What Is Chinese Skullcap?
Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), also known as Baikal skullcap is a plant that belongs to the mint family. The plant gets its name due to the shape of its flower resembling medieval helmets called skullcaps. Over 300 species of skullcap plants exist [1, 2].
The dried roots of the plant have been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for more than 2,000 years. A tincture or decoction (boiled with water) of the root is known as Huang-Qin, which means “golden herb” .
TCM practitioners consider Chinese skullcap root a remedy for diarrhea, high blood pressure, insomnia, and gut and lung infections. In TCM and Japanse traditional medicine, it is almost always used as a part multi-herb formulations. In China, it’s even classified as a drug .
Animal and cellular studies uncovered its powerful antioxidant and antimicrobial effects. Research also hints at its anti-cancer properties. However, few clinical studies have been carried out.
Blue Skullcap vs Chinese Skullcap
Blue skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), also known as American skullcap, is a related plant in the same family as Chinese skullcap. The word “skullcap” can refer to either species.
While it contains many of the same active compounds, blue skullcap has a different chemical profile and distinct effects. Blue skullcap has been well-researched for improving mood and reducing anxiety – unlike Chinese skullcap [3, 4].
This post will focus solely on Chinese skullcap.
- A long history of use
- Reduces gum inflammation and plaque
- Relieves allergies
- Fights infections
- Protects the brain
- Anti-cancer potential
- Only a few studies in humans
- May interact with multiple drugs
- May cause liver damage and lung inflammation
The main active components of skullcap are the flavonoids baicalin and wogonoside and their derivatives baicalein and wogonin. They all are found in high levels in the roots, whereas only trace amounts are found in the leaves and stem [1, 4].
Baicalin and wogonoside may be converted to baicalein and wogonin by bacteria in your gut .
Other flavonoids found in skullcap (mostly the roots) include :
Most of these flavonoids are antioxidants (among these, oroxylin A is the strongest one) .
- Amino acids (glutamine, leucine)
- Fatty acids (linoleic acid, oleic acid)
- Minerals including potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, and iron
- Plant sterols
How it Works
Baicalin and baicalein may contribute to fighting cancer, reducing inflammation, relieving pain and soothing anxiety. Both compounds increase the production of antioxidants (by activating Nrf2). Wogonoside (and wogonin) add to the cancer-fighting, anti-inflammatory benefits [12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21].
Baicalin may help with anxiety by activating GABA-A and glycine receptors in the brain. Another flavonoid (called K36) also binds to and activates GABA-A receptors as strongly as the anti-anxiety drug Valium [22, 23].
Health Benefits of Chinese Skullcap
Note: All studies and health benefits refer to Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) unless stated otherwise.
1) Anti-Cancer Potential
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. In test tubes, Chinese skullcap killed cancerous immune cells of children with ALL without harming healthy cells .
In animals, skullcap blocked the growth of skin, colon, and bladder cancers (by causing programmed cell death). In mice, it reduced the size of the skin tumors by 66% and bladder tumors by 30%. Baicalein reduced prostate cancer growth by 55% in mice [30, 31, 29, 32, 33, 34].
Chinese skullcap may even be used in combination with conventional chemotherapy drugs to boost their effectiveness. The herb enhanced the ability of chemotherapy to prevent the spread of lung cancer in mice by increasing immune activity. Skullcap also prevented the decrease in blood cells caused by chemotherapy [35, 36].
Preliminary research on skullcap’s anti-cancer potential and its lack of toxicity is promising. The oral form was effective in animals, suggesting that its active compounds are well-absorbed and enter the bloodstream.
2) Fighting Bacteria, Viruses, and Fungi
Traditionally, Chinese skullcap is used to fight off infections, especially respiratory ones. In one cell study, skullcap was more effective in reducing the replication of the swine flu virus than a drug used to treat and prevent the flu (oseltamivir phosphate) .
- E. coli, which can cause UTIs and gut infections
- Staph, which can cause skin and wound infections
- Salmonella and Listeria, possible food contaminants
- The ulcer-causing H. Pylori
Some practitioners recommend Chinese skullcap for Lyme disease. Scientific studies have not looked into its effect on the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, though.
Chinese skullcap is also traditionally used to clear toxins and support the liver. Early research reveals it may be active against various viruses, including those that cause hepatitis.
It reduced hepatitis C levels and blocked the virus from replicating in infected mice. Wogonin, its active component, reduced replication of the hepatitis B virus in ducks and improved their liver function [43, 44].
This herb might also kill harmful yeast. In one cell study of 56 widely-used Chinese medicinal plants, skullcap was the most effective in reducing the growth of Candida albicans. Its effectiveness was comparable to the antifungal drug nystatin (Mycostatin) .
3) Reduces Gum Inflammation and Plaque
Adding to the benefit above, Chinese skullcap might kill dangerous oral bacteria. In one cell study, skullcap prevented the growth of 8 out of 11 bacteria that cause gum inflammation .
A toothpaste with skullcap extract greatly reduced gum inflammation and plaque after 21 days in a study of 40 people .
Skullcap prevented the decrease in powerful antioxidant enzymes – superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase – in rabbits fed a high-cholesterol diet. It also increased levels of these same antioxidants in diabetic rats [53, 54].
Skullcap appears to be a strong antioxidant supplement, especially under conditions of increased oxidative stress.
5) Reduces Allergies
Chinese skullcap’s active compound wogonin reduces the allergic response to mites in human skin cells. When injected into the skin of rats before exposure to an allergen, skullcap reduced the allergic response by decreasing levels of histamine and other inflammatory compounds [55, 56].
Skullcap reduces the inflammatory response to allergenic proteins in mice by decreasing IgE antibodies and cytokine levels (IL-5, IL-10, and IL-13). The herb also prevented allergy-triggering proteins from being absorbed in the gut [57, 58, 59, 60].
6) May Help in Diabetes
In diabetic mice, skullcap reduces oxidative stress, high blood sugar, and insulin levels, thus restoring normal insulin function. This suggests it may be especially useful for type 2 diabetes [61, 54, 62, 63].
Skullcap also reduces high cholesterol and triglyceride levels in diabetic mice. What’s more, its active compounds (baicalin, baicalein, and wogonin) prevented inflammation of the blood vessels caused by high blood sugar levels [61, 54, 64].
7) Improves Liver Health
Herbal formulas containing skullcap are often used to address liver problems .
In rats exposed to mold toxins, skullcap prevented DNA damage in the liver and increased the activity of detoxification enzymes. In mice, the herb protected against liver damage from alcohol. In a cell study, skullcap caused unhealthy liver cells to commit suicide, possibly preventing liver scarring (fibrosis) [65, 66, 67].
8) Protects the Brain
Brain inflammation plays a key role in neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. Skullcap prevented memory problems in mice with Alzheimer’s. It also reduced immune overactivation and inflammation in the brain cells caused by bacterial toxins (LPS) [69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74].
In rats, skullcap reduced depression and prevented damage to the hippocampus due to chronic stress. The hippocampus is extremely important for both memory and emotional control .
Skullcap also reduced seizures due to electroshock in mice .
Overall, Chinese skullcap may help protect the brain by soothing excessive inflammation and immune overactivation.
9) May Reduce Enlarged Prostate
DHT is made from testosterone by the action of an enzyme called 5-alpha-reductase. High levels of DHT and this enzyme can lead to prostate enlargement, also known as benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH) .
In rats with enlarged prostates, skullcap reduced prostate growth and DHT levels. It was even more effective than finasteride (Propecia), a drug commonly used to treat BPH that blocks 5-alpha-reductase. This study suggests that skullcap may be a good plant-based 5-alpha-reductase inhibitor .
10) May Help With Hair Loss
The same drug that treats prostate enlargement mentioned above – finasteride – might also help reverse baldness . How come?
Male-pattern baldness is caused by a combination of factors, but high levels of DHT and 5-alpha-reductase are among the culprits. By targeting both, skullcap may naturally prevent or reduce hair loss. In test tubes, skullcap blocked the effects of DHT on cells involved in hair growth [84, 82, 85].
The herb’s active compound, baicalin, applied to the skin in mice increased the growth of new hair follicles .
All in all, skullcap might reduce hair loss, especially in men. Future studies in humans will need to confirm this benefit, though.
11) May Boost Weight Loss
Skullcap reduced weight gain in diabetic rats. In another study, long-term supplementation reduced belly fat gain in rats eating a high-fat diet. Importantly, it also reduces blood fat and inflammation while protecting the liver, all of which are crucial for healthy weight loss in people who are overweight [61, 68, 87].
Skullcap might work by activating AMPK, an energy-sensing enzyme that increases metabolism and fat-burning. Skullcap also turns off genes that promote fat storage, overall revving energy use in the body. With more research, it might turn out to be a valuable, targeted anti-obesity herb .
Limitations and Caveats
Nearly all research on skullcap was conducted in animals and cells. In addition, most of the studies in humans have been performed by Chinese researchers and is inaccessible.
Chinese Skullcap Dosage & Forms
The roots of skullcap have historically been consumed as a decoction (by boiling the root) or as an alcoholic tincture .
Due to a lack of clinical studies, the dosage is not clear-cut. The recommended dosage is between 5 and 15 g of dried root daily, as a decoction or tincture. You can also make a tea from the roots by steeping them in hot water .
Soaking the dried roots in an herb to water ratio of 1:5 using 122°F (50°C) water for > 1 hour greatly reduces baicalin levels (possibly weakening brain-protective effects) and more than triples wogonin levels (increasing anti-allergy, anti-cancer, and anti-hepatitis B effects) .
One of the reasons why dosing skullcap can be complex is because it’s never used alone in traditional Chinese medicine. Instead, it is found in many multi-herb formulations, including [90, 91, 92, 1, 1]:
- Yin Zhi Huang (reduces high bilirubin levels in newborns)
- Shuang Huang Lian (reduces symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections)
- Xiao Chai Hu Tang (improves liver function in hepatitis patients)
Flavocoxid (Limbrel) is a medical food product made from the combination of baicalin from skullcap and catechin from the bark of the Acacia catechu tree. Its use is not recommended due to the risk of liver and lung injury .
Chinese Skullcap Side Effects & Safety
The side effects of skullcap depend on the exact formulation used, its active compounds, and other added herbs.
Some supplements might contain toxins or impurities. It’s important to buy Chinese skullcap from a trusted manufacturer and carefully review the label to reduce the risk of unwanted effects.
One case study found that skullcap caused lung inflammation in a 53-year-old man .
Three case reports have found that a proprietary supplement used to improve joint health containing skullcap, Acacia catechu, and other nutrients, caused liver damage and lung inflammation. Skullcap was the most likely cause of the damage. The supplement is now being sold without skullcap and Acacia catechu [98, 99, 100].
A formulation (Sho-saiko-to) containing skullcap reduced platelet count so people with bleeding disorders may want to avoid it .
Due to its effects on GABA, skullcap may cause drowsiness and may affect your ability to drive and operate machinery safely .
Drugs That Act On GABA-A Receptors
- Neuroactive steroids (pregnenolone and DHEA)
- Anti-seizure drugs
Baicalin can reduce the absorption of statins so let your doctor know if you’re planning on taking skullcap in combination with statins .
Blood Sugar-lowering Drugs
Drugs Processed by CYP1A2
CYP1A2 is an enzyme in the liver that processes different drugs and compounds including :
- Cancer-causing chemicals from cooked food
Baicalin blocks the activity of CYP1A2 in human liver cells and rats .
Skullcap is widely used by people who want to reduce anxiety.
Many people use skullcap to fight Lyme disease and other infections, as well as to relieve allergies. Others take it to reduce inflammation and generally report improvement in joint pain.
Some users mentioned that the supplement had a sedative effect and improved their sleep. Stomach discomfort and dry skin are side effects that have been reported.
- Full Spectrum Extract (Amazon)
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Chinese skullcap is a key component of many time-tested herbal formulations used in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine.
It has strong antimicrobial effects, especially against foodborne bacteria, and can reduce gum inflammation and plaque. It relieves allergies, protects the brain, has anti-cancer potential, and acts as a powerful antioxidant. However, very few clinical studies exist.
If you decide to supplement, use caution and consider consulting a knowledgeable practitioner.
There have been cases of liver toxicity and lung inflammation caused by supplements containing skullcap and baicalin, its main active component.
Talk to your doctor before taking skullcap with any medication, as it may interact with drugs.