Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition.
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Last updated on October 3, 2019
Everyone's been raving about CBD oil as the new "it" ingredient to alleviate anxiety naturally and chill out without the psychotropic effects of marijuana. And while it does work wonders for some, we shouldn't let other powerfully calming herbs that have been doing their thing for thousands of years get lost in the hype. Case in point: lemon balm.
What exactly is lemon balm?
The lemon balm plant (Melissa officinalis) is a perennial herb that's a member of the mint family. It's native to the Mediterranean but grows easily throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. It looks kind of like mint, too, but its leaves emit a lovely lemony scent when crushed and contain compounds that have a soothing effect on the body. Lemon balm's common name, Melissa, is the Greek word for honey bee, because bees are totally obsessed with this fragrant herb.
Lemon balm leaves have been used in herbal medicine dating back to around the year A.D. 60 in Ancient Greece. There, it was prescribed by Pedanius Dioscorides, the physician and botanist who penned an encyclopedia called De Materia Medica on herbal medicine. Back then, it's thought that he used lemon balm to treat fevers and gassiness, and to improve people's spirits. Fun fact: Lemon balm was also used in spells to heal broken hearts and attract love.
Today, lemon balm is used as an herb in cooking and it's available in medicinal teas, tinctures, salves, capsules, and essential oils.
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What are the health benefits of lemon balm?
"In addition to helping with digestive issues like bloating and gas, lemon balm has been used to manage anxiety and aid sleep, with studies showing it can help you feel calmer," says Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, registered dietitian and health coach. "It may also boost cognitive function and be helpful for easing menstrual cramps and headaches."
Here are some more details on the most promising research-backed benefits of lemon balm:
1. It alleviates stress and anxiety.
In one small study, taking 600 milligrams of lemon balm before being exposed to laboratory-induced psychological stressors improved participants' mood significantly compared to when they underwent the same test without lemon balm. They also reported an increased sense of calm.
Another study found that consuming foods and beverages laced with lemon balm was associated with improvements in mood and cognitive performance and reduced levels of anxiety. Research suggests that a compound in lemon balm called rosmarinic acid may be responsible for the calming effects since it's known to activate GABA receptors in the brain. (Learn how GABA works in your brain and why it's so important.)
2. It boosts cognitive function and combats dementia.
In the same study that showed lemon balm's beneficial effects on reducing anxiety in the face of stressors, the herb was found to boost brain power. Participants taking 300 milligrams of lemon balm experienced improved speed when solving math problems, without compromising their accuracy. Other research found that taking lemon balm daily for four months improved cognitive function and reduced agitation among patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.
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3. It lulls you into a deep sleep.
Thanks to its calming properties, lemon balm is also a useful natural sleep aid. In a clinical trial of patients with anxiety disorder and insomnia, use of the lemon balm extract Cyracos (300 milligrams twice daily) reduced manifestations of anxiety by 18 percent and improved insomnia symptoms by 42 percent. Other research suggests that combining lemon balm with the herb valerian may be even better—children who were given a supplement containing 160 milligrams of valerian root and 80 milligrams of lemon balm experienced a 70 to 80 percent improvement in symptoms. (Psst... Here are 15 things to try if you're having trouble falling or staying asleep.)
4. It helps alleviate gas and bloating.
Lemon balm is considered a carminative herb (i.e., an herb that relieves flatulence), just like peppermint and ginger, which means it's your digestive system's BFF. One small study found that participants who consumed sorbet containing lemon balm after a meal lessened their indigestion symptoms significantly, while other research suggests that lemon balm may be beneficial in alleviating constipation.
5. It helps out with cold sores.
If you're plagued by cold sores, you'd probably try anything to get rid of them faster! Some good news: In a clinical trial of patients with herpes simplex cold sores, 96 percent reported complete clearing of lesions after eight days of using a 1 percent balm extract cream five times a day. In another study, lemon balm essential oil was placed on lesions within 72 hours of cold sore symptoms, and results showed that sores were subsequently significantly smaller and healed faster.
6. It relieves painful periods.
Killer period cramps are enough to make even the most die-hard natural health junkies reach for a pill bottle. The good news: Lemon balm (much like fenugreek) presents a promising solution for quelling the pain without drugs. One study found that high school girls who took 1,200 milligrams of lemon balm daily (from the first to the last day of their menstrual cycle) for three months experienced significantly fewer PMS symptoms, including less intense cramps, than girls receiving the placebo.
7. It alleviates stress-induced headaches.
You know the feeling when you're glued to your computer screen with a mountain of work to get through, and then suddenly a literal pressure starts building in your head? Stress-induced tension headaches are no joke, but lemon balm may offer relief. While there are no actual studies to back it up, people have been using lemon balm to treat headaches throughout history. It's thought that the herb's subtle, sedative-like effects reduce the tension throughout the body that contributes to these headaches.
What's the best way to take lemon balm?
Lemon balm is available in medicinal teas, tinctures, salves, capsules, and essential oils. So how should you take it? Well, it really depends on what you're using it for. For treating cold sores, you'll want a cream or salve. For a subtle mood boost, try a couple of drops of a lemon balm essential oil in a diffuser or warm bath.
As for the ideal supplement dose, that may depend on what you're treating too, so it's good to consult with a health care provider who has a knowledge of herbs. But a good general rule is not to exceed 1.6 grams (1,600 milligrams) per day since doses of 600 to 1,600 milligrams of lemon balm extract is the range often studied in clinical trials. Also, as with all dietary supplements, be sure to seek out a reputable brand to avoid contamination.
For topical uses on cold sores, some experts recommend applying a lemon balm cream containing 1 percent of a standardized 70:1 extract four times per day, until a few days after the sores have healed. This is the type of cream often used in studies.
And for anxiety, insomnia, bloating, period cramps, or a cognitive boost, take it internally via a tincture, tea, or capsule.
"I've found that ingesting lemon balm is most approachable for people in teas, often blended with other soothing herbs, or in capsule form," says Cording.
Here are some stress-relieving lemon balm teas to try.
You can always buy lemon balm tea, but it really couldn't be simpler to make. Both fresh or dried lemon balm leaves work, and it pairs wonderfully with other aromatic herbs. Consider having a cup before you go to bed, or in a moment of stress or anxiety. Here's how:
Fresh lemon balm tea: Pick a few leaves off a lemon balm plant (the equivalent of about 2 tablespoons), cut or tear them up, then put them into a tea ball or infuser and steep in 8 ounces of boiling water for a few minutes. Add a little honey for a touch of sweetness.
Dried lemon balm tea: Purchase dried lemon balm leaves from a reputable company like Mountain Rose Herbs. Put a heaping tablespoon into a tea ball, diffuser, or tea sachet and steep in 8 ounces of boiling water for a few minutes. You can also use slightly less lemon balm and add other soothing herbs to your blend such as passionflower, lavender, or skullcap.
Are there any side effects to watch out for?
One important note: Lemon balm is not meant to be used long term. "A general rule of thumb is not to take it for longer than three weeks at a time," says Cording. "After that, give yourself a week off before you begin taking it again." In rare cases, it's been shown to cause dependency and withdrawal symptoms with prolonged use.
You should also keep in mind that capsules are a concentrated dose of lemon balm and carry a higher risk for adverse effects, whereas consuming fresh lemon balm in recipes or drinking a soothing tea made from dried lemon balm leaves carries a much lower risk.
Side effects of lemon balm supplements are relatively rare but could include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, wheezing, and increased appetite. To reduce side effects and boost absorption, always take lemon balm with a meal or snack, suggests Cording. Lemon balm creams may cause skin irritation.
Lemon balm may also interfere with certain medications. So if you're taking thyroid medication, glaucoma medication, sedatives, barbiturates, or medication that affects serotonin, talk to your health care provider about whether lemon balm is safe. Same goes for women who are breastfeeding or pregnant.
All in all, lemon balm is a wonderful herb to experiment with to ease everything from painful cramps to stressful days. We'd recommend starting with a tea and working your way up from there.