What’s behind skullcap?

Can a plant really boost our mood ?
A number of plants have clinical science to show that they effectively lift mood, balance mood swings and relieve mild depression (severe depression should not be self-treated). The widely recognized anti-depressive St John’s wort leads the way, but other traditional mood-boosting plants, verfiied in clinical studies today, include turmeric from the Middle East, saffron from the Mediterranean and skullcap from Canada and the US. The list also includes other plants which are yet to be fully explored by science, like rose from the Middle East, chai hu from China and, for restoring hormonal balance, particularly for women, there’s black cohosh from the US and the less closely studied clary sage from Europe.
What the plant needs to do
A long-held notion surrounding depression is that it involves a response triggered by low brain serotonin, and that drugs which restore this mood-boosting brain signal will also help to restore good mood. Consequently, common anti-depressant drugs are those which are able to maintain high levels of serotonin in the space where nerve cells talk to each other (the synapse). These chemical drugs are collectively called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). They include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline and paroxetine and are the most widely prescribed drugs today in the US, overtaking blood pressure drug prescription. While some anti-depressants act on serotonin, others act on signals like noradrenaline and dopamine, for example the SNRIs (selective noadrenaline reuptake inhibitors), monoamine oxidase inhibitors and TCAs (tricyclic antidepressants used more for severe depression).
Mild anxiety and depression are the most common of all mental health issues today. So with 1 in 5 of us experiencing at least one episode of depression in our lifetime, do we fully understand what goes wrong in the brain-body-emotion axis during depression? And are the side-effects of SSRIs, which include nausea, dizziness and sexual problems, acceptable? Should we be aware of different treatments?

Improve our mood, alter our outlook
Change is a good as a holiday right? Changing our perspective can help us overcome mood problems, but what is difficult is keeping that perspective changed. Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) is an Amazonian plant and is the main constituent of a tea used in traditional rituals to enhance consciousness and alter perspective. It’s usually taken as a tea mixed with another plant (such as chacruna Psycotria viridia). Though this tea mix (also called Ayahuasca) is only to be taken under supervision, it works by acting on mood-boosting brain signals. Chacruna contains the hallucinogenic DMT (dimethyltryptamine) which activates the brain’s mood-boosting serotonin signal; and ayahuasca’s harmine alkaloids boost the presence of chacruna’s DMT by blocking the enzyme (monoamine oxidase) that inactivates it. Got that?
Lab tests and clinical trials on the Ayahuasca tea mix (taken in a clinical setting under supervision and including therapy) have so far confirmed it is well-tolerated as a rapid-onset antidepressant, which reduces anxiety too, and, interestingly confirmed by science to alter and improve the outlook of those who have taken it.
The point here is that skullcap is another plant, but a safe and much milder alternative to the south American ayahuasca. Taken also as a tea, you can grow it in your garden or in a pot for mood-boosting and also possible perspective-altering effects.
History and folklore
People bathed in skullcap leaves, or used them to cast spells to remove disharmony. Its other name of mad-dog herb relates to it being used in the treatment of rabies in the 19th century, it was probably it’s sedative and antispasmodic properties that eased the pains of this fatal condition. Discovered in the 19th century as a nervous system tonic, it has been used through history to treat depression, panic attacks, ‘hysteria’ and nervous heart conditions. One of the most popular botanicals in North America (the Cherokee use it for menstrual nervous problems), in herbal medicine today it’s used for depression, as a relaxant, mild sedative, sleep promoter and to help in withdrawal of benzodiazepines. A mood modifier not only for humans, it’s used by vets to help calm dogs suffering from excitability, apprehension and phobias such as fear of thunderstorms and gunfire (and there’s no drowsiness or reductions in performance – perfect for training and obedience).
What the scientists say
In humans
In one ‘gold-standard’ randomised controlled crossover clinical trial, skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) showed significant effects on mood in healthy volunteers. After two weeks, mood was significantly enhanced, without reduction in energy or cognition. Its main ingredient baicalein has been tested in volunteers (with a view to treating people with Parkinson’s disease) and found to be safe and well-tolerated.
In the lab
Whole extracts and its key ingredient baicalein are anti-depressive and anti-inflammatory in a number of different lab models and affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (responsible for neuroendocrine adaptation to the stress response). Acts on the mood-llifting serotonin signal (stops LSD binding) and prevents an Alzheimer’s marker. Also acts on calming (GABA benzodiazepine) brain signals and is anti-anxiety and anti-convulsant.
Key ingredients
Flavonoids baicalin, baicalein and scutellarin are key to anti-depressive effects and keeping inflammation at bay in a wide range of lab tests and are also key antioxidants, scavenging free radicals. Ingredient wogonin is neuroregenerative and baicalein is neuroprotective. Also contains melatonin and serotonin.
How to take it
(See also herbal tissane recipes below from La Reine Margot). Tea of fresh (4-6g) or dried (2-3g) aeriel parts per 240ml boiled water, take 50ml 3x daily. Tincture, capsules or tablets (standarised or of its key ingredient baicalein) are also used.
CAUTION Always consult an affiliated medical herbalist before taking any plant at a medicinal level, inform your health care provider if you are taking medication or have any medical condition and do not stop taking prescribed medication. Be sure of the identity of your plant and take only at the recommended dose.
Generally regarded as safe. Side-effects may be drowsiness, giddiness, confusion, but overdose may cause convulsions. Always buy from a reputable source – there are disturbing reports in the 1980s that many commercial skullcap products were adulterated with other plants (many not containing any skullcap) such as germander Teucrium chamaedrys and other Teucrium species which can cause hepatotoxicity. Not advised in pregnancy and lactation (although in the past it has been used safely in these conditions). Sedative effects on nervous system mean it may interact with other anti-depressants, sedatives or anaesthetics.
Dos Santos, Rafael G.; Osório, Flávia L.; Crippa, José Alexandre S.; Hallak, Jaime E. C. (2016): ‘Antidepressive and anxiolytic effects of ayahuasca: a systematic literature review of animal and human studies.’ In Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria (Sao Paulo, Brazil : 1999[A1] [A2] ) 38 (1), pp.65–72. DOI: 10.1590/1516-4446-2015-1701

Brock, Christine; Whitehouse, Julie; Tewfik, Ihab; Towell, Tony (2014): ‘American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): a randomised, double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study of its effects on mood in healthy volunteers.’ In Phytotherapy Research : PTR 28 (5), pp.692–8. DOI: 10.1002/ptr.5044.
Gasiorowski, Kazimierz; Lamer-Zarawska, Eliza; Leszek, Jerzy; Parvathaneni, Kalpana; Yendluri, Bharat Bhushan; Blach-Olszewska, Zofia; Aliev, Gjumrakch (2011): ‘Flavones from root of Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi: drugs of the future in neurodegeneration?’ In CNS & Neurological Disorders – Drug Targets 10 (2), pp.184–191.

This is an extract taken from Botanical Brain Balms, Filbert Press 2018 – available to buy at the Physic Garden and bookshops. Look out for our new book out soon GROW YOUR OWN PHYSIC GARDEN Use the Power of Medicinal Plants Grounded in Science.