Chinese skullcap, also known as Baikal skullcap or by its scientific name, Scutellaria baicalensis, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.
As our knowledge of this beautiful and potent flowering plant increases through scientific study, we are discovering more and more potential benefits and uses of Chinese skullcap.
In this article, we’re going to be introducing you to the basic taxonomy and identifying features of Chinese skullcap before delving into its interesting history, benefits, applications, and side effects.
Chinese Skullcap: Taxonomy and Etymology
Chinese skullcap is so-called because the flowers are roughly helmet-shaped.
The scientific name for Chinese skullcap is Scutellaria baicalensis, and the root of the word ‘Scutellaria’ is ‘Scutella.’ This translates ‘small dish’ and describes the shape of the flowers.
The ‘Chinese’ element of the plant’s common name comes from its native status in Asia as well as its traditional use in Chinese medicinal treatments. However, the plant is also native to Russia.
Scutellaria baicalensis is part of the Lamiaceae family and the Scutellaria genus. This makes Chinese skullcap part of the mint family.
Identifying Chinese Skullcap
Chinese skullcap can be easily identified once you know what to look for.
This plant has very distinctive flowers that are easy to spot. They will be purple or blue in color and tubular in shape, with protruding upper and lower petals that somewhat resemble a pair of lips.
You’ll be able to see these flowers between June and September when the Chinese skullcap blooms.
A History of Chinese Skullcap
In Ancient China, between 1600 BC and 221 BC, the roots of the Chinese skullcap were frequently employed as a treatment for a variety of illnesses and ailments.
The traditional name for the medicinal preparation of Chinese skullcap is Huang-Qin.
Our first known record of Chinese skullcap in a medicinal capacity can be traced back to the Shennong Bencaojing, which is a book written in China sometime between 200 AD and 250 AD.
The book contains information on medicinal herbs which historical researchers believe had been passed down via the oral tradition.
Since the time during which the Shennong Bencaojing was written, we have had the opportunity to conduct more tests and studies into the properties and potential uses of Chinese skullcap. While there is a need for more conclusive research to this day, botanists and chemists have revealed some interesting findings regarding the effects of this plant.
Benefits and Uses of Chinese Skullcap
Studies carried out in recent years indicate that Chinese skullcap may be useful in a wide range of medical applications. However, further research will be required in order to confirm such treatments as safe and effective.
Research has shown that Chinese skullcap could possibly lower blood sugar levels immediately after a meal, which might be beneficial for hyperglycaemic individuals. However, there is no evidence to suggest that this treatment is effective on its own without ongoing metformin treatment.
There have also been studies that have experimented with incorporating Chinese skullcap into intravenous medicines. These studies suggest that Chinese skullcap may have beneficial effects for individuals with certain illnesses and conditions when combined with other substances.
The primary use of Chinese skullcap is treating inflammation. Research into the effectiveness of this treatment is ongoing and still in the early stages, but researchers have suggested that the combination of Chinese skullcap with honeysuckle and forsythia, administered intravenously, could reduce inflammation and swelling.
It is thought that this treatment may be especially beneficial for patients with bronchiolitis, which is an infection of the respiratory tract primarily affecting children under the age of 2.
Another potential intravenous treatment involving Chinese skullcap is for hand, foot, and mouth disease. Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a viral infection that typically affects children. It manifests physically as a rash on the hands and feet as well as mouth sores. The rash can be itchy, while the sores can be very painful.
As of yet, there is no official treatment for hand, foot, and mouth disease. However, recent studies indicate that the administration of Chinese skullcap intravenously, in conjunction with other herbal extracts, could fight the virus and provide relief from symptoms.
There is a possibility that inflammatory skin conditions could also benefit from treatment with Chinese skullcap. Again, more research is needed to confirm or disprove this, but there may be a benefit to applying ointment containing Chinese skullcap to areas of skin affected by psoriasis.
One of the products currently available on the pharmaceutical market containing Chinese skullcap is Limbrel. Limbrel is prescribed for patients with osteoarthritis, and it is formulated for the specific purpose of decreasing inflammation and swelling in the joints.
In theory, this means that Chinese skullcap could be effective at treating arthritis and other joint problems. However, because Limbrel contains other herbal ingredients besides Chinese skullcap, it has not yet been confirmed which ingredient is primarily responsible for the anti-inflammatory effects of the medication.
Interestingly, Chinese skullcap has also been suggested as a treatment for mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. This suggestion has its basis in a study that was conducted where participants were split into 2 groups: placebo and non-placebo.
Those in the non-placebo group were given a daily dose of 1,050 mg of American skullcap and reported an improvement in their mood. It is thought that this is because the skullcap stimulates the GABA neurotransmitter, which also has a calming effect on the nerves.
However, because this study was carried out using American skullcap, it would need to be repeated using Chinese skullcap to confirm whether this variety of the plant has the same effect.
Other conditions for which Chinese skullcap has been considered as a treatment, but for which we don’t yet have conclusive evidence, include:
Recent studies have suggested that the chemicals in Chinese skullcap might have an anti-convulsive effect as well as neuroprotective properties, which could be great news for anyone who has epilepsy or other conditions that cause seizures.
The neuroprotective properties of the plant may also provide hope for patients with degenerative neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.
A study conducted between 2001 and 2009 tested the effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine on patients living with HIV/AIDS.
A treatment containing Ginseng, Astragalus, and Skullcap, along with 10 other medicinal herbs, was administered to patients for a period of time.
Results demonstrated a longer survival rate after AIDS onset in patients that received traditional Chinese medicinal therapy than those who do not receive any treatment at all.
However, this study did not use a control group and had a very small sample size, so these results cannot be relied upon as proof that Chinese skullcap is effective in the treatment of HIV/AIDS.
Chinese skullcap contains a chemical called wogonin, which researchers suspect may be effective in the treatment of allergy-induced inflammatory conditions. This includes hay fever and allergic rhinitis.
However, because Chinese skullcap contains several other anti-inflammatory chemicals, proving this scientifically is quite difficult. It is also unclear whether Chinese skullcap treatment would be sufficient to alleviate symptoms of more severe hay fever and allergic responses.
Prostate and Breast Cancer
Studies have explored the possibility of using Chinese skullcap to treat both breast and prostate cancer, with encouraging results.
While the results of such studies have indicated that the administration of treatment made of Chinese skullcap root did inhibit the growth of cancer cells in the prostate and the breast, further research is required into the activity of polyphenols before an official treatment can be considered.
Because Chinese skullcap has been suggested as a treatment for inflammatory conditions such as hand, foot, and mouth disease, it stands to reason that the same treatment could be effective in the treatment of hemorrhoids, but this has not been confirmed.
Potential Side Effects of Chinese Skullcap
Despite the many potential benefits of using Chinese skullcap in a medical capacity, readers should be aware that the consumption of Chinese skullcap can cause a variety of side effects.
Unfortunately, Chinese skullcap has been linked to cases of liver damage, which is one reason to proceed with caution. However, most of the reported cases of liver damage associated with Chinese skullcap involved the consumption of supplements containing several other ingredients, so it is not clear whether Chinese skullcap is, in fact, the culprit.
Nevertheless, if you have any pre-existing liver conditions, please err on the side of caution and do not take supplements containing Chinese Skullcap.
We also wouldn’t recommend taking Chinese skullcap supplements if you are taking certain medications, including pain relief medication, blood thinners, cholesterol-regulating drugs, or cytochrome P450. These medications may react adversely or be inhibited by Chinese skullcap.
Some symptoms reported after consumption of Chinese skullcap, which have not yet been associated with a direct cause, include respiratory issues, anxiety, changes in heartbeat, fatigue or drowsiness, and a decline in mental functioning.
Supplements containing Chinese skullcap have not been tested for safety when taken by children, or people who are pregnant or breastfeeding. If any of these categories apply to you, please do not consume Chinese skullcap supplements.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I take Chinese skullcap every day?
Yes, you can take supplements containing Chinese skullcap every day as long as you do not exceed the recommended daily dose.
Moreover, you should always check the dosage marked on the label of the product because Chinese skullcap supplements often contain other ingredients, which may or may not be safe for daily consumption.
If you notice the onset of any side effects, you should cease consumption entirely and immediately before consulting your primary care physician urgently. The onset of serious symptoms such as respiratory or cardiovascular changes indicates that emergency medical attention needs to be sought immediately.
How much Chinese skullcap should I consume?
The recommended daily dosage for most skullcap plants is 1 to 2 grams, although it is usually best to take this amount in multiple dosages over the course of a day rather than all at once.
With that being said, the best way to determine how much Chinese skullcap you should consume is to read the label on the package.
Please bear in mind that the safe dosage for Chinese skullcap also depends on what form the supplement takes. Chinese skullcap comes as an extract or as a capsule, and the recommended dosages will vary between these forms.
How do I know a Chinese skullcap supplement is safe?
Ultimately, there is no 100% foolproof method of working out whether your body will respond well to Chinese skullcap supplements. Many of the reported side effects do not present in everybody, which makes it difficult to predict whether they will occur.
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or a child, you should assume that Chinese skullcap will not be safe for you because it has not been safety-tested in this capacity yet.
Likewise, if you have had or are currently having issues with your liver function, please do not take Chinese skullcap medicine. The same rule applies if you are taking painkillers, cholesterol regulators, blood thinners, or cytochrome P450.
Other than ruling out any conditions or medicines that could make Chinese skullcap unsafe for you, the best way to ensure that Chinese skullcap supplements are safe is to verify that all ingredients are clearly listed on the label and that the supplement is made by a reputable company.
Although Chinese skullcap has its roots (no pun intended) in traditional Chinese medicine, more and more scientific studies are pointing towards its potential usefulness in modern medicine.
More research is needed to confirm the effectiveness of Chinese skullcap in treating inflammatory diseases, breast and prostate cancer, skin conditions, allergic reactions, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, seizures, and degenerative neurological disorders. However, early research has been encouraging in many cases.
Please do not consume Chinese skullcap in any form if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or underage. The supplements should also be strictly avoided in patients with liver conditions or who are taking certain medications.
Remember to only buy Chinese skullcap supplements from a reputable company and seek immediate medical attention if unusual symptoms or side effects arise.