Sometimes, the most beneficial natural health remedies are the ones that have been around the longest. That’s certainly the case with lemon balm, a fast-growing herb that’s been studied for its effects on everything from insomnia to cancer. (1)
Used in teas, cooking and to make Melissa essential oil, lemon balm has been prescribed by doctors since the Middle Ages as a natural remedy to improve sleep, reduce anxiety, heal wounds and promote longevity. Today, its benefits have been widely studied, especially in Europe and the Middle East, where the plant originated.
Once you realize how many ways you can benefit from the many uses of lemon balm, I’m sure you’ll be itching to grow some in your own garden.
Lemon Balm Nutrition
The perennial lemon balm plant is a member of the mint family. Known officially as Melissa officinalis, it is sometimes referred to as common balm or balm mint. (2) Its native home is in the more southern parts of Europe and various parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, but it’s now grown regularly in the Americas and various other locations around the world. (3)
The most useful parts of the plant (and the way it found its name) are the leaves. You can use the lemon-scented leaves to make tea, flavor dishes, create perfume oil and to repel insects. Some people even use it to make homemade toothpaste.
Various lemon balm uses have been employed in traditional medicine, especially in European countries such as Austria. (4) In fact, lemon balm is an ingredient in Carmelite water, an alcoholic extract beverage formulated in the 14th century that’s still for sale in Germany. It’s said to be useful in treating headaches and nerve pain. (5)
9 Benefits of Lemon Balm
1. Protects against heart and liver problems
Two commonly studied mechanisms of lemon balm are its ability to protect the heart and liver.
Lemon balm essential oil (sometimes known as Melissa oil) can actually lower high triglycerides when used aromatically, as well as improve cholesterol synthesis in the liver. The same 2012 study that discovered these results also revealed that inhaling lemon balm oil reduces some of the factors that lead to perpetual growth of a common liver cancer cell. (6)
Another heart-related benefit of lemon balm may be its ability to protect the heart from various types of injuries. Researchers gave an oral extract of the plant to animals in a 2016 study. This resulted in a reduction of heart rate and blood pressure and indicated a resistance to heart injury in lower doses. (7)
Lemon balm also seems to have an impact on the mechanics and electrical impulses of the heart.
Traditional Iranian Medicine has used it as a therapy for some time to treat heart palpitations. The science seems to back up this use. In a trial using an orally administered extract of lemon balm leaf, subjects seemed to experience a significant drop in benign heart palpitation episodes. (8) This may be related to the way lemon balm seems to affect mood, which I’ll discuss a little later.
Another electrical change lemon balm seems to provide is in regulating heart arrhythmias. An arrhythmia means the heart beats faster or slower than it should or at irregular intervals. Melissa officinalis seems to reduce the occurrence of premature beats, tachycardia and fibrillation within the heart, all without causing any negative side effects. (9)
Lemon balm extract also causes major changes in electrocardiogram results, according to introductory research, that seem to extend electrical interval times. It’s not certain yet exactly what clinical benefits this may provide. But the pilot study in Iran that first documented the results is a significant discovery. (10)
2. Functions as a natural antibacterial agent
Because of lemon balm’s long history in traditional medicine, researchers have studied how effective it actually protects against disease-causing agents, such as harmful bacteria. It turns out that lemon balm kombucha has antibacterial qualities and may help to naturally fight infectious bacteria. (11)
Lemon balm oil specifically shows a high level of antibacterial activity against candida. This is a common yeast infection that causes a number of symptoms including exhaustion, brain fog, digestive problems and a weakened immune system. (12)
3. May be useful against diabetes
Diabetes is a rampant problem in Western health. While it’s very common for traditional practitioners to prescribe a number of medications with dangerous side effects to treat it, it’s actually possible to reverse diabetes naturally. Using lemon balm extract may be one effective way to achieve this.
Researchers have tested both lemon balm essential oil and extract their effect on high blood sugar. Both produce similar results by reducing blood sugar levels and reducing oxidative stress related to diabetes. (13)
In fact, researchers at the Free University of Berlin stated, “ethanolic lemon balm extract can potentially be used to prevent or concomitantly treat type 2 diabetes,” because they were so impressed by the convincing data. (14)
4. Might improve mood, concentration and sleep
Traditionally, lemon balm has been used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Its mild sedative effect is a well-known feature. These claims seem to stand up to scientific scrutiny, as well as extend beyond treating general anxiety.
For example, lemon balm improves hyperactivity, concentration problems and impulsiveness in elementary school children. (15) Taken internally in food products, it also seemed to enhance mood and/or cognitive performance in a study involving young adults. (16)
5. Fights herpes naturally
Lemon balm uses also extend into topical application, due in part to their antiviral qualities. Specifically, when applied directly to the skin, it is a useful herbal remedy to help treat the herpes virus.
While there is no permanent cure for herpes, treatment methods generally involve finding ways to decrease the frequency and duration of outbreaks. To date, most researchers have studied the efficacy of lemon balm on herpes labialis, or cold sores.
When using lemon balm extract in cream form, research shows that the intervals between herpes breakouts become longer, the healing period shortens and the symptoms, such as itching and burning, seem to decrease. (18) Interestingly, because of the way that lemon balm works to achieve this, there is no risk of a resistance to the herpes virus forming after repeated uses. (19) The same results seem to exist when using lemon balm essential oil. (20)
According to various sources, it seems lemon balm’s effects on the herpes simplex virus are related to its antioxidant compounds. These include tannins and polyphenols. There are no well-known side effects when using this substance, either topically or orally. (21)
6. Powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
Lemon balm can help to fight free radical damage in ways that may prove to be remarkable in natural medicine.
Perhaps most notably in this particular benefit of lemon balm is its potential impact against a specific kind of cancer known as glioblastoma multiforme. This fast-spreading cancer usually begins in the brain and has no known effective treatments. However, a 2014 study found that lemon balm essential oil caused apoptosis (spontaneous cell death) in these cancer cells and stopped the expression of a protein known as Multidrug Resistance Associated Protein 1 (MRP1). This is especially important, considering that MRP1 is partly responsible for the drug resistance cancers develop to traditional treatment methods, such as chemotherapy. (22)
Other studies have found lemon balm products to have apoptotic effects on other cancer cell lines, including a type of cancer affecting the organ lining separating the organ from the rest of the body, MCF-7 (a breast cancer cell line), a colorectal cancer cell line, the most common liver cancer cell and two different types of leukemia cells. (23)
In one study looking at how the antioxidants in lemon balm affect oxidative stress caused by low levels of radiation, lemon balm had remarkable results, including a significant improvement in blood levels of other antioxidant cells. A study that looked at supplementing the diet of medical professionals consistently exposed to low levels of radiation with lemon balm showed that it may be an effective way to protect them against unhealthy levels of oxidative stress. The study also showed lemon balm to naturally regulate a very important substance called superoxide dismutase. (24)
This enzyme, known in short as SOD, is vital to understand in terms of oxidative stress because the naturally occurring SOD can cause a number of different types of cell damage. (25) However, it is possible to regulate it naturally, using substances such as lemon balm that keep it in check.
Lemon balm may also protect against neurodegenerative disorders caused by overexposure to manganese. (26)
7. Can regulate overactive thyroid
Thyroid conditions affect more than 12 percent of the population of the United States, and one of the two common thyroid conditions, hyperthyroidism, can benefit from lemon balm.
Extract of lemon balm is one of the treatment methods that natural health practitioners tend to use when attempting to regulate overactive thyroid. Research suggests that these extracts stop the components that over-activate the thyroid from binding with the thyroid receptor, specifically in patients with Grave’s disease. (28)
8. May aid in digestion
Because of its antioxidant activity, lemon balm extract also has a potentially protective effect on your gastrointestinal system. One way it can help soothe digestive issues is by preventing gastric ulcers, although this has not been studied at length yet. (29) There is also some evidence that lemon balm, as well as peppermint and angelica root, may be extremely useful in creating herbal remedies for constipation. (30)
9. Naturally soothes PMS symptoms
According to a 2015 study, lemon balm (taken in capsule form) effectively reduced PMS symptoms in high school-aged women. (31)
History & Interesting Facts About Lemon Balm
The Latin term for lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, was derived from Greek. In Greek mythology, a nymph named Melissa shared the uses of honey with people she met. Honeybees are very attracted to the white flowers of the lemon balm plant, so the name fits.
In classic literature, characters often add lemon balm to wine or give it as a treatment for various illnesses, like high fevers. Others used it to treat wounds, bites and stings.
A few written works praise lemon balm for its mood-lightening effects, such as Persian writer and thinker Avicenna, who referred to balm as that which “maketh the heart merry and joyful.” Paracelsus, a German physician and alchemist of the German Renaissance, used it to prepare “primum ens melissa,” believed to restore lost youth.
It was also mentioned by Homer in The Odyssey; Nicholas Culpeper (a popular English botanist, physician and herbalist); and in the 1696 London Dispensary, which told readers that, “An essence of Balm, given in Canary wine, every morning, will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness.”
In fact, the Welsh ruler, Prince Fluellyn of Glamorgan, was said to have drunk lemon balm tea each day and lived to the ripe old age of 108 years. (32)
How to Find and Use Lemon Balm
If you live in a somewhat warm climate, you may want to try your hand at growing lemon balm. Moist, well-drained soil creates the perfect environment for growing healthy lemon balm. It will also most likely will need fertilizer and a bit of shade. It’s not unusual to need to trim and harvest it several times during its growing season in order to stop it from overtaking other plants as it germinates quickly. (33)
Because of its pleasant scent, lemon balm is a delicious herb to add as the final flavoring to a dish. You can add it to meat and seafood dishes for extra flavor. And it’s not uncommon to find it used in a fruit-based drink. Actually, its leaves can be steeped for 15 minutes or so to create a delicious tea, which lends itself well to raw honey as a natural sweetener.
As an herb, lemon balm uses span everything from homemade lip balm to a dressing for salads. Some people even use it as part of homemade cosmetics. (34)
If you don’t want to grow it yourself, you can find lemon balm tea and supplements online. However, I strongly caution you to be very selective where you purchase from, only using very reputable sellers.
Possible Side Effects & Precautions
Lemon balm is generally safe for most people. But because it affects thyroid activity, people taking thyroid medication or who have severely underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) should not take it.
Some patients have experienced mild side effects after receiving lemon balm extract treatment.
If you are pregnant or nursing, consult your doctor before using it regularly.
Final Thoughts on Lemon Balm
- Lemon balm is a perennial herb that’s grown all over the world. People have used it for centuries to treat various ailments.
- Scientific research has shown lemon balm to be effective in protecting the heart and liver from common diseases.
- Lemon balm has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. These properties often operate in ways that circumvent the normal resistances that illnesses form to many medications and remedies.
- Lemon balm can be applied topically to help treat herpes outbreaks and extend time between outbreaks.
- Using lemon balm oil and/or extract can improve mood, concentration and sleep quality.
- One common, proven remedy using lemon balm is a regulation of overactive thyroid. However, if you have severely underactive thyroid, it’s not advisable for you to use lemon balm regularly.
- Lemon balm has been used for centuries. It’s noted for its positive effects on those who use it, like a noticeable improvement in mood.
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