Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is an essential botanical to have in your herbal toolkit. The plant has been used medicinally for over 2,000 years. Native to Europe, Iran, and central Asia, it has been used to aid in rituals, boost feminine power, soothe what ails, and a whole lot more.

Melissa was considered a sacred herb of the Goddess Diana within Roman temples. It has long been affiliated with the moon, water, and the feminine. Lemon balm was used as a love charm to entice a lover into someone’s life, being dropped into special baths in order to invite romance. It’s the ability to strengthen focus and soothe the nerves was used by students in the preparation for ritual work. It is believed to bring emotions and feelings back into alignment. (Herbal Rally)

The name Melissa (deriving from Greek origin), was given for the plant’s ability to attract honeybees. Beekeepers of old rubbed the plant inside a hive to keep the bee population intact and lure new additions to the fleet. Many gardeners revere lemon balm for its ability not only to attract bees, but hummingbirds, butterflies, and other beneficial pollinators that are crucial to its reproduction. Yet what allures can also repel. Melissa can also keep pesky insects at bay.

Macro shot of a Melissa leaf (photo by Leslie Carrow)

Lemon balm has a unique four-sided stem which is typical of all botanical relatives in the mint (Mentha) family. Gardeners know that the hearty roots of these plants can form strong bonds underneath the soil and may take up large amounts of space in the yard. One plant of lemon balm in a garden quickly turns into many. It has the power to easily self-seed and grow up between cracks in the sidewalk. It is also drought tolerant and can withstand a wide variety of conditions (Masters).

A gardener's (and pollinator's) delight (photo by Leslie Carrow)

Cannabis connection? It’s all in the terps

While over 100 chemicals have been identified in Lemon Balm, the primary terpenoids (terpenes) are linalool, geraniol, neral, geranial, citronellal, and β-caryophyllene-oxide (Science Direct). β-Caryophyllene oxide is also found in and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) and certain chemovars of cannabis. The essential oil of lemon balm is comprised of 43.8%  β-caryophyllene-oxide. This terpene acts as an insecticide and as a broad-spectrum antifungal. And interestingly, β-caryophyllene-oxide is the component that drug dogs sniff out when they are on the trail of cannabis (Russo & Marcu).

Lemon balm synthesizes these terpenes to help the plant survive. Lemon Balm produces caffeic and rosmarinic acids which provide antibacterial and antiviral properties for the plant and for the humans ingesting it. These properties have aided the growth and survival of this herb by fighting off possible threats and protecting the membrane of its cells (Evergreen).

Ongoing potential of lemon balm and cannabis synergy can be found by cultivating them in close proximity. Melissa can act as a beneficial companion plant for cannabis due to its ability to repel unfavorable bugs and encourage beneficial pollinators. It may also help cover up the smell of cannabis. And most importantly, since Melissa is another exciting and beneficial healing medicine, the benefits of integrating it into a cannabis garden are manifold.

The essential oil of Lemon Balm is highly sought after and one of the most expensive to buy because of the incredibly low yield of the plant’s volatile oils (Masters). While used in “folk” medicine for many a century, Melissa has also been the focus of modern scientific investigation. While some promising research been done in animal models, there have also been clinical trials on the herb for such situations as: dementia, type 2 diabetes, stress and anxiety, sexual dysfunction, memory, ADD, menstrual difficulties and more. Here’s a glimpse at a few of the ways the plant has demonstrated significant healing potential.

Nervous system

Lemon Balm has the unique ability to provide both stimulation as well as relaxation, sometimes being referred to as “Herbal Valium”. The plant can increase focus and attention span while also curbing anxiety. Due to its ability to encourage calm, it may aid in rest and counteract insomnia. Various human studies have found that the plant can boost “calmness” in subjects and make individuals more resistant to stressors (Science Direct).

Emerald Pharm's Harvest Wellness Celebration (photo by L. Carrow)

The sedative effects of Melissa are likely due to the presence of rosmarinic acid, which inhibits an enzyme called GABA transaminase, which can trigger symptoms of anxiety and mood disorders. GABA receptors in the body are responsible for central nervous system inhibitory signaling. However, more randomized clinical trials are needed to better understand the plant’s mechanisms of action (Herbal Gram).

Aiding a healthy gut-brain connection, lemon balm is known to assist in digestion. The plant activates parts of the vagus nerve to harmonize the function of the stomach and the heart. (All Nature) Drinking melissa tea can help the stomach digest food more efficiently. It can also soothe spams associated with IBS and other gut ailments (Hazard).

The herb has a strong safety profile and can be used safely by children. Not only is the tea tasty, it can calm and soothe kids when they are anxious or restless. It may also benefit when they come down with colds or stomach troubles. A study of 93 babies with colic found that a combination of lemon balm, fennel and chamomile lessened crying time twice as much as placebo (Johnson & Foster). It may become increasingly useful for future generations in the times ahead.

Antimicrobial properties

Lemon balm has built a reputation to defend against treatment-resistant bacteria and viral infections. This is becoming increasingly important as alternatives to conventional options are becoming even more dire. Compounds found within Melissa have been shown to be effective against various viruses such as herpes simplex, cold sores, mumps, and more.

A growing list of studies highlights Melissa’s ability to fight herpes virus and cold sores. Herbal options are becoming increasingly important because herpes simplex virus (HSV) may develop a resistance to commonly used antiviral drugs. A clinical study in Germany demonstrated the antiviral activity of a topical lemon balm cream against HSV. By the fifth day of the experiment, over half of the patients were symptom-free as compared to the placebo group. The treatment was found to work most effectively during the beginning stages of a herpes outbreak (Hazard). The results of another study indicated that rosmarinic acid contributed to the antiviral activity of a Melissa water-based extract. In this study, the penetration of the herpes virus into healthy cells was inhibited by 80% in drug sensitive viruses and by 96% in drug resistant viruses. However, it remains to be seen if these properties would translate from in vitro studies into human subjects (Astani).

Another example of the plant’s antiviral capabilities has been its activity on Enterovirus 71 (EV71) infection, a health concern in the Asia-Pacific region that no known drug can treat. A water-based extraction of lemon balm was found to protect healthy cells and inhibit plaque formation and viral protein synthesis in cells with EV71. Again, rosmarinic acid was identified as the biologically active constituent of the herbal preparation. These findings suggest that rosmarinic acid and Melissa may serve as a treatment for viral infections such as EV71 (Sin-Guang Chen) The essential oil of Lemon Balm has also been discovered to inhibit the replication of avian influenza virus by discouraging the replication of the virus itself (Pourghanbari).

Cognitive Function

Currently, there are a limited amount of treatments that can slow the cognitive decline of aging, and a majority of the pharmaceutical drugs available have undesirable side effects. Many folks seek a natural alternative to maintain healthy cognition and memory. Current investigation has demonstrated that Melissa can help boost learning and encourage the ability to store and retrieve information (Hazard).

Randomized clinical trials have shown that properties in lemon balm can benefit some symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and cognitive impairment. A handful of clinical trials have shown that Melissa can improve the quality of life and agitation in people with severe dementia. However, the plant’s effects on memory have been inconsistent and require further research (American Botanical Council).

Menstrual Difficulties

The longtime association of Melissa with the feminine may have some scientific weight, as the plant has been extensively studied for its ability to alleviate women’s related health issues. Research from Iran, where the herb has been used for millennia, has shown lemon balm’s ability to alleviate sexual dysfunction in women. A double- blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study of 89 women found that Melissa may be an effective and safe herbal medicine for sexual troubles. Of the 43 participants who finished treatment, those taking lemon balm experienced an overall increase in desire, orgasm, arousal, lubrication, overall sexual satisfaction, and a decrease in pain during intercourse as compared to the placebo group (Darvish-Mofrad-Kashani).

Another study found that lemon balm can improve the psychological health of female teenagers.  The randomized clinical trial of 100 young females were given either a lemon balm capsule or placebo. Those who received Melissa showed improvement in anxiety, depression, sleeping disorders, and social pressure (Heydari).

Painful periods can disrupt women’s lives and quality of life. Investigation has examined the impact of lemon balm on excessive bleeding and menstrual pain. A study of 90 women demonstrated that Melissa officinalis lowered the severity of symptoms associated with menstruation without increasing the severity of bleeding or the duration of women’s cycle. Another clinical trial of 110 students found that lemon balm extracts provided sedative effects and decreased the severity of menstrual pain, likely due to the antispasmodic effects of the herb.

Since the Lemon Balm is easy to grow, incredibly safe, has a pleasant taste, and has a wide array of medicinal offerings, why not integrate it into your daily life? Try drinking it as a tea, making pesto, or taking it either in capsule or tincture form.

Lemon balm may be used for: sleep disorders, gastrointestinal complaints, stress, anxiety, depression, asthma, fevers, migraines, shock, vertigo, menstrual problems, hypertension, gout, insect bites, skin infections, panic attacks, insomnia, rapid heart rate, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, spasms, herpes, cold sores, viruses

Photos by Leslie Carrow