Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) has a long history of use in the herbal systems of North America, and more recently, in Europe. Its other common names—helmet flower, hoodwort, and Quaker bonnet—give you an idea what the flower looks like. As a member of the mint family, skullcap is found in the rich woods and moist soils of North America—from Newfoundland to British Columbia and south to Georgia and California. But although it’s a mint, it has a bitter taste, and isn’t particularly aromatic.
Skullcap has a cooling, drying energy, and its aerial parts (leaf, stem, and flower) have a variety of uses in herbal medicine. The Cherokee and Iroquois nations used skullcap tea to stimulate delayed menstruation. The Eclectics, the dominant herbal legacy in 1800s America, extensively wrote about, and copiously employed, skullcap for a wide range of issues. It was used by 19th-century herbalists to treat a condition that today we might call fibromyalgia (muscle, ligament, and tendon pain). It was once known as “mad dog skullcap” and was historically used to treat rabies.
Did You Know?
Skullcap is a uniquely American herb first used by the Cherokee and Iroquois peoples.
Skullcap Studies Are Impressive
Today, skullcap is best known as a safe, reliable, mild sedative that excels in relieving anxiety, neuralgia, and insomnia. It treats high blood pressure, premenstrual syndrome, tension headache, and muscle spasm. Some contemporary herbalists also use it to control Braxton-Hicks contractions during late pregnancy.
One recent study found that rats exhibited less anxiety after a dose of skullcap. And a double-blind, crossover human study of 15 women and 4 men, aged 20–70 years, found that, in healthy subjects, skullcap “demonstrated noteworthy anxiolytic effects.” Another study in 2014 found that, in healthy people, skullcap significantly enhanced overall mood without a reduction in energy or cognition.
Skullcap also serves as a nerve tonic and tissue rejuvenator, and many recent scientific papers have found it to be protective for nerve tissue. In addition, it seems to have a protective effect on the liver, as well as anticancer activity. These qualities suggest that skullcap could be effective for seizure and movement (chorea) disorders, including a variety of twitches, ticks, and tremors, for which it has been used for centuries.
A study published in Phytotherapy Research found that rodents prone to seizures that drank water containing skullcap extract were seizure-free, while the control group continued to have seizures.
Skullcap’s calming action is thought to be mainly due to its antispasmodic constituent scutellarin, a flavonoid glycoside. Another constituent, the flavonoid baicalin, is known to bind to the GABAA receptor, a sedating neural receptor sensitive to many sedating drugs, including Valium.
How Much & What Form to Take
Skullcap is available in teas, capsules, tablets, and tinctures. For a tea, start with 10 grams of the dry herb. Infuse the chopped dry leaves, strain, and drink. Use several small doses throughout the day for anxiety, or the entire dose at bedtime for insomnia. In tincture form, the equivalent dose is 8 tsp. Fresh herb tinctures are strongly preferred.
Historically, skullcap’s effectiveness has been enhanced when combined with valerian, chamomile, passionflower, and vervain, so it shows up in many combination formulas for sleep and anxiety.
There’s not enough information on the pharmacological activity and toxicity of skullcap to comment on its use during pregnancy and lactation; however, no specific contraindications have come to light. Modern midwives sometimes use skullcap for insomnia, sciatica, and stress during pregnancy.