The Health Benefits of Lemon Balm

Herbal Remedy Used to Treat Anxiety and Insomnia

Lemon balm plant, close-up
Vincenzo Lombardo/Photodisc/Getty Images

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a 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. Its use dates back to the 14th century when Carmelite nun used it to make an alcoholic tonic popularly known as Carmelite water.

Today, lemon balm is used in traditional medicine to 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
  • Cure-All
  • Dropsy plant
  • Honey plant
  • Sweet balm
  • Sweet Mary
  • Toronjil
  • 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:

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 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.

Previous studies have suggested that rosmarinic acid 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.

Insomnia

The same influence that rosmarinic acid has anxiety 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 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.

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 adenoviruses (associated with the common cold) 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.

In a 2014 study published in Phytotherapy Reseach, 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.

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 Iberogas, 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.

A 2016 animal study from Iran even went so far as to suggest that lemon balm can help prevent gastric ulcers and may be just as effective in reducing stomach acid as Zantac (ranitidine).

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.

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.

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.

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.

Drug Interactions

Lemon balm may cause sedation, especially if combined with alcohol, over-the-counter sleep aids, 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.

Dosage and Preparation

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 sores preparations containing 1% lemon balm can be applied to cold sores three to four time per day. They are said to work most effectively when applied at the first signs of a 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

Lemon balm is classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a dietary supplement and is not subject to quality and safety testing.

When purchasing supplements, always opt for products that have voluntarily submitted by the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or other independent certifying bodies. In this way, you can be assured that the product is safe and contains the amount of ingredients listed on the product label.

When choosing essential oils, opt for those 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, while Hungary, Italy, 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 have evidence of mold. 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 extract more of the herb's oils. Do this last minute; the leaves blacken and dry out if you cut them too far in advance.
  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 retain the herb's therapeutic oils.

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