcap may provide significant antioxidant effects, which could make it a great option for reducing anxiety. (3)
3. Reduces Inflammation
Chinese scutellaria has some pretty effective anti-inflammatory properties. Many who suffer with arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases are known for using skullcap as a home remedy. According to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, studies have shown benefits to those who have Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease due to its anti-inflammatory effects. (4)
4. Can Help You Get Some Shut-Eye
While skullcap may help with anxiety, it also can help those who experience insomnia and other sleeping problems, such as restlessness, muscle tension and clenching the jaws. A skullcap tea or tincture could be useful before bed to help you relax, ward off any anxiety and give you some well-deserved and much-needed sleep. (5)
5. Reduces Risk of Heart Disease
A recent study aimed to investigate the cardioprotective effects of baicalein, which comes from the roots of Scutellaria baicalensis and Scutellaria lateriflora. Subjects were injected with isoproterenol (ISO), which induced acute myocardial infarction. Pretreatment with baicalein greatly reversed alterations induced by the ISO with results showing higher levels of antioxidant defense enzymes. Overall, the study revealed cardioprotective effects of baicalein, giving evidence that pretreatment could prevent, and possibly terminate, some heart disease conditions, such as myocardial infarction. (6)
6. Lowers Fever Caused from the Flu
According to a 2014 study by the Korean Food Research Institute, skullcap may help reduce fever. Tests were conducted by administering the herb to subjects who had a food allergy. Temperature was monitored, and results indicated that the group given the skullcap demonstrated a drop in body temperature. (7)
Studies also indicate that some severe cases of illness involving fever may be treated with skullcap. Combined with other medicinal herbs, such as fried bitter apricot seeds and unprocessed rhubarb, it’s been shown to help reduce high fever, cough and shortness of breath while reducing heart palpitations, anxiety and irritation. (8)
7. May Treat Epilepsy and Reduce Muscle Spasms
Research shows that Ayurveda techniques and treatments using herbal medicine, such as skullcap, may be helpful in treating epilepsy. Specifically, skullcap Ramayana #16 is an Ayurvedic herbal preparation that’s been reported as being used for epilepsy treatment. In addition, 18 healing Ayurvedic ingredients were combined using a base of honey and herbal ghee. This cocktail of herbal ingredients evidently help to reduce tremors, muscle spasms, nerve-related symptoms and headaches, ultimately aiding in the treatment of side effects caused from epileptic patients. (9)
An animal study out of Laurentian University in Canada showed that skullcap may reduce the risk and occurrence of seizures. Male rats were given skullcap for a period of time after being diagnosed with epilepsy and did not have seizures, while those not given the herb did. Interestingly, when the treatment was removed, seizures did occur. (10)
How to Use Skullcap
Skullcap can usually be found in the form of a tea, liquid extract, tincture, capsule, crude root extract, oil infusion or even smoked. Here are some basic suggestions for each preparation. Health food stores often provide it as a tonic in combination with valerian root and passion flower for insomnia. It can also be found as a yellow oil. (11)
Making a tea or tincture is probably the best way to use skullcap. To make a tincture, you need a ½ pint jar, ½ cup of dried skullcap leaves and 100 proof vodka to fill your jar. Keep in mind that this is not for children as it contains alcohol, and small amounts is all you need.
Fill your jar with the dried leaves about halfway. Add the vodka over the leaves until the jar is full. Blend it well, then put the lid on it. Make sure to label the jar with the date since you cannot decant it for six weeks. During the first week, open and stir daily. You want the tincture to infuse for about five more weeks. Simply shake the jar once or twice a day.
Once the six weeks have passed, strain the tincture using a cheesecloth or coffee filter. Once filtered, you can place it back into the jar you were using; make sure to clean it well first. You can also use a smaller bottle with a dropper.
Pour the tincture into your chosen jar, and make sure to label it. Take a teaspoon or dropper full at night or before meals. Start slowly to make sure you have positive effects. You can dilute it in warm water if you prefer.
If skullcap tea sounds more comforting to you, take one cup of boiling water with one teaspoon of dried American skullcap or, if going the Chinese route, steep three to nine ounces of the dried root of in one cup of boiling water.
Skullcap extract is best tinctured when fresh. I prefer 95% alcohol at a 1:2 ratio but have seen other herbalists use as low as 40% alcohol. The standard recommended dose is 3–5 ml three times per day. I have not seen adverse effects when using larger dosages. As always, it’s best to start with the lowest dose and slowly work up until the individual’s dosage is found.
Skullcap Herb is Often Formulated
While skullcap is often used as a simple (i.e., as a single herb) it is also commonly formulated with other relaxing nervines or sedative herbs. While researching this article I commonly saw formulas with skullcap and the following herbs:
- California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
- Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa)
- Lobelia (Lobelia inflata)
- Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Smoking Skullcap Herb
Many herbalists rave about the effects when smoking skullcap. It has the swift ability to resolve anxiety when used in an herbal smoking mixture. If you are interested in smoking blends check out my friend Erin’s Pipe Tea Herbals store.
Skullcap Herb as a Massage Oil
Skullcap can be used as an external massage oil to relax muscle tension and pain. The following recipe comes from Darcy Williamson’s book, Healing Plants of the Rocky Mountains.
Skullcap Massage Oil
- 1½ cups flowering Skullcap tops
- ½ cup fresh Tall Sagebrush leaves
- 2 tbsp. dried Cottonwood buds
- ½ cup jojoba oil
- ½ cup sweet almond oil
Combine ingredients in a quart jar and cover loosely with several layers of cheesecloth. Allow mixture to stand in a warm place for three weeks. Heat jar in a pan of warm water for 15 minutes to liquefy oil, and then strain. – Darcy Williamson
History of Skullcap
The common name for skullcap used in America was “mad dog” during the 19th century because of its ability to heal animals and humans from rabies. Other popular names include scullcap, hoodwort, quaker bonnet, helmet flower, European skullcap, greater skullcap, American skullcap, blue skullcap, blue pimpernel, hooded willow herb, side-flowering skullcap, mad dog weed and mad weed.
Chinese skullcap is traditionally known as huang qin but is sometimes called baikal, baical skullcap root, scute and scutellaria.
The Cherokee and other Native American tribes were dependent upon skullcap as a way to maintain good health in the female reproductive system, and it has even been used in some tribes as part of ceremonial purposes bringing young girls into the stage of womanhood. (12)
Skullcap is a slender plant with many branches reaching two to four feet in height. In the summer, small, blue flowers present themselves as a shape that resembles a helmet or cap, giving way to its name. Acutellaria lateriflora is the American skullcap, while scutellarira baicalensis, also known as huang qin, is the Chinese skullcap.
Further history tells us that in 1812, Dr. James Thacher, a surgeon during the Revolutionary War, issued a book titled “Observations on Hydrophobia, produced by the bite of a mad dog or other rabid animal, with an examination of the various theories and methods of cure existing at the present day, and an inquiry into the merit of Specific Remedies. Also a Method of Treatment best adapted to the Brute Creation.” (13)
The book cover contained an illustration of the Scutellaria lateriflora and shares information and discussion gathered from many scholars, including Darwin. Lyman Spalding, M.D., presented a detailed paper in 1819 before the New York Historical society on the “History and Use of Scutellaria Lateriflor in Hydrophobia,” which was published.
Numerous experiments were conducted and recorded. However, in 1814, seven cattle were bitten by a mad dog, and six were given skullcap as a remedy. All healed except the one that was not given skullcap, which died of rabies. Another report shows that several people were bitten by a rabid puppy. Of those people, one was not treated with skullcap and died. However, there are some reports where the antidote did not result in saving life. Regardless, it was reported that using skullcap to prevent and treat rabies, in both humans and animals, prevented about 4,000 people and 1,000 cattle from being infected after being bitten by rabid dogs.
This herb should be used with extra caution because it may cause confusion, especially in tincture form. However, it’s well-known among the Cherokee and other Native American tribes as a medicinal herb for females and used as a ceremonial plant to bringing young girls into womanhood. In addition to its reputation as an effective remedy against rabies, skullcap was used by Native Americans to promote menstruation. A root extraction was often taken after childbirth to help heal the reproductive system. It’s also been used in “purification ceremonies if menstrual taboos are broken.” The Iroquois use it to keep the throat clear and healthy, and it was used to induce visions as a ceremonial plant to be smoked by some Native Americans.
Wogon Scutellariae Radix is an ancient drug found in Traditional Chinese Medicine using the roots. Officially listed in the Japanese Pharmacopeia JPXIII and Chinese Pharmacopeia, it’s one of the most widely known crude drugs for the treatment of bronchitis, hepatitis, diarrhea and tumors. Chinese physicians are known to use the root, called huang qin, for antibacterial purposes, as a diuretic, an antispasmodic and to help with bile flow.
It’s a folk remedy in Nepal for the common cold, cuts and insect stings, and as a traditional treatment for epilepsy in some European countries. Additionally, some homeopaths have indicated it as a treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome.
Plants and herbs have been used for centuries for healing the body, but keep in mind that they can cause allergic reactions — and how they interact with other supplements or medications may not be known. If you’re pregnant or nursing, it may be best to avoid skullcap. Consult your doctor before using it. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care provider.
It’s important to note that there was a period of time when American skullcap was contaminated with germander, which is a group of plants that may cause liver problems. To avoid this, make sure you obtain skullcap from a reliable source and that it’s 100 percent pure.
Chinese skullcap has been documented as causing blood sugar levels to drop, raising the risk of hypoglycemia. If you’re diabetic, it’s recommended that you avoid Chinese skullcap. Consult your physician.
Final Thoughts on Skullcap
Skullcap may be useful for numerous health problems, from being a potential cancer fighter to helping you get a good night of rest, aiding in heart disease prevention, and reducing anxiety and inflammation. Like all natural remedies, it’s best to take caution and do proper research before taking any herbal remedy — however, you may find that it can help you if taken properly and with the consultation of your naturopath.