Lemon Balm Aerial

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is an herb in the mint family. It is often used for culinary purposes to make teas, marinate chicken or fish, or flavor baked foods and jams. Lemon balm is also believed to treat a range of medical disorders affecting the digestive tract, nervous system, and liver.1 Its use dates back to the 14th century when Carmelite nuns used it to make an alcoholic tonic popularly known as Carmelite water.

Today, lemon balm is used in traditional medicine as both a sleep aid and digestive tonic. It can be consumed as a tea, taken as a supplement or extract, or applied to the skin in balms and lotion. Lemon balm essential oil is also popular in aromatherapy, where it is believed to promote calmness and ease stress.

Also Known As
Bee balm
Dropsy plant
Honey plant
Sweet balm
Sweet Mary
Xiang Feng Cao (in traditional Chinese medicine)
Lemon balm grows best in mild temperate climates between the months of June and August.

Health Benefits
Often said to ease stress and anxiety, lemon balm contains a compound known as rosmarinic acid that appears to have potent antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.

Alternative practitioners believe that lemon balm can be used to treat a wide range of medical conditions, including insomnia, cold sores, high cholesterol, genital herpes, heartburn, and indigestion. There are some who even contend that it can improve cognitive function in people with Alzheimer's disease.

Despite its long-standing use in traditional medicine, the evidence supporting many of these health claims is lacking. Here are just some of the findings from current research:

Lemon balm may be used to help reduce anxiety, according to a small study published in the journal Nutrients.2

According to researchers in Australia, a sweetened water-based drink containing 0.3 grams of lemon balm extract significantly reduced stress and improved mood in a group of healthy young adults compared to a placebo.

These results were confirmed by repeating the test with yogurt instead of water. The anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effects were generally felt in one to three hours.

Studies have suggested that rosmarinic acid (which is found in lemon balm) increases the availability of neurotransmitters in the brain known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Low levels of GABA in the brain is believed to be associated with anxiety and other mood disorders.3

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The same influence that rosmarinic acid has anxiety is believed to improve sleep in people with insomnia.4

According to a 2013 study in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, lemon balm combined with valerian root significantly improve sleep quality in 100 women with menopause when compared to a placebo.

Insomnia and sleep apnea, often accompanied by depression and anxiety, are common features of menopause. The combination of herbs is believed to aid in sleep by acting directly on GABA receptors in the brain, delivering a mild sedative effect while stimulating the production of the "feel-good" hormone serotonin.5

Cold Sores
Rosmarinic acid had potent antiviral properties that may aid in the treatment of certain viral infections. Most of the current evidence is limited to test tube studies in which rosmarinic acid appears to inhibit a broad range of common viruses, including those associated with the common cold, such as coronaviruses and rhinoviruses and hepatitis B virus.

Of these, rosmarinic acid appears most effective in inhibiting herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) associated with cold sores and some cases of genital herpes.6

In a 2014 study published in Phytotherapy Research, lemon balm extract was able to prevent 80 to 96 percent of drug-resistant HSV-1 strains from infecting host cells.

These findings may be especially relevant to people unable to find relief from standard antiviral drugs (like acyclovir). Further research is needed to see if the same results can be achieved in humans.

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Gastrointestinal Problems
There is growing evidence that lemon balm can help treat symptoms of dyspepsia (upset stomach), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and acid reflux. in addition to rosmarinic acid, lemon balm contains citral, citronellal, linalool, geraniol, and beta-caryophyllene, each of which has spasmolytic (anti-spasm) and carminative (anti-gas) properties.

A 2013 review of studies from Germany showed that Iberogast, an over-the-counter remedy containing lemon balm and eight other therapeutic herbs, was consistently more effective in treating dyspepsia and IBS than a placebo.

Alzheimer's Disease
Preliminary studies have suggested that citral in lemon balm extract may inhibit cholinesterase, an enzyme targeted by the drugs Aricept (donepezil), Exelon (rivastigmine), and Razadyne (galantamine) used to treat Alzheimer's disease. Doing so many reduce the formation of plaques in the brain associated with the progression of the disease.7

An early study from Iran reported that a four-month course of lemon balm extract was moderately more effective than a placebo in improving cognition and dementia in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's.

The participants were each given 60 drops of lemon balm extract containing 500 micrograms of citral per milliliter (μg/ml) for a period of 16 weeks. While promising, the findings have yet to be replicated in other studies.

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Possible Side Effects
Lemon balm is considered safe for short-term use. Side effects may include headache, nausea, bloating, gas, vomiting, indigestion, dizziness, stomach pain, painful urination, anxiety, and agitation. The risk of side effects tends to increase with the size of the dose.

The long-term use or overuse of lemon balm is not recommended. High doses can potentially affect thyroid function by slowing the production of thyroid hormones. Stopping treatment suddenly after long-time use can cause rebound anxiety.3

Generally speaking, you should use lemon balm extracts or supplements for no more than four to six weeks.

Some people may develop a form of allergy known as contact dermatitis when using a topical lemon balm preparation. To be safe, apply a little to your forearm and wait for 24 hours to see if any redness, rash, or irritation develops. Serious allergy reactions are rare.

Lemon balm may slow blood clotting. If you are scheduled for surgery, stop using lemon balm for at least two weeks to avoid excessive bleeding.

Lemon balm extracts and supplements should be avoided in children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers due to the lack of safety research.