The subtle lemony scent is what gives true lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) its name. Apart from its use as an aromatic herb for cooking, lemon balm is often used as a botanical medicinal because of its soothing effects. Lemon balm offers a gentle remedy for sleep disorders, anxiety, stress and nervous tension. It can also relieve cramps and have a soothing effect on gastrointestinal problems. Read on to find out more about lemon balm’s health benefits and medical applications.
Lemon balm’s origins and habitats
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) belongs to the Melissa genus, which comprises just four species. Three rarer types are found only in Asia: Melissa flava is found in Tibet and in the Himalayas, Melissa yunnanensis grows only in Tibet and in the Yunnan province of southwest China and Melissa axillaris is found from Nepal to China.
By far the most common of the four species is lemon balm, or Melissa officinalis, which is found in large areas of southern Europe (mainly in the eastern Mediterranean regions), in northern Africa and western Asia. Melissa belongs to the Lamiaceae family and is related to several other seasoning herbs, including rosemary, thyme and sage. Like these, lemon balm is also used as a seasoning. Its leaves add a lovely citrusy note to salads, fish, fruits, sorbets and sweets. The herb is also perfect for making pesto. It is, therefore, no surprise that lemon balm is a popular garden plant. The plants often become overgrown and for this reason, the herb can sometimes be found growing in the wild. Lemon balm prefers sandy-to-loamy, nutrient-rich soils.
What does lemon balm look like?
Lemon balm is a bushy herb that can grow to a height of one metre. The leaves look similar to those of the peppermint plant. The plant is characterised by its pleasant citrusy smell, which becomes more intense when the leaves are rubbed. This scent comes from the essential oil in the plant. The oil can be seen with a good magnifying glass and is found in the glandular hairs on the underside of the leaves. The plant blooms between June and August, when it forms numerous small white to pinkish flowers. Lemon balm is also sometimes called bee balm because its flowers are irresistible to bees.
The plant is a perennial that can even survive cold winters thanks to its rhizome, or the part of its shoot which grows below the surface of the soil. When grown in gardens, it tends to flourish and become overgrown.
The effects and active agents of Melissa officinalis
For medicinal purposes, lemon balm leaves are used to make tea, tinctures or dry extracts. In addition to essential oils, they contain large quantities of what are known as Lamiaceen tannins, such as coffeic acid or rosemarinic acid, which have cramp-relieving, antimicrobial and antiviral effects.
The lemony smell and flavour of the medicinal plant comes from the essential oil that contains volatile aromatics such as citral and citronellal. Lemon balm leaves also contain amaroids, mucilage, saponins and flavonoids.
The essential oil and Lamiaceen tannins (phenol carboxylic acids) appear to be mainly responsible for the plant’s medicinal effect. The chemical makeup can depend greatly on the variety, cultivation technique and harvesting of the medicinal plant, so you should use regulated tea preparations or ready-to-use medicinal products from the pharmacy. You can make lemon balm tea yourself with fresh or dried lemon balm leaves. Whenever making medicinal tea with any essential oil, it is important to keep it covered while it steeps. Then simply swill the condensate under the lid back into the cup with a splash of hot water.
How is lemon balm used?
Lemon balm is particularly effective for treating everyday mental disturbances and their physical impact. Traditionally, the plant is used to treat anxiety and nervousness as well as to help alleviate the associated gastrointestinal problems. Recent studies have shown that when used topically it has an antiviral effect that can help fight off herpes.
Lemon balm for nervousness and sleep disorders
Melissa officinalis has a calming, anti-anxiety effect. Extracts from lemon balm leaves combine well with other medicinal plants that also have a calming effect. There are preparations containing an extract from Melissa officinalis as well as valerian root, passionflower and butterbur. While these medicinal plants have similar effects, they differ in their mechanisms of action, complementing each other perfectly in combination.
Melissa officinalis combined with valerian root, butterbur and passionflower is taken for nervousness, anxiety and stress. It is also good for test anxiety and minor sleep disorders and can help alleviate anxiety-related symptoms, such as cramp-like gastrointestinal problems, upset stomach or irritability.
Other uses for lemon balm
Lemon balm can be taken for all kinds of nervous and stress-related symptoms. In addition, it appears to have a direct effect on the gastrointestinal tract. The plant is traditionally taken as a digestive aid by people with gastrointestinal symptoms and has been reported to help alleviate cramps and bloating.
Recent laboratory tests have shown that Melissa officinalis has an anti-viral effect and can therefore help fight Herpes labialis (cold sores). Because ingredients such as rosemarinic acid have an antimicrobial and antiviral effect, lemon balm extract is an effective ingredient for treating herpes – often used in ointments, creams and oils.
Please note: Herbal remedies may also have interactions and side effects. Therefore, please read the package insert and consult your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions.