The Many Uses for Lemon Balm

Lemon balm plant, close-up
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Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a herb in the mint family. You may have some growing in your garden or home or have seen it at farmer's markets or grocery stores. Used in cooking and herbal tea recipes, this lemon-scented herb (sometimes called toronjil) is also found in the extract, salve, tincture, or oil form.

Often said to help ease stress and anxiety, lemon balm contains rosmarinic acid (a chemical compound with antioxidant properties). The herb is also used for insomnia, cold soreshigh cholesterol, genital herpes, indigestion, and heartburn. In essential oil form, the scent of lemon balm is used to reduce stress.

Although lemon balm has been used as a natural remedy for quite some time, few scientific studies have looked into its possible health benefits. Here are some findings from the available research:

1) Anxiety

Lemon balm may be used to help reduce anxiety, according to a small 2014 study published in Nutrients. Researchers gave participants beverages or yogurt containing lemon balm (sweetened with either natural or artificial sweeteners) or a placebo. The drink containing 0.3 grams of lemon balm sweetened with fruit sweetener was associated with lower anxiety and improved working memory, with no impairment to psychomotor performance.

Previous studies suggest that a compound in lemon balm (rosmarinic acid) may have anti-anxiety effects by increasing the availability of GABA (a signaling chemical) in the brain.

2) Insomnia

Lemon balm may have some effect on sleep when combined with the herb valerian. A study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, for instance, suggests that lemon balm in combination with valerian may help improve sleep quality during menopause. For the study, 100 women between the ages of 50 and 60 with sleep disorders were given either a valerian/lemon balm combination or a placebo. The researchers observed that the lemon balm/valerian supplement appeared to have a beneficial effect in reducing the symptoms of sleep disorders.

3) Cold Sores

Shown to possess antiviral properties, lemon balm extract has been found to have antiviral activity against the herpes simplex virus in laboratory studies. For example, a study published in Phytotherapy Research found that lemon balm extract inhibited the penetration of herpes simplex virus type 1 (the virus that causes cold sores) into cells. 

Lemon balm is typically applied topically in oil, salve, cream, ointment, or lip balm form for cold sores.

4) Heart Palpitations

Lemon balm may help to reduce the frequency of benign heart palpitations, according to a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 2015. For the study, people with benign heart palpitations took either a lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) extract or a placebo twice daily for 14 days.

At the end of the two-week period, the lemon balm extract was found to reduce the frequency of palpitation episodes and the number of people with anxiety symptoms, compared to the placebo.

5) Alzheimer's Disease

Preliminary studies suggest that lemon balm extract may inhibit cholinesterase (the same mechanism as drugs that are used for mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease) and also reduce damage from beta-amyloid (the protein that builds to form plaques).

Although there's a lack of clinical trials, the available research includes a study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. Participants with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease took a lemon balm or a placebo daily for four months.

At the end of the treatment period, the lemon balm extract resulted in a better outcome on cognitive function. In addition, agitation was found to be less common in the lemon balm group.

Aromatherapy with the scent of lemon balm essential oil, however, may not be better than a placebo in reducing agitation in Alzheimer's disease, according to a study published in Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders. Conducted in three geriatric psychiatry centers in England, participants had probable or possible Alzheimer's disease and agitation.

After one month and three months, there were no significant differences between aromatherapy, donepezil (a medication used to treat mild to moderate Alzheimer's dementia), or a placebo.

Making Lemon Balm Tea

A simple lemon balm tea recipe begins by snipping a few fresh lemon balm leaves. Rinse them well, and pat the leaves dry.

Cut or tear the leaves into smaller pieces and put them into a tea infuser. Pour hot water in and infuse the leaves for about five minutes.

When brewing lemon balm tea, make sure to keep the teapot or cup covered at all times in order to hold in the steam, which is thought to contain the herb's therapeutic aromatic oils.

Other ways to use lemon balm include sprinkling the chopped fresh leaves on salads or using the chopped herb in fish, poultry, or vegetable dishes.

Possible Side Effects

Side effects of lemon balm can include headache, nausea, bloating, gas, vomiting, indigestion, dizziness, stomach pain, painful urination, anxiety, agitation, and allergic reactions. Long-term, regular, or high-dose use of lemon balm isn't recommended (there's some concern that discontinuing use can trigger rebound anxiety in some people).

Lemon balm may cause sedation. The herb may interact with supplements and medications, such as sedatives, thyroid medication, chemotherapy (like tamoxifen and irinotecan), warfarin, glaucoma medication, and drugs that affect serotonin and GABA. It shouldn't be taken with alcohol.

High doses of lemon balm may affect thyroid function and contribute to increased anxiety and a negative mood.

It's a good idea to test a small area of lemon balm cream, salve, ointment, or oil for a day before applying it in larger amounts to the skin.

Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children shouldn't take lemon balm supplements. Avoid taking lemon balm within two weeks of a scheduled surgery.

You can get read additional tips on using supplements, but keep in mind that self-treating and avoiding or delaying standard care can have serious consequences. 

The Takeaway

While a cup of lemon balm tea once in a while may help to promote a sense of calm, more research is needed before the herb can be recommended as a treatment for conditions such as anxiety or Alzheimer's disease. If you're still considering using it, talk with your healthcare provider first to weigh the pros and cons and discuss whether it's the right option for you.

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