Herbal Lemon Balm: Background and Overview
Recently the healthcare community has focused new interest on herbal lemon balm. Practitioners and researchers are studying the plant for effectiveness in managing a wide variety of conditions. Ailments ranging from digestive problems and insomnia to herpes virus and Alzheimer’s disease may respond to treatment with lemon balm.
Why Is There So Much Interest in Herbal Lemon Balm Now?
Research continues, but scientists have already discovered some potentially powerful constituents in leaves, flowers and stems of the lemon balm plant. Essential oils manufactured from the leaves contain a significant quantity of the plant chemicals called terpenes. These organic hydrocarbons play at least some role in the herb’s reputed relaxing effects. Lemon balm also contains tannins, probably responsible for many of the herb’s antiviral properties. In addition it contains eugenol, which calms muscle spasms, numbs tissues and kills bacteria. Citral, citronella and geraniol are other active components of lemon balm.
Lemon balm is available in the general retail marketplace or online for purchase in bulk as a dried leaf. It is also sold in the form of a tea or as a component in capsules, extracts, tinctures and oils. In addition some homeopathic blended remedies and aromatherapy essential oils include lemon balm as a component. Some European topical creams contain such high levels of the herb, though, that those products may not be available for purchase in the United States. As an alternative, brewed lemon balm teas, instead, can be directly applied to the skin using cotton balls.
Current Medicinal Uses of Herbal Lemon Balm
Some healthcare practitioners recommend lemon balm, with varying proof of efficacy, to manage wide-ranging symptoms. Among the applications under study now are the following, each with a link to the review of pertinent research:
- herpes virus
- Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
- hyperthyroidism/Graves’ disease
- digestive problems
- mood, stress and mental performance
Potential Side Effects of Herbal Lemon Balm
Clinical trials generally report no adverse reactions, and topical lemon balm is not associated with any significant side effects. As with other herbs, though, allergic reactions and hypersensitivity could always be possible. Oral lemon balm appears on the FDA’s GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list. Sedating effects of the herb do not seem to be intensified by alcohol.
— cautions —
1.) One study suggests that lemon balm may reduce alertness and impair mental function in some individuals. The actual effect probably varies depending upon dosage amounts and individual body metabolism rate. Subjects engaging in activities that require alertness probably should avoid using the herb beforehand. Use caution with lemon balm intake whenever operating a motor vehicle or heavy machinery.
2.) At least one animal study suggests that if lemon balm is taken orally at the same time as standard sedative drugs, it might amplify the effect. In this way lemon balm potentially could lead to excessive sedation.
3.) People with glaucoma should avoid the volatile oil of this herb. More human studies are needed because research suggests that lemon balm may raise pressure in the eye of lab animal test subjects.
4.) Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take this herb unless specifically prescribed by a healthcare professional.
The use of herbs has been a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and managing disease symptoms. Herbs, however, can contain components that occasionally might trigger side effects and/or interact with other herbs, supplements or medications. Herbal remedies generally should be taken with care and preferably under the supervision of a healthcare provider qualified in the field of botanical medicine.
Potential Interaction with Pharmaceutical Drugs (synergism/antagonism)
- sedatives: Lemon balm may interact with some sedatives. There is evidence in animal studies that the herb can potentiate the effects of prescription drugs phenobarbital and hexobarbital. It is also possible that certain over-the-counter products used to treat insomnia or anxiety could interact with lemon balm. Individuals under treatment with sedative medication should consult with a qualified healthcare professional before taking lemon balm.
- thyroid medications: Lemon Balm has an effect upon the thyroid hormone (TSH) in Grave’s disease. At least one scientific paper cautions against the use of lemon balm if an individual exhibits propensity toward hypothyroidism. There is concern that, in such a situation, the level of TSH could fall even farther. In addition to its anti-TSH effect, the herb may also prevent intestinal thyroxine absorption. Lemon balm seems to strengthen rather than stimulate thyroid function. When taking drugs such as thyroxine to regulate thyroid function, an individual should use this herb only on the specific advice of a qualified medical caregiver.
- HIV medications: It is not yet clear whether lemon balm interacts with antiretroviral agents. Individuals taking medication for HIV should avoid using the herb unless a physician prescribes otherwise.
Identity and Description of Herbal Lemon Balm
Lemon balm (scientific name: Melissa officinalis) is a low-growing perennial herb related to the mint family. The name Melissa corresponds to a Greek word for bee. It refers to the bee’s attraction to this flower and the quality of the honey produced from it. The word balm is a contraction of the word “balsam”. Local variations for the name include: lemon balm, Melisa/Melissa, sweet balm, bálsamo de limón, balm, cure-all, dropsy plant, honey plant, Melissae Folium, Mélisse, Mélisse Citronnelle, Melissenblatt, Monarde, sweet Mary and toronjil. The plant can grow up to two feet tall, sometimes even higher if not conservatively cultivated or maintained.
In spring and summer clusters of small, light yellow or white flowers, attractive to bees and other insects, grow where lemon balm leaves meet the stem. These leaves, much like those of mint, are round and heart-shaped. Lemon balm leaves, though, are very deeply wrinkled. Depending on the soil and climate, they can range from dark green to yellowish-green in color. Usually harvested for commercial use before the plant actually flowers, the leaves smell tart and sweet (much like lemons) when bruised or rubbed.
History of Herbal Lemon Balm
Indigenous to the Mediterranean region and western Asia, lemon balm is now grows all over Europe, Asia and North America. Historically the herb was dedicated to the goddess Diana. The Greeks probably used it medicinally as early as 2000 years ago. Records show that Charlemagne once ordered lemon balm planted in every monastery garden because of its beauty.
Over the last two thousand years mankind has used lemon balm for its medicinal, aromatic and uplifting qualities. An old Arabian proverb celebrates it as: “Balm that makes the heart merry and joyful.” In past centuries people scattered this beautifully-scented herb across floors or between church pews to freshen up rooms. It even had a role in polishing antique furniture. Today horticulturists grow lemon balm not only in herb gardens or simply to attract bees but also in crop lots for medicine, cosmetics, furniture polish manufacturing and other assorted purposes.
Historical Health Uses for Herbal Lemon Balm
For centuries people have used lemon balm to reduce stress or anxiety and to promote sleep. They improve appetite and ease pain or discomfort from indigestion caused by gas and bloating as well as colic. Even before the Middle Ages healers commonly steeped the herb in wine and administered it orally to lift the spirits. Additionally they applied it topically as a surgical dressing to help heal wounds and to treat venomous insect bites and scorpion stings. Documentation of its use in herbal medicine extends back to the times of Pliny (Roman, AD 23-79), Dioscorides (Greek, AD 40-90), Paracelsus (Austrian, 1493-1541) and John Gerard (English, 1545-1612).
In the Middles Ages healers prescribed lemon balm extensively to soothe tension and nervous stomach. Healers recommended it to dress wounds and to cure toothache, skin eruptions, mad dog bites, crooked necks and sickness during pregnancy. At that time some practitioners even touted lemon balm as a means to prevent baldness. They employed it against bronchial inflammation, earache, fever, flatulence, headaches, high blood pressure, influenza, mood disorders, insomnia, anxiety, depression, palpitations, toothache and vomiting. Midwives and other traditional healers recommended tea made from lemon balm leaves to soothe menstrual cramps and help relieve PMS.
Current Alternative/Commercial Uses of Lemon Balm
- Herbal remedies incorporate lemon balm leaves, stems and flowers all for medicinal purposes.
- Lemon balm is a popular oil in aromatherapy. The pure, sweet aroma of the oil promotes a feeling of relaxation and calm to help relieve depression, melancholy and nervous tension.
- Crushed lemon balm leaves, when rubbed on the skin, are effective for use as a mosquito repellent. When blended with other insect-repelling herbs (e.g., lavender, lemongrass and rue) and used to rub down a kitchen table, lemon balm can keep bugs away from food at serving time. You can even throw it into the campfire or barbeque pit to keep pesky insects away from the meal preparation area.
- The extract and the oil of lemon balm enhance taste of many foods and beverages. It imparts flavor to ice cream and to herbal teas, both hot and iced. It combines well with other herbs, such as spearmint or peppermint, to further enhance the flavor. The herb is also often paired for flavor with fruit dishes and candies. Its leaves often appear as a garnish for beverages, salads and main dishes. It works well, too, in fish dishes and in fact is the key ingredient in a very delicious lemon balm pesto.
- Frequently incorporated into cosmetics, lemon balm soothes and cleanses the skin. It may also reduce fine lines.
- Lemon balm is a key manufacturing ingredient in high-end furniture polish and wood-care products.
- The lush perennial lemon balm plant grows well in any partly-shaded environment. It attracts bees to the area and thereby improves pollination of neighboring plants. It is a great green filler for garden landscaping. Lemon balm also grows nicely in an inside pot or other container.