Lemon balm, also known by its scientific nameMelissa officinalis, is a flowering perennial plant that belongs to the mint family of plants. Lemon balm originates from Europe in the Mediterranean Basin, Iran, and Central Asia. Following the colonization of America by European colonists, lemon balm is now naturalized in many regions of North America.
Lemon balm contains plant chemicals including antioxidants and natural oils that make the plant ideal for use in supplements, essential oils, aromatherapy, and tea. When used for its potential medicinal benefits, lemon balm is believed to provide support for the immune system, the heart, brain, a healthy sleep cycle, feelings of relaxation, and digestion. Lemon balm has hints of lemon, grass, and flowers.
What Is Lemon Balm?
Lemon balm has been known by many names, including English balm, blammint, and heart’s delight. (1) The plant is also known as honey plant or bee balm because it attracts honey bees. Additionally, compounds in the plant have been shown to promote the function of the worker honey bee’s Nasonov gland, a component of the bee’s communication system that allows them to signal food sources and the hive location to other bees.
Lemon balm can reach a height of up to 5 feet in ideal growing conditions. The plant has a bushy appearance with oval leaves that sprout smooth hairs that grow on squared branching stems. The plant produces small fruit nutlets and whorled clusters of pale colored flowers. Lemon balm typically grows in sandy soils and damp wastelands from sea level up to higher mountainous elevations.
Lemon Balm History
The Herb Society of America writes that the first recorded use of lemon balm dates back to ancient Greece. (2) In Greek, Melissa means bee, and officinalis means to use in medicine. Greek scholars wrote of planting the lemon balm near hives to encourage the return of bees. They would also rub the leaves on the hive to encourage hive strength. In Greek mythology, Melissa was a nymph who nursed the infant Zeus with honey. Zeus would then grow to become the most powerful Greek god. (3) The goddess Artemis and Oracle at Delphi were also referred to as bees, which became a title given to powerful women, and was also associated with immortality.
Both the Greeks and Romans put lemon balm in wine, believing it could protect against animal venoms, remove melancholy, cure gout, and helped with the liver and digestion. Some medicinal practitioners applied the plant leaves on boils and skin wounds, and even balding heads. Later in the 15th and 16th centuries, monks created a concoction named carmelite water. This liquid blended lemon balm, lemon peel, nutmeg, and angelica root infused in alcohol. (4) This blend would either be poured into a bath for its fragrant qualities, or drank for medicinal purposes.
In the early days of North American colonization, lemon balm was used to make potpourri, tea, and as a substitute for lemons in jams and jellies. In the same era, Europeans were known to spread the leaves on floors and in church pews. The oil was often found useful for polishing furniture. In modern Germany, the German Commission E, an analogue for the United States Food and Drug Administration, “has approved lemon balm to treat flatulence and digestive tract spasms.” (5) Astrologists suggest that lemon balm may be beneficial for those with the astrological signs Cancer, Sagittarius, or Aquarius.
Potential Lemon Balm Benefits
Lemon balm is known to produce plant compounds that are believed to provide a range of medicinal effects in the body. These potential benefits may be available when lemon balm is ingested, inhaled, or applied directly to the skin. Research into how these compounds interact with the body is ongoing, and while there is no conclusive evidence, the continued use of lemon balm over the past several thousand years is encouraging to both researchers and users. Currently, it is believed that lemon balm may support:
- Sleep cycle
- Clarity, focus, and memory
- Mood and behavior
- Immune system
- Blood sugar already within the normal range
Menopause is a life stage for women that results in changes to the production and function of hormones in the body. One complaint of menopause is an inability to sleep as a result of hot flashes. In a study examining the effect of both valerian or lemon balm on 100 women between the ages of 50 and 60 who complained about sleep disorders, researchers found that both lemon balm and valerian assisted in “reducing symptoms of sleep disorders during menopause." (6)
Lemon balm oil has been noted as having properties that may support the brain in several ways. (7) Lemon balm contains several compounds that act as antioxidants in the body. These antioxidants may support a healthy internal response to microbial challenges and the normal removal of free radicals like metabolic waste. The process of removing oxides helps to protect healthy cells from being damaged. (8) However, the continued presence of oxidative factors has been associated with “neuronal cell injury in various pathological states of the brain” that can result in progressive cognitive decline.
In another study, researchers identified receptor-binding properties of lemon balm that may contribute to memory, relaxation, and sleep support. (9) In the research, a group of 20 individuals were given a single dose of 600, 1000, and 1600 mg of encapsulated lemon balm dried leaf, or a placebo. At seven day intervals, cognitive performance and mood were assessed prior to and after each dose. The study found that “the most notable cognitive and mood effects were improved memory performance and increased 'calmness' at all post-dose time points for the highest (1600 mg) dose.” While the highest dose resulted in the best performance, speed of timed memory task performance and on a rapid visual information-processing task also showed improvements with every dose of lemon balm.
Mood and Behavior
In a study on the effect of lemon balm leaf extract on individuals suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances, researchers administered a standardized lemon balm extract that contains phytochemicals that have been shown to inhibit gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) catabolism. (10) Inhibiting the normal catabolism of this compound is believed to disrupt normal signaling between certain receptors in the brain.
The study included six males and 14 females between the ages of 18 and 70 who identified as having mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbance. Each took a 600 mg pill that contained the lemon balm ingredients. Before, during, and after the study, medical interviews were conducted to measure baselines and overall clinical change in symptoms.
At the end of the study, administering the standardized lemon balm extract resulted in “reduced anxiety manifestations by 18%, ameliorated anxiety-associated symptoms by 15%, and lowered insomnia by 42%. As much as 95% of subjects (19 out of 20) responded to treatment, of which 70% (14 out of 20) achieved full remission for anxiety, 85% (17 out of 20) for insomnia, and 70% (14 out of 20) for both. However, these results are only representative of improvements when taking the standardized lemon balm extract used in this study. Other formulations made with lemon balm may not provide the same results.
Several components of the lemon balm plant are known to support a healthy immune system, including support for microbial and pathogenic challenges. (11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16) Specifically, studies have looked into the volatile oils that make up to 0.1% of the plant’s weight. These volatile oils may be “effective as an antibiotic against anaerobic and facultative aerobic periodontal bacteria including, Porphyromonas gingivalis, Prevotella spp., Fusobacterium nucleatum, Capnocytophaga gingivalis, Veilonella parvula, Eikenella corrodens, Peptostreptococcus micros, and Actinomyces odontolyticus.” Additionally, researchers have examined the potential effects of lemon balm “against Newcastle disease virus, Semliki forest virus, influenza virus, myxoviruses, vaccinia, and herpes simplex virus.” (17) However, these studies have not been found to be conclusive.
Ways to Use Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is a very versatile plant. The leaves, flowers, fruit, and stem can all be found in a range of products, from supplements, to personal care and beauty items, essential oils, and even tea. Each method of using lemon balm oil may provide unique results. Consider some of these popular ways to enjoy the many potential benefits of lemon balm.
Lemon Balm Essential Oil
Essential oils are derived from plants during an extraction process that results in a concentrated liquid. This liquid contains many if not all of the naturally occurring chemical compounds found in the plant, such as terpenes, esters, aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, phenols, and oxides, which are volatile, meaning they will evaporate more efficiently when exposed to air. But each plant is different, may produce a unique aroma, and may have unique absorption properties. Each essential oil may be available as a single note (containing only one plant extract) or a blend (containing two or more plant extracts).
There are several ways to enjoy a single note or blended lemon balm essential oil. (18) First is in aromatherapy, which involves diluting the oil in water, then adding this mixture to a diffuser. When inhaled, lemon balm is believed to interact with the brain to provide feelings of relaxation and support for signaling in the central nervous system. A second option is to use essential oils topically, such as during a massage or applied directly to the skin as part of a normal routine. Before using an essential oil topically, it needs to be diluted in a carrier oil. These can include the oils of almond, jojoba, apricot, coconut, olive, argan, rosehip, and black seed. (19) A third option includes adding the oils to lotions, wax candles, household cleaners, bug sprays, and beauty products.
Before using an essential oil, after adding it to a carrier oil, test it on a small portion of the skin. Some people have unknown sensitivities to plant oils and other compounds that may be present in oils. Pregnancy women and people taking medication should consult with a physician before use.
Lemon Balm Tea
Tea is another way that you can enjoy the potential medicinal benefits, and distinct flavors of almost any herb. However, because the lemon balm plant can be considered weak in regards to flavor, some premixed teas and tea recipes recommend mixing additional herbs with lemon balm. Consider making each batch of tea with a combination of dried lemon balm leaf with peppermint, marshmallow leaf, oat straw, seedless rose hips, orange peel, and lavender. Mix and match different herbs to taste. To make a cup of tea, mix all of the herbs then add 1 rounded tablespoon to boiling water. Cover and steep for 20 minutes. Strain and mix with milk, honey, or a sweetener of choice.
Lemon Balm Supplement
Lemon balm supplements offer a convenient method of enjoying the potential medicinal benefits of lemon balm. Lemon balm supplements are available in the form of capsules with whole lemon balm and extracts, tablets with powdered lemon balm, tinctures that extract lemon balm in alcohol, and packets with old cut and sifted lemon balm plant parts. Lemon balm may also be combined with other ingredients known to support relaxation, a healthy sleep cycle, and more.
Lemon Balm Dosing, Interactions, and Warnings
There are no established guidelines for lemon balm dosages within each age group or gender. Herbs contain biological compounds that may interact with other drugs and prescriptions. Because lemon balm is sometimes advertised to support relaxation, calm, and sleep, caution should be used when taking sedatives for insomnia or anxiety, and medications that regulate the thyroid. (20) It is not known if lemon balm interacts with antiviral or antiretroviral agents, but caution should be used.
Before taking supplements, consult with a physician, and reference the manufacturer’s recommended use for guidelines to determine a safe dosage. Tea, tinctures, and topical applications of lemon balm may be harder to determine. If changes to health occur when using lemon balm, immediately stop use and consult a physician.
Growing Lemon Balm
Grow lemon balm in full or partial shade. The plant prefers soil that is moist, but also provides a good amount of drainage, so rocky or sandy soils may be best. (21) Once the plant matures, plant the seeds that it produces, or cut the stems and replant them. Unlike mint, which is very similar in appearance, lemon balm does not spread under the soil; instead, it relies on dropping seeds. To prevent unwanted spreading, prune the flowering stalks before they produce the seeds. To encourage growth, thin the plant to allow more air circulation, or cut the plant by half, then water. Do this in the summer.
When harvesting, cut the stems during any season, then bundle and hang in well-ventilated, dry, dark, and warm location. (22) Once dry, remove the leaves and store them in a container. Freeze for later use. Note that fresh leaves will provide optimal flavor.
Start Using Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is a flavorful plant with aromatic qualities similar to lemon, and it has several potentially beneficial medicinal properties. While research continues to investigate the many ways that lemon balm may support health and wellness, it is understood that for thousands of year people have been using this herb for many different purposes.
Lemon balm can be found in a range of products that make it convenient to experience this herb. Whether it is used in a health and beauty product, a supplement, taken as a tea, or used for any other purpose, lemon balm may be ideal for anyone looking to experience a new herb.