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Native Americans as well as traditional European herbalists used skullcap to induce sleep, relieve nervousness, and moderate the symptoms of epilepsy, rabies, and other diseases related to the nervous system. In other words, skullcap was believed to function as an herbal sedative.
A relative of skullcap, Scutellaria baicalensis ,is a common Chinese herb. However, the root instead of the above-the-ground portion of the plant is used, and overall effects appear to be far different. The discussion below addresses European skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)only.
Skullcap is still popular as a sedative. Unfortunately, there has been virtually no scientific investigation of how well the herb really works. The only meaningful reported study was a small double-blind, placebo-controlled trial that found indications the herb might reduce anxiety levels in healthy volunteers. 1
Not much is known about the safety of skullcap. However, if you take too much, it can cause confusion and stupor. 2 There have been reports of liver damage following consumption of products labeled skullcap; however, since skullcap has been known to be adulterated with germander, an herb toxic to the liver, it may not have been the skullcap that was at fault. 3 Safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with severe liver or kidney disease has not been established.