A member of the mint family, lemon balm exhibits many of the group’s traits, such as squared-off stems, opposing leaves, unassuming blossoms and a bouquet of aromatic essential oils. However, whereas most mints’ redolence derives from pungent menthols, menthones and carvones, lemon balm’s aroma and flavor arise from geraniol, linalool and citronellal. Lemon balm is characterized by a more sedate demeanor, too: unlike many mints that spread aggressively via subterranean rhizomes, Melissa tends to stay put—though it may self-seed in favorable locations.
At least three millennia ago, lemon balm was known to Tibetan monks, who burned it as incense to promote tranquility. In the Middle Ages, Charlemagne decreed that lemon balm be planted in monastery gardens, where it could be readily harvested and used to “reduce stress and anxiety, promote sleep, improve appetite, and ease pain and discomfort from indigestion (including gas and bloating, as well as colic).”1 Even before Charlemagne’s time, lemon balm was steeped in wine to banish depression, and it was applied topically to heal abrasions, cuts, bruises and contusions and to soothe the bites and stings of insects.
In addition to its essential oils, M. officinalis is a repository for monoterpenoids, flavonoids (quercitin, rhamnetin, apigenin and luteolin), polyphenolic compounds (rosmarinic acid, caffeic acid and protocatechuic acid), hydroxycinnamic acid, triterpenes (ursolic and oleanolic acids), sesquiterpenes and tannins.2 While nature designed these compounds to defend lemon balm from infectious microorganisms, foraging insects and grazing vertebrates, many of them exert beneficial pharmacological effects in humans, too.
Anti-Anxiety and Sedative Properties
One of the most popular and enduring uses for lemon balm is as a soothing tea. Anyone who has enjoyed a draught of infused Melissa leaves might simply ascribe its calming effects to the distinctive lemony ambiance hovering above the cup. (After all, who would deny lemon balm’s aromatherapeutic potency?) However, several of the plant’s less volatile chemical constituents are known to possess anxiolytic and sedative properties, as well.
In 2010, French researchers working with 20 stressed but otherwise healthy adults showed that a standardized extract of M. officinalis (Cyracos®) relieved anxiety or insomnia within two weeks in up to 95 percent of the test subjects. Seventy percent reported full remission for both symptoms. The authors of the study reported that Melissa’s salutary influence on anxiety and insomnia were most likely due to its ability to inhibit the breakdown of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is a calming neurotransmitter.3
Other investigators have attributed lemon balm’s neuropsychiatric benefits to its modulation of acetylcholine receptors within the human central nervous system.4 In clinical trials, M. officinalis has been shown to benefit patients with Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by decreased cholinergic activity. In 2003, a double-blinded, multicenter trial involving 42 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s demonstrated preserved cognition and reduced agitation in the subjects taking lemon balm extract.5
Lemon balm is widely known for its antiviral properties, which have been exploited by native healers and herbalists for generations. In vitro studies of M. officinalis extracts reveal its activity against a number of human pathogens, including herpes simplex viruses, influenza A, parainfluenza, mumps, HIV and vaccinia (a smallpox-like virus).6,7
The antiviral properties of lemon balm are believed to reside in its phenols, with rosmarinic acid being one of the more active compounds. Viral attachment, cellular penetration and replication all appear to be inhibited by aqueous extracts of M. officinalis, which in some cases slows the replication of drug-resistant viruses.8
Smooth Muscle Relaxation
Traditionally, Melissa has been used to promote digestion and relieve gas and the griping abdominal pain associated with intestinal hypermotility. In tissue culture studies, extracts of lemon balm leaves have demonstrated antispasmodic activity in histamine-stimulated smooth muscles of guinea-pig intestine and trachea. Melissa’s smooth muscle-relaxing properties are often exploited by women who suffer from dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps).
The German Commission E Monograph cites Melissa as a treatment for functional gastrointestinal complaints, digestive spasm and “flatulent dyspepsia.”6 Lemon balm’s carminative properties could prove useful for alleviating the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome or the persistent queasiness, irregularity and discomfort that sometimes follows a bout of viral gastroenteritis.
Medicinal plants are a major source of antioxidants, and Melissa is no exception. The phenols and flavonoids found in lemon balm leaves—rosmarinic acid, apigenin and caffeic acid, to name a few—are known to exert potent free radical scavenging activities at levels that are attainable in plasma and tissue.9
In vitro and animal studies suggest that Melissa’s antioxidant properties could make it valuable in any number of clinical situations. One investigation, for example, showed that lemon balm’s antioxidant constituents exerted a protective effect on the livers of rats that had been administered high doses of atorvastatin, a drug used to treat high cholesterol in humans.10
Safety and Dosing
Like many herbs, lemon balm has not been well studied in pregnant or nursing women. Thus, it should only be used in these settings under the supervision of a healthcare professional. As with all botanical preparations, some people may be allergic to lemon balm. Discontinue use if signs of allergy occur (difficulty breathing, rash, itching, etc.).
Lemon balm may interact with other herbs or medications, particularly those that cause drowsiness. Individuals who take sedatives, pain medications or antidepressants should check with their doctors before using lemon balm. Some concerns have been raised that lemon balm could interact with anti-HIV drugs; people taking antiretroviral drugs should consult their physicians prior to taking any preparation containing M. officinalis.
Dosing recommendations for lemon balm differ with the preparation used and the condition being addressed. For sleeping difficulties or to reduce indigestion, flatulence, cramping or bloating, the following doses are suggestions:
- Capsules: 300-500 mg 2-3 times daily; adjust dosage as needed
- Tea (infusion of dried leaves): 2-5 grams (about ½ to 1 tsp) steeped in 1 cup hot water. Drink up to 4 times daily
- Tincture: 30 to 45 drops 2-3 times daily
- Topical (cream): Apply to affected area 3-4 times daily
- For herpes (cold sores), steep 3-4 teaspoons of crushed Melissa leaves in boiling water for 10 minutes. Allow to cool. Use cotton balls to apply tea to cold sores as needed throughout the day
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Lemon Balm
- Basar SN, Zama R. An Overview of Badranjboya (Melissa officinalis). Int Res J Biol Sci. 2013;2(12):107-109
- Cases J, Ibarra A, Feuille`re N, et al. Pilot trial of Melissa ofﬁcinalis L. leaf extract in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Mediterr J Nutr Metab. 2011;4:211–21
- Wake G, Court J, Pickering A, et al. CNS acetylcholine receptor activity in European medicinal plants traditionally used to improve failing memory. J Ethnopharmacol. 2000;69(2):105-14
- Akhondzadeh S, Noroozian M, Mohammadi M, et al. Melissa officinalis extract in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled trial. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2003;74:863-866
- Parameswari G, Meenatchisundaram S, Subbraj T, et al. Note on pharmacological activities of Melissa officinalis L. Ethnobotanical Leaflets. 2009;13: 211-12
- Geuenich S, Goffinet C, Venzke S, et al. Aqueous extracts from peppermint, sage and le
- Astani A, Heidary Navid M, Schnitzler P. Attachment and penetration of acyclovir-resistant herpes simplex virus are inhibited by Melissa officinalis extract. Phytother Res. 2014 May 12
- Mimica-Dukic M, Bozin B, Sokovic M, et al. Antimicrobial and antioxidant activities of Melissa officinalis L. (Lamiaceae) essential oil. J Agric Food Chem. 2004;52(9):2485–2489
- Zarei A, Changizi Ashtiyani S, Taheri S, Rasekh F. Comparison between effects of different doses of Melissa officinalis and atorvastatin on the activity of liver enzymes in hypercholesterolemia rat. Avicenna J Phytomed. 2014;4(1):15-23