Famed as a natural sedative, skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) has been referred to as “one of the finest nervines and antispasmodics given to humanity.” 1
Skullcap is a native North American perennial herb of the Lamiaceae (mint) family. It grows on wetlands, riverbanks, and marshes. The name scutellaria is said to be derived from scutella (Latin for ‘little dish’), while other accounts claim that the flowers of the plant were thought to resemble the ‘skull cap’ helmets worn by European soldiers. It’s also known as blue skullcap, mad dog skullcap, and side-flowering skullcap.
The dried leaves and stems are said to treat anxiety, insomnia, and even hysteria.
There are more than 200 species of Scutellaria. Another variety is Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), which is native to several Asian countries and Russia and known to harbor a variety of antimicrobial benefits.
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North American tribes including the Cherokee used skullcap in ceremonies to mark the transition of girls to womanhood. Infusions of the herb were also found to be effective in treating diarrhea, kidney problems, breast pains, and preventing smallpox.
It was also the Native Americans who first indulged in the psychoactive properties of skullcap. As a ceremonial plant, it was often smoked as tobacco to induce hallucinogenic visions. 2
Throughout the 1700s, skullcap became a go-to treatment for hydrophobia and rabies, hence its nickname ‘mad-dog weed’. It is listed in the King’s American Dispensatory as a remedy for convulsions, delirium tremens, intermittent fever, neuralgia, tremors, and chorea (involuntary jerky movements). A branch of North American folk medicine known as Physiomedicalists recognized that skullcap had a “deeper” action on the nervous system than any other herb. They used it to treat hysteria, epilepsy, and even schizophrenia, referring to it as “mad weed”.
Today, skullcap continues to be used as a relaxant and sleeping aid, often in combination with other sedative herbs such as valerian. It acts as a trophorestorative on the central nervous system, allowing respite from nervous tension.
Skullcap helps to enhance mood and reduce anxiety in a similar way to that of pharmaceutical sedative drugs.
Skullcap’s anxiolytic properties are due to its active constituents baicalin and baicalein, which are known to bind to the benzodiazepine site of the GABAA receptor. 3 GABA is the neurotransmitter responsible for motor control, vision, regulating anxiety. By inhibiting these specific neurotransmitter receptors in the brain, these active constituents help to promote calm. 4
Skullcap is also believed to be helpful in treating withdrawal symptoms from barbiturates, tranquilizers and other drugs.
Unlike pharmaceutical sedatives, skullcap doesn’t produce negative side effects on energy or cognition.
May help relieve insomnia
Skullcap’s ability to control nervous irritability and muscular incoordination is highly beneficial in improving sleep. It helps to promote restfulness and restore natural sleep patterns.
Traditional texts mention that “When insomnia is due to worry, or nervous irritability or even exhaustion, relief may be expected from it.”
Herbalists explain that skullcap helps to tone and soothe the nervous structures, facilitating the calm required for quiet sleep. Unlike prescription medication, skullcap is non-addictive and won’t leave the user feeling drowsy the next day. 5
May reduce risk of convulsions
While only animal studies have confirmed skullcap’s anticonvulsant benefits, there may be potential for therapeutic use in humans.
When used to treat rats with drug-induced seizures, skullcap was found to provide powerful anticonvulsant activity. Rats that received a weak solution of the three herbal fluid extracts of Scutellaria lateri flora (Skullcap), Gelsemium sempervirens (Gelsemium) and Datura stramonium (Jimson Weed) displayed no seizures during treatment, while untreated rats “were not seizure-free”. 6
May help prevent Alzheimer’s
A 2012 study found that Scutellaria lateriflora exhibits strong activity against prions, a type of protein that can trigger normal proteins in the brain to fold abnormally.
The study demonstrated that scrapie-infected mice who were given skullcap infusions showed significantly prolonged incubation times. It appeared that the natural constituents of skullcap – the flavonoids baicalein and baicalin-hydrate – helped to inhibit the growth of prions and also dissolve existing fibrils. 7
Method of use / dosage
Skullcap extracts are made from its leaves, stem, and flowers. These parts contain large amounts of flavonoids, including scutellarin and baicalin, which are thought to harbor the active components that account for its sedative and antispasmodic activity.
- Skullcap tea
Skullcap is available as a powder or dried plant material to prepare in infusions or tea. This is made by pouring one cup of boiling water over one teaspoon of the dried herb, and steeping for 20–30 minutes. One to two cups per day are recommended, depending on the desired effect 8
Skullcap is available as an encapsulated dried herb, fluid extract, and tincture. It is often included as a component in many commercially available, over-the-counter herbal mixtures.Speak to your physician to find the right form and dose for your needs.
- Smoking skullcap
Skullcap is said to provide calming benefits when smoked. Some users describe the effect as similar to Marijuana leaf or bud shake.
The plant has a firm green leaf that is easy to roll and blends well with many smoking mixtures. Smoked Skullcap enters the bloodstream more quickly than tinctures, and can be combined with the sedative herb Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) to relieve circular thinking or spiraling thoughts. 9
Other accounts describe it as a resin that smokes well but smells like cannabis.
Skullcap’s effects are believed to be due to its interaction with the benzodiazepine receptors in the brain. By neuromodulating the action of GABA and increasing the opening of chloride channels on cell membranes, skullcap allows more chloride to flow into the cell. This reduces neuronal firing and produces an inhibitory effect.
Unsurprisingly, a survey conducted by the authors amongst herbal medicine practitioners in the UK and Ireland showed that around 84% of respondents would use it for specific anxiety disorders and 100% for anxiety-related issues, while 25 respondents said it is their preferred herb for anxiety. 10
Smoking skullcap is said to help calm the mind and clear inhibitions in a similar way to marijuana. As well as relieving anxiety and stress, skullcap smoke helps to rejuvenate the central nervous system.
Although skullcap has previously been associated with some rare instances of liver damage, these cases usually involved multiple herbal medications taken simultaneously, and the role of skullcap itself was unclear. 11
Some sources say skullcap may cause side effects such as irregular heartbeat, drowsiness, and mental confusion. It also has the potential to interact with common medications, such as blood thinners, cholesterol-lowering medications, cytochrome P450 substrate drugs, and pain killers.
Skullcap is not recommended for children or pregnant or breastfeeding women due to insufficient safety information.
Legal Status (US & international)
Skullcap contains no controlled substances and is legal in the US and internationally.
Sources / References
1.Medical Herbalism Journal. [website]. Accessed June 21 2020. http://medherb.com/Materia_Medica/Materia_Medica_Overview_Part_2.htm
2.Skullcap: Potential Medicinal Crop. [research article]. Accessed June 23, 2020. https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/ncnu02/v5-580.html
3.Phytochemical and Biological Analysis of Skullcap (Scutellaria Lateriflora L.): A Medicinal Plant With Anxiolytic Properties. [research article]. Accessed June 22, 2020. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14692724/
4.Phytochemical and Biological Analysis of Skullcap (Scutellaria Lateriflora L.): A Medicinal Plant With Anxiolytic Properties. [research article]. Accessed June 22, 2020. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14692724/
5.Skullcap. [website]. Accessed June 22, 2020. https://www.rjwhelan.co.nz/herbs%20A-Z/skullcap.html
7.A Medicinal Herb Scutellaria lateriflora Inhibits PrP Replication in vitro and Delays the Onset of Prion Disease in Mice. [research article]. Accessed June 22, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3281244/
8.Scutellaria lateriflora. [database]. Accessed June 21, 2020. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/scutellaria-lateriflora
9.Skullcap Herb: A Restorative Relaxing Nervine. [website]. Accessed June 23, 2020. https://www.herbalremediesadvice.org/skullcap-herb.html
10.American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): An ancient remedy for today’s anxiety? [research article]. Accessed June 22, 2020. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/215780328_American_skullcap_Scutellaria_lateriflora_An_ancient_remedy_for_today’s_anxiety
Nicolas ‘Axel’ Duval is the founder and content editor of this website. He launched Smokable Herbs in 2011. He later created the Smokably herb online store, which sells herbs and blends worldwide.
As an herbalist and marketing enthusiast, he used Smokable Herbs as a sandbox to test ideas and deploy content.