Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is an herbaceous perennial plant in the mint family. It is native to Europe, Central Asia and the Mediterranean region, but now grows wild in many parts of the world and is commonly cultivated in gardens. The leaves have a mild lemon aroma and flavor, which led to the common name of “lemon balm.”
Lemon balm has been used for medicinal purposes for over 2,000 years. Evidence suggests that ancient civilizations in Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Middle East utilized lemon balm to treat insect bites, wounds, insomnia and other conditions. Today, lemon balm is still a popular complementary and alternative treatment for several health issues.
Traditional Medicinal Uses
Lemon balm has been used to treat digestive, nervous system and sleep disorders going as far back as the Middle Ages. Specific traditional uses of lemon balm include:
- Indigestion – Lemon balm has carminative properties, meaning it can relieve gas, bloating and dyspepsia. Traditional healers often prescribed lemon balm tea for gastrointestinal complaints.
- Anxiety and stress – The herb’s mild sedative effects have been used to reduce anxiety, relieve nervous tension and hysteria and overall promote relaxation.
- Insomnia – Many historical records cite the use of lemon balm, often combined with other herbs, as a sleep aid to combat restlessness and induce sleep.
- Colds and flu – Lemon balm’s diaphoretic effect (induces sweating) makes it useful for relieving fevers associated with influenza and other viral conditions. When combined with elderflower and yarrow, lemon balm may help push toxins out through perspiration.
- Wounds and bites – Crushed lemon balm leaves have been directly applied to wounds to stop bleeding and prevent infections. The herb is also used to relieve insect, bee and spider bites.
- Memory and cognition – Some historical accounts indicate using lemon balm to “clear the mind,” sharpen focus and improve recall and memory. Using lemon balm for longevity and mental acuity was especially prominent during the Middle Ages.
Modern Scientific Research
While many of lemon balm’s traditional uses come from historical texts and ancient practices, modern research aims to scientifically validate these medicinal applications. Some of the most widely studied medicinal effects with promising results include:
Anxiety and Stress
Several studies demonstrate lemon balm’s anti-anxiety and anti-stress effects in humans. For example, one study showed participants who took lemon balm extract experienced increased calmness and reduced alertness compared to those who took a placebo.
Researchers also find that lemon balm appears to alter brain chemicals related to mood and cognition. Lemon balm extract seems to inhibit an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (AChE). The inhibition of AChE is associated with improved mood, concentration and memory.
Clinical evidence supports the traditional use of lemon balm as a mild sedative to promote sleep. In one study, a combination herbal preparation containing lemon balm produced significant improvements in sleep quality scores compared to placebo over a 4-week period.
Researchers believe components in lemon balm may interact with GABA receptors involved in regulating sleep-wake cycles and sedation. Lemon balm extract may also alter acetylcholine signaling in the brain, which plays a role in promoting REM sleep.
Cognition and Memory
As a popular nootropic or brain-boosting supplement, several trials evaluate lemon balm’s cognition-enhancing effects. Human and animal studies show that lemon balm extract consumption can improve memory, concentration and information processing by enhancing acetylcholine signaling.
One study had 20 healthy young volunteers take capsules containing either a placebo or dried lemon balm leaf at different dosages. Participants taking lemon balm demonstrated dose-dependent improvements in calmness and memory performance on the battery of cognitive tests.
With a history of use against infectious disease, recent research explores lemon balm’s antiviral properties. So far, studies show extracts from the leaves can inhibit viruses from attaching to human cell receptors and prevent viral replication for certain viruses, including herpes simplex virus and HIV.
However, researchers note most clinical trials use combination herbal therapy. Therefore, it is unclear how much of the antiviral effects can be attributed solely to lemon balm versus other herbs. Overall, the antiviral capabilities require further robust investigation.
Health Benefits and Uses
Drawing on traditional uses and corroborating scientific evidence, some of lemon balm’s potential benefits include:
Helps relieve anxiety – The mildly sedative and relaxing effects appear useful for easing symptoms related to anxiety disorders. Lemon balm supplements could benefit people with generalized anxiety, panic attacks and chronic stress.
Promotes sleep – People with insomnia and other sleep disorders may potentially find lemon balm helpful for falling asleep faster and enhancing sleep quality. Lemon balm induces calmness and relaxation while interacting with brain chemicals involved in regulating sleep patterns.
Enhances cognition and memory – As a nootropic or smart supplement, lemon balm may sharpen focus, boost information processing and recall and improve overall cognitive performance. Results are especially promising for age-related cognitive decline.
Fights viral infections – Used historically against infectious disease, lemon balm demonstrates antiviral capabilities against some viruses in clinical models. Further studies could validate effectiveness against herpes, flu, HIV and more.
Relieves indigestion – The carminative and antispasmodic effects offer a natural way to help relax digestive muscles, relieve bloating and gas pain and support healthy digestion.
Alleviates insect bites and stings – Applying lemon balm infusions, essential oils or salves directly to bug bites, bee stings and other skin irritations can reduce swelling, inflammation and discomfort.
Boosts skin health – With antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, lemon balm may protect skin cells from free radical damage related to aging, UV exposure and other factors that degrade collagen and skin firmness.
Supports women’s health issues – Lemon balm teas and extracts have been used traditionally to address breastfeeding problems, menstruation pain and irregularities, menopause symptoms and low libido in women. Clinical evidence is limited but promising.
Forms and Preparations
There are several ways to prepare and use lemon balm:
- Tea – The most popular method is drinking lemon balm tea. Dried or fresh leaves are steeped in hot water for 5 to 10 minutes for the medicinal compounds to infuse into the water. Honey can be added as a natural sweetener.
- Tinctures – Lemon balm tinctures made by soaking the leaves in alcohol base are also common. Tinctures make it easier to achieve standardized dosing. Drops can be mixed into water, tea or smoothies.
- Capsules – For convenience, standardized lemon balm extract is available in capsule/pill form providing specific concentrations of active compounds. This allows for more precise dosing.
- Essential oil – Distilling lemon balm leaves produces a potent aromatic essential oil containing higher amounts of medicinal compounds. The oil can be applied topically, inhaled aromatically or taken orally in small diluted doses.
- Topical products – Creams, salves and ointments infused with lemon balm oil or extract can be applied directly to the skin surface. Topical use targets localized issues like bug bites, sores, skin irritation, muscle and joint pain.
- Food and drink – Additionally, lemon balm leaves can be used to make flavored vinegars, teas, liqueurs and added either fresh or dried as a flavorful herb to recipes.
Because lemon balm is available in various forms, there is no standardized dosage. Typical dosages depend on preparation method and desired therapeutic use. Some general dosage guidelines include:
- Tea – Traditional medicinal tea uses 2-4 grams dried leaves per cup of hot water, steeped for 5+ minutes up to three times daily.
- Tinctures – Tincture labels provide the concentration and recommended dosing. But common dosage of lemon balm tincture is between 20 – 80 drops, one to three times per day.
- Capsules – Like tinctures, capsules list specific concentrations (e.g. 500 mg). Research studies often use between 300 – 600 mg capsules once or twice daily.
- Essential oil – Being highly concentrated, lemon balm oil doses are much smaller – typically 2 to 3 drops diluted into water, juices, vinegar or honey and taken up to 3 times per day.
- Topical – For skin application, use creams, ointments or salves containing up to 5% lemon balm oil 2 to 3 times per day. Essential oil can be diluted with a carrier oil before applying to skin.
For best results when ingesting lemon balm medicinally, most research indicates taking it regularly for a minimum of 4 – 6 weeks. Always start with lower doses and consult your doctor before using lemon balm supplements for any serious health condition.
Side Effects and Safety
When used appropriately, lemon balm is very safe for most people. Mild side effects reported in some cases include gastrointestinal upset like nausea, abdominal pain or dizziness.
Findings related to safety and drug interactions are:
- Considered safe for short term use in adults when used at recommended dosages. Safety during pregnancy is unknown, so should be avoided.
- Can negatively interact with thyroid medications, glaucoma drops containing cholinergic agents, sedatives and other medications that cause drowsiness.
- Allergic reactions are rare but possible if allergic to other plants in the mint family like basil, oregano or peppermint.
- Lemon balm essential oil should not be applied directly to skin without diluting first to prevent skin irritation. Should not be taken in amounts larger than a few drops due to toxicity risk.
As with any supplement, consult your doctor before taking lemon balm if you take any medications or have any medical conditions. Doing so will help avoid potential negative interactions with medications or health issues.
Lemon balm is a lemon-scented herb that has been used medicinally since ancient times. Today, with more supporting clinical evidence, we know this versatile herb has a wide array of potential therapeutic benefits. In proper doses, lemon balm appears generally safe and well-tolerated. More research is still needed, especially large scale human trials, to validate and expand on many of lemon balm’s purported medicinal effects. But thus far, supplementing with this pleasant-tasting herb shows promise for enhancing mood, memory, sleep, skin health, digestive function and more.