Lemon balm is a humble herb with a rather illustrious history.
It has been used medicinally for over 2,000 years now, beginning all the way back in Ancient Greece.
Homer made reference to it in The Odyssey, Charlemagne treasured it, and now, thanks to the advances of Western science, its popularity on the rise yet again.
What is it, though, how can it benefit us, and how does it work?
Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about in this article, along with clinically effective doses, side effects, recommended supplements, and more.
By the end, you’re going to know whether lemon balm is right for you, and how to get the most out of it.
What Is Lemon Balm?
The lemon balm plant originated in southern Europe and is now found throughout the world. The lemony smell and pretty white flowers of the plant have led to its widespread cultivation in gardens. The leaves, stems, and flowers of lemon balm are used medicinally.
Lemon balm goes by several names:
- Melissa officinalis, which is its official, scientific name.
- Bee balm
- Garden balm
It’s most commonly found as a tea, standalone supplement in capsule form, or ingredient in other supplements (usually natural sleep aids).
Lemon balm is rather unique in that it contains quite a few biologically active molecules, and that has made it very difficult to understand scientifically.
To make matters more complicated, how it’s grown, collected, and processed influences the levels of these various components, which means that while two lemon balm supplements can look identical on paper, they can be quite different in reality.
These variables have a lot to do with why lemon balm hasn’t received much attention from the research community until recently.
Better scientific techniques were needed to make a real go of it, and now that they’re becoming available, researchers are able to study the herb more effectively and better understand its effects in the body.
What Are the Benefits of Lemon Balm
Before the year 2000, just 5 studies were conducted on lemon balm since 1950. In 2015 alone, there were 22.
This work is paying off, too, because as the data continues to accumulate, so do the discoveries about how lemon balm can benefit us.
For example, here’s what we know so far about lemon balm…
- It induces calmness and relaxation.
- It helps you sleep better.
- It reduces anxiety, stress, fatigue, and aggression.
- It improves memory and cognitive function.
- It mitigates DNA damage.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these points.
How lemon balm helps you relax
Technically, lemon balm is classified as a sedative because it decreases stress, anxiety, and alertness, and induces calmness and relaxation.
It accomplishes all this through one primary mechanism: by reducing the activity of the brain.
You see, lemon balm contains molecules that increase your body’s levels of a chemical called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA).
GABA makes brain cells less “excitable,” or responsive to stimulation, by inhibiting the activities of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which fires neurons into action.
The more GABA that’s floating around to “settle your brain down,” the less alert, stressed, and anxious you become, and the more relaxed and calm you feel.
How lemon balm helps you sleep better
After reading the above, you’re probably not surprised to learn that research shows that lemon balm can help with insomnia.
It pushes the brain toward a more sleep-like state and removes the obstacles of stress and anxiety, so better sleep just follows naturally
How lemon balm can improve your memory and cognitive function
Two studies show that supplement with lemon balm can improvement memory, whereas others have failed to observe these effects.
The discrepancies come down to how the data was interpreted in these studies.
The ones that demonstrated benefits concluded that “memory quality” had improved, which is a way of summarizing the results of many memory tests, while the ones that didn’t demonstrate benefits found that specific aspects of memory hadn’t noticeably improved.
For example, when scientists looked at how lemon balm affected “working memory” specifically, no benefits were observed.
(And in case you’re not familiar with the term, working memory is a system for temporarily storing and managing information for various cognitive tasks like learning, reasoning, and comprehension. A simple test of working memory is the number of items (usually words or numbers) that you can hold in your mind and recall.)
So, basically, what these studies have found is that, on the whole, our memory works slightly better in several different ways when we’re supplementing with lemon balm.
How lemon balm can reduce DNA damage.
DNA is a chemical in our cells that governs more or less everything important that happens in our bodies. It’s quite literally the blueprint for life.
One of its basic functions is replication, which allows every cell that divides from its “parent” to carry its own set of instructions (DNA).
So long as DNA maintains its proper chemical structure and activity, all is well, genetically speaking.
If its structure becomes damaged, though, which can result from many things naturally occurring and otherwise, its instructions become warped.
If this happens too much, it becomes dangerous, which is why DNA damage is associated with various diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s, and even natural processes like aging.
Well, lemon balm helps our bodies better manage this by decreasing DNA damage rates.
How exactly it does this is not yet known, but scientists are continuing to investigate.
Other Health Conditions for Which Lemon Balm Can Be Beneficial
Lemon balm has antiviral properties. A cream containing an extract of lemon balm has been shown in double-blind trials to speed the healing of cold sores. In one double-blind trial, topical application of a 1% 70:1 extract of lemon-balm leaf cream, four times daily for five days, led to significantly fewer symptoms and fewer blisters than experienced by those using a placebo cream. In most studies, the lemon-balm cream was applied two to four times per day for five to ten days.
In a double-blind trial, supplementation with an extract of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) for 16 weeks significantly improved cognitive function and significantly reduced agitation, compared with a placebo, in people with Alzheimer’s disease. The amount of lemon balm used was 60 drops per day of a 1:1 tincture, standardized to contain at least 500 mcg per ml of citral.
A double-blind trial found that topical application of a cream containing a highly concentrated extract of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) four to five times a day helped heal oral and genital herpes sores faster than use of a placebo.
Indigestion, Heartburn, and Low Stomach Acidity
Carminatives (also called aromatic digestive tonics or aromatic bitters) may be used to relieve symptoms of indigestion, particularly when there is excessive gas. It is believed that carminative agents work, at least in part, by relieving spasms in the intestinal tract.
Lemon balm is a carminative herb used traditionally for indigestion. Lemon balm, usually taken as tea, is prepared by steeping 2–3 teaspoons of leaves in hot water for 10 to 15 minutes in a covered container. Three or more cups per day are consumed immediately after meals. Three to five milliliters of tincture can also be used three times per day.
A combination of valerian and lemon balm has been tested for improving sleep. A small preliminary trial compared the effect of valerian root extract (320 mg at bedtime) and an extract of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) with that of the sleeping drug triazolam (Halcion). The effectiveness of the herbal combination was similar to that of Halcion, but only the Halcion group felt hung over and had trouble concentrating the next day. A double-blind trial found that a combination of valerian and lemon balm, taken over a two-week period, was effective in improving quality of sleep.
Another double-blind trial found a combination of 360 mg valerian and 240 mg lemon balm taken before bed improved reported sleep quality in one-third of the participants.
Colic (Chamomile, Fennel, Licorice, Vervain)
Carminatives are a class of herbs commonly used for infants with colic. These herbs tend to relax intestinal spasms.
Chamomile is a carminative with long history of use as a calming herb and may be used to ease intestinal cramping in colicky infants. A soothing tea made from chamomile, vervain , licorice , fennel , and lemon balm has been shown to relieve colic more effectively than placebo. In this study, approximately 1/2 cup (150 ml) of tea was given during each colic episode up to a maximum of three times per day.
Herbs that directly attack microbes include the following: chaparral , eucalyptus , garlic , green tea , lemon balm (antiviral), lomatium , myrrh , olive leaf , onion , oregano , pau d’arco (antifungal), rosemary , sage , sandalwood , St. John’s wort , tea tree oil , thyme , and usnea.
What Is the Clinically Effective Dose of Lemon Balm
The clinically effective dose of a substance is the amount that produces the desired response or effects.
For lemon balm, the lowest effective dose is 300 milligrams per day, and benefits have been up to 600 milligrams per day.
That means that, if you want to fully benefit from lemon balm, you want to have at least 300 milligrams per day, but 600 is probably better.
What Should I Expect From Taking Lemon Balm?
Research on lemon balm is in its infancy. Some of its reported benefits need to be replicated, but what we know so far is it works quite well as a sedative.
That means that you can expect it to help you calm down and relax and feel less stressed and anxious, and to help you sleep better.
Furthermore, you can expect it to reduce DNA damage in your body, which you won’t feel, but which will benefit your overall health.
Does Lemon Balm Have Any Side Effects?
No significant adverse reactions to lemon balm have been found in research, even at pretty high doses.
It is important to remember, however, that it is a sedative.
That means that you should consult your doctor before taking lemon balm if you’re already taking other sedatives, as they can interact in ways that can cause serious health problems.
The Bottom Line on Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is first and foremost a natural sedative.
It’s perfectly safe and seems to have no side effects, which makes it rather unique among its peers.
If you’re looking to sleep or relax better, it’s likely to help you. If you’re looking to gain a mental edge, though, your money is better spent elsewhere (check out L-theanine for that).
So, that’s how lemon balm shakes out. I hope you’ve found this guide helpful!