What Is Lemon Balm?

Herbal Remedy Used to Treat Anxiety and Insomnia

Lemon balm tincture, powder, tablets, and capsules

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is an herb in the mint family. It is often used to make teas, marinate chicken or fish, or add flavor to baked foods and jams.

Lemon balm is also believed to treat a range of medical disorders affecting the digestive tract, nervous system, and liver. 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 tea, taken as a supplement or extract, or rubbed on the skin in balms and lotion. Lemon balm essential oil is also popular in aromatherapy, where it's used to relieve stress and keep you calm.

This article will discuss the benefits, side effects, and dosage of lemon balm. It will also talk about how lemon balm is used to treat anxiety, insomnia, digestive issues, liver disorders, and problems with the nervous system.

Also Known As

Lemon balm is also known as :

  • Bee balm
  • Cure-All
  • Dropsy plant
  • Honey plant
  • Sweet balm
  • Sweet Mary
  • Toronjil
  • Xiang Feng Cao (in traditional Chinese medicine)

What Is Lemon Balm Used For?

Lemon balm contains a compound known as rosmarinic acid that appears to have powerful antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Antioxidants help prevent cell damage, while antimicrobials kill infection-causing organisms like bacteria and viruses.

People who practice alternative medicine believe that lemon balm can be used to treat a wide range of medical conditions, including:

  • Insomnia
  • Cold sores
  • High cholesterol
  • Genital herpes
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion

There are some who even believe that it can improve thinking and memory abilities in people with Alzheimer's disease.

Despite its longstanding use in traditional medicine, there isn't much evidence supporting many of these health claims. Here are just some of the findings from current research.

Anxiety

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

According to researchers in Australia, a sweetened water-based drink containing 0.3 grams of lemon balm extract 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 increases the levels and activity of a neurotransmitter in the brain known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Low levels of GABA in the brain are believed to be associated with anxiety and other mood disorders.

Insomnia

In the same way it relieves anxiety, rosmarinic acid is believed to improve sleep in people with insomnia.

According to a 2013 study in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, lemon balm combined with valerian root significantly improved 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 help you sleep by acting directly on GABA receptors in the brain. This delivers a mild sedative effect while stimulating the production of the "feel-good" hormone serotonin.

Cold Sores

Rosmarinic acid may help in the treatment of certain viral infections. Most of the current evidence is limited to test-tube studies in which rosmarinic acid appears to kill a broad range of common viruses. This includes hepatitis B virus and those associated with the common cold, such as coronaviruses and rhinoviruses.

Rosmarinic acid appears most effective in fighting against herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). This is associated with cold sores and some cases of genital herpes.

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

These results may be especially useful 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.

Gastrointestinal Problems

There is growing evidence that lemon balm can help treat symptoms of dyspepsia (upset stomach), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and acid reflux (heartburn). In addition to rosmarinic acid, lemon balm contains citral, citronellal, linalool, geraniol, and beta-caryophyllene, each of which may help relieve muscle spasms and gas.

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

Early studies have suggested that citral in lemon balm extract may block an enzyme in the brain called cholinesterase. That increases levels of acetylcholine, a brain chemical that is needed for memory and learning.

Drugs used to treat Alzheimer's, such as Aricept (donepezil), Exelon (rivastigmine), and Razadyne (galantamine), also block this enzyme. By doing so, they help improve thinking and memory.

Lemon balm may also reduce the formation of plaques in the brain associated with the progression of the disease.

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

The participants were each given 60 drops of a lemon balm extract every day for 16 weeks. While the results were promising, the findings haven't been duplicated in other studies yet.

Possible Side Effects of Lemon Balm

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
  • 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, which control metabolism and other body functions. Stopping treatment suddenly after long-term use can also cause rebound anxiety (worsening or returning of symptoms).

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 lemon balm preparation on the skin. To be safe, apply a little to your forearm and wait for 24 hours to see if any redness, rash, or irritation develops. Serious allergic 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.

Children, pregnant women, and nursing women should not use lemon balm extracts and supplements until more safety research is conducted.

Drug Interactions

Lemon balm may cause sedation. This is especially true if it's used along with alcohol, over-the-counter sleep medications, or prescription sedatives like Klonopin (clonazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), Donnatol (phenobarbital), and Ambien (zolpidem).

Lemon balm may interact with other drugs, including:

  • Thyroid medications like Synthroid (levothyroxine)
  • Blood thinners like Coumadin (warfarin) or Plavix (clopidogrel)
  • Glaucoma medications like Travatan (travoprost)
  • Chemotherapy drugs like tamoxifen and Camptosar (irinotecan)

In some cases, the drug doses may need to be separated by several hours to avoid interactions. In others, a dose reduction or change of medication may be needed.

Lemon balm powder
Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Dosage and Preparation of Lemon Balm

Lemon balm supplements are available in capsule, tablet, powder, and tincture forms. Because there are so many different formulations, there are no set doses or standard courses of treatments.

Oral capsules and tablets range in dose from 250 milligrams (mg) to 500 mg and are considered safe within this range. The dose of a tincture can vary by the concentration (strength) of the formulation. As a general rule of thumb, never take more than the recommended dosage on the product label.

Cold sore preparations containing 1% lemon balm can be applied to cold sores three to four times per day. They are said to work best when applied at the first sign of a cold sore.

Lemon balm essential oil is intended for external use only. Even food-grade essential oils used for flavoring candies and other foods should not be taken by mouth.

What to Look For When Choosing Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is classified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a dietary supplement, so quality and safety testing isn't required.

When purchasing supplements, always choose products that have willingly submitted to the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or other independent certifying bodies. This way, you can be sure the product is safe and contains the amount of ingredients listed on the product label.

When choosing essential oils, go for ones that are certified organic and include both the plant genus name (in this case, Melissa officinalis) and the place of origin. Ireland remains a major producer of lemon balm essential oil. Hungary, Italy, and Egypt are the largest growers of the medicinal herb.

Other Questions

How do you make lemon balm tea?

  1. Start by snipping a few fresh lemon balm leaves. Avoid those that are yellowing, discolored, or moldy. Rinse the leaves thoroughly, and pat dry with paper towels.
  2. Cut or tear the leaves into smaller pieces and place them into a tea infuser. You can even muddle them with the back of a spoon or chopstick to remove more of the herb's oils. Do this at the last minute; the leaves blacken and dry out if you cut them too far ahead of time.
  3. Pour one cup of hot water over one packed tablespoon of leaves and infuse for about five minutes. You can double or triple the recipe as needed.

After brewing the tea, be sure to keep the teapot or cup covered to hold in the steam, which is thought to contain the herb's medicinal oils.

Summary

Lemon balm is used to treat a variety of medical disorders affecting the digestive tract, nervous system, and liver. You can drink it inside a tea, take it as a supplement or extract, or rub it on the skin in the form of balms and lotion.

Lemon balm essential oil is also popular in aromatherapy. It can help relieve stress and keep you calm. It is safe for short-term use but shouldn't be used for longer than six weeks. Stop using lemon balm two weeks before you have surgery. This is because it may slow down blood clotting.

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15 Sources
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