Skullcap Scutellaria lateriflora
Scutellaria belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae) and can be found near marshes, meadows and other wetland habitats in America and Canada. It derives its name from the cap-like appearance of the outer whorl of its small blue or purple flowers. It is a slender, graceful kind of plant that is heavily branched and can grow to over a metre in height. Like the environment it grows in, skullcap has been used to instil a sense of gentle calm and indeed it is a safe and effective herb for treating anxiety and related disorders. Scutellaria lateriflora makes a comforting evening infusion of skullcap tea and is often macerated as a helpful tincture. Historically, it has been used in Native and traditional folk practices to promote wellbeing and relaxation during times of occasional distress. The Asian variety of skullcap is one of the most widely used plants in Chinese herbal medicine, whereby practitioners prescribe it for viral infections (including flu and hepatitis), bacterial infections fever and high blood pressure.
American Indians highly valued skullcap
Native American tribes including the Cherokee recognized that skullcap had a "deeper" action on the nervous system than any other herb. They employed skullcap as a fine female medicinal herb and recognised it a valuable “emmenagogue” to promote menstruation and aid in childbirth to help expel the placenta. It also found use to relieve breast pain and was used within ceremonies for the transition of girls to womanhood and in cases where a menstruation taboo has been broken. Its common usage was for treating stress, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome and diarrhoea. The herb was used to induce visions and as a ceremonial plant that was smoked as tobacco by some Native Americans and used for purification or for exorcism and to protect the practitioner on spirit journeys. The Iroquois used an infusion of the root to keep the throat clear, whilst other Native American tribes used closely related species as bitter tonics for the kidneys.
The settlers soon caught on
In the 18th century, American settlers adopted native skullcap as a medicine and they used it to treat rabies, which gave rise to one of its common names - mad dog weed. It was said to be particularly helpful for the hysteria associated with this terrible disease. Undoubtedly it would have helped to calm any anxiety and reduce spasm in those with the malady. Many debated the rabies treatment yet it was still used by folk herbalists while orthodox physicians began to focus on the plant's considerable value as a nerve tonic. American scientists are mostly unanimous in their condemnation of skullcap, thanks to the exaggerated claims that it treats rabies successfully. This is a shame.
In the 19th century before the advent of pharmaceutical tranquilisers, skullcap was the go to herb for the relief of anxiety and nervous tension and the early physicians were using skullcap as a nervine for conditions of excitability, phobias, anxiety and seizures. It was considered a specific remedy for the convulsive twitching of St Vitus’ dance now known to have been an umbrella term for various types of conditions with motor movement disorders.
“Skullcap is one of the finest nervines and antispasmodics given to humanity. It should be on every physician’s shelf” -excerpt from an old herbal book.
Nerve Tonic par excellence
Skullcap can be successfully used for relaxing an overly excitable nervous system as it calms while at the same time acting as a tonic and has antispasmodic activity. Its nervine uses are applicable for treating anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, neuralgia, phobias, muscular twitching and tremors including epilepsy. It is a great remedy for nervous debility with chronic tension and which can in turn affect the muscles, therefore it is useful in states of increased muscular tension such as in tension headaches, tightened shoulders, neck or lower back, muscle spasms and leg cramps or neuralgia. It can be used in combination with herbs such as St John’s wort, passionflower, hops and valerian or adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha or gotu kola. It can be taken at the onset of a panic attack and some people find it useful to carry a small bottle of the tincture with them to take if they feel acute anxiety coming on. This is validated by European and Russian studies that showed how Skullcap offers significant anti-anxiety benefits for healthy individuals.
One benefit of skullcap is for insomnia and sleep disorders as it gently quietens the mind enough to lull you to sleep. Many sleep remedies, both traditional and herbal can leave you groggy in the morning; whereas skullcap promotes sound sleep without the unwanted side effects, leaving you feeling refreshed and revitalised in the morning. It is a useful herb for fibromyalgia or post viral fatigue syndrome in combination with passionflower and certain adaptogens such as ashwagandha for situations where one feels ‘tired yet wired’. Should you suffer from hypertension, skullcap can be of benefit to release inner tension, stress and ease palpitations.
Helps to quit addictive substances
Skullcap is recommended to aid in the withdrawal from drugs and alcohol including barbiturates and tranquillisers. It works by helping to soothe the symptoms of withdrawal like muscle aches, shakiness, digestive distress, agitation and poor quality sleep which are all common signs in withdrawal of a hyper nervous system and muscle function. Skullcap also soothes the delirium tremens of advanced alcoholism. The herb’s ability to calm overactive stress responses and relax the mind and body, makes it an extremely useful herb for people quitting alcohol or benzodiazepine drugs and once the crisis stage is over, skullcap can even decrease the actual cravings for addictive substances.
Studies show how skullcap has significant antioxidant effects, and may help protect against neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, anxiety and depression. There's even some evidence to suggest that skullcap may inhibit food allergic response. It can be given for digestive problems associated with stress, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Skullcap’s relaxing effects on the higher centres of the nervous system have a follow-on effect on the gut. Combine skullcap with chamomile and meadowsweet for indigestion-induced insomnia. Try adding passionflower for mental restlessness and anxiety, lemon balm for sadness or rosemary and brahmi to focus the mind or meditate.
A very good woman’s tonic
We can follow the lead of the American First Nation’s people by using skullcap as a women’s tonic. Skullcap contains large amounts of flavonoids, including scutellarin and baicalin, which are believed to be the active components accounting for its sedative and antispasmodic activity. This antispasmodic activity makes it an extremely effective herb for menstrual cramps and its calming action aids PMT symptoms. It may also be used with raspberry leaf to stimulate menstrual bleeding and for headaches, combine skullcap with camomile and lemon balm.
Is Skullcap your Spirit plant?
The Skullcap personality is easy to recognise because they tend to be intense, with tense muscles and they are prone to overthinking. Often, their brow is furrowed, even when they are young children, intensely occupied in thought and their inner worlds. Skullcap will surely be their spirit herb. For energetic healing, skullcap facilitates full integration of the soul with the physical body. It operates as an ally to keep the soul securely tethered to the physical during intentional out-of-body journeying. Skullcap lends brightness to the Spirit, lightening the load of the human predicament, making it more bearable; it is a remedy that many people need. After all, if one removes the medical jargon, this is all that pharmaceutical antidepressants are supposed to do yet too often they fail to deliver real bodily and emotional calm.