Skullcap -- Your Workhorse Herb | International Integrative Educational Institute

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Skullcap -- Your Workhorse Herb

Skullcap herb

Here’s an old reliable. It’s not a trendy superstar, but it sure is a workhorse of the herb world.

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is a classic Western herb, with a long history of use in the herbal systems of North America, and more recently, Europe. In fact, it received its botanical name in the early 1700s. It is one of the most commonly used relaxant herbs in common practice today. The aerial parts (leaf, stem and flower) are used.[1] This common herb, a member of the mint family, is found in the rich woods and moist soils in eastern North America. And it’s widespread. You’ll find this little gem from Newfoundland to British Columbia and south to Georgia and California. The genus Scutellaria is circumglobal, and has over 360 species.

The common names Helmet flower, Hoodwort and Quaker Bonnet give you an idea what the flower looks like. You may also see it spelled scullcap.

Though it’s a mint, it has a bitter taste, and is not particularly aromatic. It has a cooling, drying energy.

The Cherokee and Iroquois nations used skullcap tea to stimulate delayed menstruation. Skullcap was used by nineteenth-century herbalists to treat a condition that today we might call fibromyalgia (muscle, ligaments, and tendon pain). It was once known as “mad dog skullcap” and was historically used to treat rabies.

This familiar herb is a safe, reliable, mild sedative that excels in relieving anxiety, neuralgia, and insomnia.[2] [3] It treats high blood pressure, premenstrual syndrome, tension headache and muscle spasm.[4] The Eclectics, the dominant herbal legacy in 1800s America, extensively wrote about, and copiously employed, skullcap for these purposes.

Modern herbalists use it to control Braxton-Hicks contractions.[5]

One recent study found that rats exhibited less anxiety after taking a cool out dose of skullcap.[6]

But enough with the rats. Would it chill out that guy in the next cubicle? The one available study in humans was a double blind, crossover design. Fifteen women and 4 men, aged 20-70 years, took one of three types of skullcap preparations and rated energy, cognition and anxiety at intervals for two hours. The researchers found that, in healthy subjects, it “demonstrated noteworthy anxiolytic effects.”[7]

Skullcap also serves as a nerve tonic and tissue rejuvenator- a neurotrophorestorative.[8] In addition, it seems to have a protective effect on the liver.

These qualities suggest skullcap for seizure and movement (chorea) disorders, including a variety if twitches, ticks and tremors, for which it has been used for centuries.

A 2004 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.[9]

Few studies have been done on American skullcap, but it looks like its calming action is mainly due to the antispasmodic constituent scutellarin, a flavonoid glycoside. Another constituent, a flavonoid called baicalin and its active metabolite, baicalein, are known to bind to the benzodiazepine site (like Valium) of the GABAA receptor, a sedating neural receptor, and may, based on more recent preliminary information, be more active.

Historically, skullcap's effectiveness has been enhanced when combined with valerian, chamomile, passion flower and vervain, so it shows up in many common formulas for sleep and anxiety.

A related species is Baical skullcap (S. baicalensis), the root of which is a widely used remedy in Chinese herbalism. In China it is found in formulas for fevers, colds, high blood pressure, insomnia, headache, intestinal inflammation and vomiting of blood.

Over recent years, germander (Teucrium) has widely been seen as an adulterant in commercial supplies of skullcap. Germander may be liver toxic, so it is important to verify your sources.[10] [11]

Skullcap is available in dried form as teas, capsules, tablets, and tinctures.

For a tea, start with 10 grams of the dry herb.[12] Infuse the chopped leaves, strain and drink. Use several small doses through 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.[13]

There is not enough information on the pharmacological activity and toxicity of the herb to comment on its use during pregnancy and lactation, although no specific contraindications have been stated and it was historically considered safe at these times. Modern midwives sometimes use skullcap for insomnia, sciatica and stress complaints during pregnancy. [14]

So, all in all, this pretty little plant might not be a heavy hitter, but the next time this old world starts getting you down, skullcap might just take the edge off.

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[1] British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (BHP). Keighley (UK): British Herbal Medicine Association;1983.

[2] British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (BHP). Exeter (UK): British Herbal Medicine Association;1996.

[3] Wren RC. Potter's New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations. Essex (UK): CW Daniel Company Limited;1988.

[4] Grieve M. A Modern Herbal. Vol.1 and 2. New York (NY), Dover Publications;1971.

[5] Private communication with David Winston.

[6] Awad R, Arnason JT, Trudeau V, Bergeron C, Budzinski JW, Foster BC, Merali Z. Phytochemical and biological analysis of skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora L.): a medicinal plant with anxiolytic properties. Phytomedicine. 2003 Nov;10(8):640-9.

Ottawa-Carleton Institute of Biology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada.
The phytochemistry and biological activity of Scutellaria lateriflora L. (American skullcap) which has been traditionally used as a sedative and to treat various nervous disorders such as anxiety was studied. In vivo animal behaviour trials were performed to test anxiolytic effects in rats orally administered S. laterifolia extracts. Significant increases in the number of entries into the center of an "open-field arena"; number of unprotected head dips, number of entries and the length of time spent on the open arms of the Elevated Plus-Maze were found. The identification and quantification of the flavonoid, baicalin in a 50% EtOH extract (40 mg/g) and its aglycone baicalein in a 95% EtOH extract (33 mg/g), as well as the amino acids GABA in H2O and EtOH extracts (approximately 1.6 mg/g) and glutamine in a H2O extract (31 mg/g), was performed using HPLC. These compounds may play a role in anxiolytic activity since baicalin and baicalein are known to bind to the benzodiazepine site of the GABAA receptor and since GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter.

[7] Wolfson P, Hoffmann DL. An investigation into the efficacy of Scutellaria lateriflora in healthy volunteers. Altern Ther Health Med. 2003 Mar-Apr;9(2):74-8.
Phytos Inc., San Anselmo, Calif., USA.
Scutellaria lateriflora is an herbal medicine with long-standing traditional use as a relaxing nervine. There has been controversy in the literature with regards to its efficacy, and this study was designed to clarify its effectiveness in reducing anxiety, one of the phytotherapeutic indications. A double blind, placebo-controlled study of healthy subjects demonstrated noteworthy anxiolytic effects. The use of phytomedicines for the treatment of anxiety is reviewed, as is the published literature on S. lateriflora and its putative toxicity.

[8] Bergeron C, Gafner S, Clausen E, Carrier DJ. Comparison of the chemical composition of extracts from Scutellaria lateriflora using accelerated solvent extraction and supercritical fluid extraction versus standard hot water or 70% ethanol extraction. J Agric Food Chem. 2005 Apr 20;53(8):3076-80.

Tom's of Maine, P. O. Box 710, Kennebunk, Maine 04043, USA. [email protected]
The aqueous extract of American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora L. (S. lateriflora), Lamiaceae) has been traditionally used by North American Indians as a nerve tonic and for its sedative and diuretic properties. Recent reports stated that flavonoids and possibly amino acids are responsible for the anxiolytic activity. As a part of our search for environmentally friendly solvents to extract the active components from medicinal plants, we used S. lateriflora in a comparison of accelerated solvent extraction (ASE) using water, and supercritical fluid extraction (SFE) using CO2 and 10% EtOH as modifier, at different temperatures. Flavonoids and amino acids were quantified by HPLC-UV and HPLC-MS, respectively. The flavonoid content was compared with conventional extraction methods (hot water extraction and 70% ethanol). The use of ASE at 85 degrees C with water as solvent gave the best results for flavonoid glycosides and amino acids, whereas SFE gave higher yields of flavonoid aglycones. However, the results obtained for total flavonoids were not significatively superior to hot water extraction or 70% aqueous EtOH extract.

[9] Peredery O, Persinger MA. Herbal treatment following post-seizure induction in rat by lithium pilocarpine: Scutellaria lateriflora (Skullcap), Gelsemium sempervirens (Gelsemium) and Datura stramonium (Jimson Weed) may prevent development of spontaneous seizures. Phytother Res. 2004 Sep;18(9):700-5.

Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
About 1 week after the induction of status epilepticus in male rats by a single systemic injection of lithium (3 mEq/kg) and pilocarpine (30 g/kg), rats were continuously administered one of three herbal treatments through the water supply for 30 days. A fourth group received colloidal minerals and diluted food grade hydrogen peroxide in tap water, while a fifth group of rats received only tap water (control). Herbal treatments were selected for their historical antiseizure activities and sedative actions on the nervous system. The numbers of spontaneous seizures per day during a 15 min observation interval were recorded for each rat during the treatment period and during an additional 30 days when only tap water was given. 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 all the other groups were not seizure-free. However, when this treatment was removed, the rats in this group displayed numbers of spontaneous seizures comparable to the controls. Although there is no proof that herbal remedies can control limbic or temporal lobe epilepsy, the results of this experiment strongly suggest that the appropriate combination of herbal compounds may be helpful as adjunctive interventions.

[10] Gafner S, Bergeron C, Batcha LL, Angerhofer CK, Sudberg S, Sudberg EM, Guinaudeau H, Gauthier R. Analysis of Scutellaria lateriflora and its adulterants Teucrium canadense and Teucrium chamaedrys by LC-UV/MS, TLC, and digital photomicroscopy. J AOAC Int. 2003 May-Jun;86(3):453-60.

Tom's of Maine, PO Box 710, Kennebunk, ME 04043, USA. [email protected]
Methods using liquid chromatography with UV detection (LC-UV), thin-layer chromatography (TLC), and digital photomicroscopy were developed to distinguish between the different species of Scutellaria lateriflora L. and its adulterants Teucrium canadense L. and T. chamaedrys L. Chemically, the 70% ethanol extract of S. lateriflora is characterized by the presence of flavonoids--predominantly baicalin, lateriflorin, dihydrobaicalin, and baicalein. The major compounds of the 70% ethanol extract of T. canadense are phenylpropanoids, with verbascoside as the most prominent, and a variable amount of teucrioside. Teucrioside is the major compound in T. chamaedrys, but it is not present in S. lateriflora. The presence of phenylpropane glycosides can therefore be used to distinguish between the S. lateriflora L. and the two Teucrium species by LC-UV and TLC. The abundant strap-shaped trichomes on the stem, as well as bristle-like trichomes on the leaf, are typically seen microscopically for T. canadense, whereas the waxy cuticle with numerous glandular scales is found in T. chamaedrys. These cell structures were used to determine the adulteration of S. lateriflora crude herb with either of the two Teucrium species.

[11] CMAJ. 1996 Jun 1;154(11):1689-92.
Hepatitis after the use of germander, a herbal remedy. Laliberte L, Villeneuve JP.
Division of Hepatology, Hopital Saint-Luc, Montreal, Que.

The authors report two cases of hepatic injury associated with the ingestion of germander, a herbal medicine used to facilitate weight loss. In both patients, hepatitis characterized by asthenia, jaundice and a marked increase in serum amino-transferase levels occurred after 5 to 6 months of germander use. The jaundice disappeared within 8 weeks after germander use was stopped, and the overall outcome was favourable. The subsequent resumption of germander therapy by one patient was soon followed by the recurrence of hepatitis. Similar reports from France have led to the banning of germander in that country. Like several other herbal remedies, germander may be hepatotoxic, and many herbal medicines may not be as safe as the public generally assumes.

[12] British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (BHP). Keighley (UK): British Herbal Medicine Association;1983.

[13] Private communication with David Winston.

[14] Private communication with Aviva Romm.

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