Dr. Rawls is a licensed medical doctor in North Carolina and a leading expert in integrative health. He has extensive training in alternative therapies, and is the Medical Director of Vital Plan, a holistic health and herbal supplement company in Raleigh, NC.
This multipurpose herb is a gentle, yet effective ally for a variety of mental, emotional, and digestive ailments. Its relaxing and grounding qualities make it well-suited for clearing the mind and relaxing the body for quality sleep and digestion.
Lemon balm is a hardy herbaceous plant in the mint family that’s relatively easy to grow, delightfully aromatic, and has been used medicinally for millennia. Its small white flowers bloom and fill with nectar in late summer attracting bees hence the name Melissa which is Greek for honey bee.
Lemon balm contains a number of phytochemicals that have been studied for their therapeutic effects. Several of these are mentioned in the benefits section of this article.
Ever been ‘tired but wired’? Unwinding periodically throughout the day and especially during the transition from daytime to night time is a crucial step in preparing for sound sleep. Lemon balm is thought to naturally increase a neurotransmitter called GABA which helps turn down the dial on incoming stimuli.
In addition to mild sedative qualities, lemon balm has an array of antioxidant activity that helps defend the nervous from system sleep disturbances in the short-term and chronic nervous system conditions in the long-term.1
In a double-blind placebo-controlled study of 80 patients with chronic stable angina, patients given lemon balm experienced diminished anxiety, depression, stress, and sleep disturbances.2,3
Of the many phytochemicals found in lemon balm, citronellal (a monoterpene) and rosmarinic acid (a polyphenol) are two that have been noted for their ability to help reduce stress and support the nervous system.
Whether it be from catching the scent of a lemon balm patch, drinking a strongly brewed lemon balm tea, or taking this herb as an extract for even more potent effects, lemon balm has always been used as a soothing herb for the nervous system. Some herbalists refer to it as a nervous system trophorestorative, aka an herb that nourishes and restores a particular body system, in this case the nervous system.
In one double-blind randomized placebo-controlled study, patients with insomnia took a combination of lemon balm and another herb (Nepeta menthoides) to see how it affected their incidence and severity of insomnia, depression, and anxiety. After four weeks of using the formula, the herbal treatment group showed significantly better outcomes in all three areas.3 Animal research also supports the use of lemon balm for decreasing stress and anxiety.4
In the search for holistic therapies to help reduce the incidence and severity of degenerative cognitive conditions, lemon balm has been studied to see if its historical use as a cognitive enhancer might specifically help with memory and mood.
The mildly sedative effects of the herb may moderate the agitation that is common with conditions like dementia and the antioxidant qualities may help diminish the free radical damage that is common with cognitive degeneration. While research is ongoing, modern research suggests that lemon balm may provide some benefit for cognitive degenerative conditions because it gently boosts cholinergic activity which may help compensate for the loss of functioning neurons.5–7
Gut health is an often overlooked keystone to the overall health of other systems in the body. Poor gut motility, poor absorption of nutrients, putrification of stagnant food particles that produce toxins — all of these affect mental health, mood, sleep quality, energy levels, and can lead to a variety of chronic health issues if left unattended.
As a carminative herb, lemon balm is rich in aromatic oils that stimulate the digestive system and promote the smooth flow of food through the GI tract. This in turn helps reduce GI inflammation, indigestion, and gas. Furthermore, lemon balm is also antispasmodic which reduces intestinal spasms and griping pains. For other carminative herbs, consider using cardamom, fennel, and turmeric.
Modern research supports the traditional use of lemon balm for cardiovascular issues such as benign heart palpitations.8
Thanks to the antispasmodic properties of lemon balm, research suggests that it may be helpful for reducing the severity of dysmenorrhea, or painful menstruation.9
The fresh leaves may be crushed and then rubbed on the skin for a mild, all-natural mosquito repellent. Thanks to its antiviral properties, it has also been used topically as a prepared ointment for minor herpes-type infections.10
The use of lemon balm dates back at least as far as Hippocrates around 400 B.C.E. and was used by the ancient physicians Dioscorides and Galen as well as the famed English physician and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper in the 1600s.11 While these notable figures of medical history have extolled the value of lemon balm, a great many other physicians, herbalists, and lay people have made use of this humble and unassuming herb throughout Southern Europe, Western Asia, and beyond.
Dioscorides and Pliny the Elder wrote about lemon balm as a useful herb for wound care explaining that the herb could be steeped in wine and used orally and topically as a wound dressing and as a treatment for venomous bites and stings. While most people today rely on more modern wound care compounds, this historical use points to the antiviral and antibacterial qualities of lemon balm and there’s no reason we can’t still benefit from these properties today for less severe ailments.12
Lemon balm is an extremely versatile herb that may be enjoyed and used medicinally in a multitude of ways.
An extract of the herb is typically the best way to get a concentrated, therapeutic effect. Liquid tinctures may be used and the taste is quite pleasant as far as many herbal tincture go. Typical dosing for lemon balm tincture is 3-5 mL, 3-5 times daily.13
For even easier use, a standardized extract can be made into a powder and taken in the form of a capsule. This allows for easy dosing and portability. If using a powdered extract, look for products with 200 – 600 mg of lemon balm, 1-3 times daily. If it’s being used alone, you’ll need more to have the desired effect but if it’s being used in combination with other herbs then you’ll likely need less. Note that if you are using a whole herb powder, rather than a powdered extract, you’ll need a good deal more in order to get the same effect as you would with an extract.
If making a lemon balm tea (infusion), use about 1 cup of boiled water for every 2-3 teaspoons of lemon balm and steep for 10-15 minutes in a closed container to capture as much of the aromatic volatile oils as possible.
Lemon balm has a very good safety profile and long history of safe use. Always check with your healthcare practitioner before use if you are taking medications. Though unlikely, there is a theoretical concern that lemon balm, at high doses, could interfere with thyroid hormone medications.14
For more general education on potential interactions between herbs and medications, check out Dr. Bill Rawls article: Is it Safe to Take Herbs with My Medications?
Because lemon balm has mild thyroxine-inhibiting activity, it is recommended to avoid taking very large doses for people with hypothyroid conditions such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. By contrast, some practitioners use it in combination with other therapies to help patients with hyperthyroid conditions such as Grave’s disease.
There is not enough information regarding the safety of using lemon balm while pregnant or breastfeeding so it’s best to consult your healthcare provider prior to use in these situations.15
This information is intended only as general education and should not be substituted for professional health advice. Any mentioned general dosage option, safety notices, or possible interactions with prescription drugs are for educational purposes only and must be considered in the context of each individual’s health situation. Use this information only as a reference in conjunction with the guidance of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
1. Miraj S, Rafieian-Kopaei null, Kiani S. Melissa officinalis L: A Review Study With an Antioxidant Prospective. J Evid-Based Complement Altern Med. 2017;22(3):385-394. doi:10.1177/2156587216663433
2. Haybar H, Javid AZ, Haghighizadeh MH, Valizadeh E, Mohaghegh SM, Mohammadzadeh A. The effects of Melissa officinalis supplementation on depression, anxiety, stress, and sleep disorder in patients with chronic stable angina. Clin Nutr ESPEN2018;26:47-52. doi:10.1016/j.clnesp.2018.04.015 3. Ranjbar M, Firoozabadi A, Salehi A, et al. Effects of Herbal combination (Melissa officinalis L. and Nepeta menthoides Boiss. & Buhse) on insomnia severity, anxiety and depression in insomniacs: Randomized placebo controlled trial. Integr Med Res. 2018;7(4):328-332. doi:10.1016/j.imr.2018.08.001
4. Ibarra A, Feuillere N, Roller M, Lesburgere E, Beracochea D. Effects of chronic administration of Melissa officinalis L. extract on anxiety-like reactivity and on circadian and exploratory activities in mice. Phytomedicine Int J Phytother Phytopharm. 2010;17(6):397-403. doi:10.1016/j.phymed.2010.01.012
5. Kennedy DO, Wake G, Savelev S, et al. Modulation of Mood and Cognitive Performance Following Acute Administration of Single Doses of Melissa Officinalis (Lemon Balm) with Human CNS Nicotinic and Muscarinic Receptor-Binding Properties. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2003;28(10):1871-1881. doi:10.1038/sj.npp.1300230
6. Soodi M, Naghdi N, Hajimehdipoor H, Choopani S, Sahraei E. Memory-improving activity of Melissa officinalis extract in naïve and scopolamine-treated rats. Res Pharm Sci. 2014;9(2):107. Accessed August 23, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC4311288/
7. Ozarowski M, Mikolajczak PL, Piasecka A, et al. Influence of the Melissa officinalis Leaf Extract on Long-Term Memory in Scopolamine Animal Model with Assessment of Mechanism of Action. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2016;2016:e9729818. doi:10.1155/2016/9729818
8. Alijaniha F, Naseri M, Afsharypuor S, et al. Heart palpitation relief with Melissa officinalis leaf extract: double blind, randomized, placebo controlled trial of efficacy and safety. J Ethnopharmacol. 2015;164:378-384. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2015.02.007
9. Mirabi P, Namdari M, Alamolhoda S, Mojab F. The Effect of Melissa Officinalis Extract on the Severity of Primary Dysmenorrhea. Iran J Pharm Res IJPR. 2017;16(Suppl):171-177.
10. Schnitzler P, Schuhmacher A, Astani A, Reichling J. Melissa officinalis oil affects infectivity of enveloped herpesviruses. Phytomedicine Int J Phytother Phytopharm. 2008;15(9):734-740. doi:10.1016/j.phymed.2008.04.018
11. De la Foret R. Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients into Foods and Remedies That Heal. Hay House Inc.; 2017.
12. Lemon Balm – American Botanical Council. Accessed August 23, 2021. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/expanded-commission-e/lemon-balm/
13. Hoffmann D. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Healing Arts Press; 2003.
14. Winston D, Maimes S. Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Updated and expanded edition. Healing Arts Press; 2019.
15. Botanical Safety Handbook, 2nd Edition. Accessed August 20, 2021. https://bsh.ahpa.org/HomePage.aspx