In last week’s article we saw how lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes, but there is more to it than this. The medicinal use of lemon balm goes back over 2,000 years, having being first recorded between the third and second century BC by the Greek scholar Theophrastus in his encyclopedia of plants, the ‘Historia Plantarum’. Nervous agitation, sleeping problems and functional gastrointestinal complaints with bloating and discomfort are among the conditions for which lemon balm has long been used.
In traditional European medicine, lemon balm was used as a calming and strengthening remedy to treat migraines, ‘melancholia’, neuroses and ‘hysteria’. It was used in Arabic medicine to treat depression and in Greek medicine in the treatment of ‘hysteria’. The plant has been acclaimed for promoting long life, renewing lost youth, restoring memory and dispelling melancholy.
While, there is no evidence that lemon balm will work the miracle of renewing lost youth (unfortunately!), there is indeed evidence that it has mood-lifting properties and that it helps to relieve anxiety. Clinical trials have shown that lemon balm, when compared to placebo, eases the negative effects of stress and lowers anxiety levels. One double-blind study found that lemon-balm leaf extract alleviated mild anxiety and nervousness, and in combination with Valerian (another herb much used by herbalists), was reported to be as effective in improving the quality of sleep as a conventional tranquilliser, while not causing any drowsiness or impaired concentration the next day.
Another trial found that the topical application of lemon balm essential oil reduced agitation. Residents of several nursing homes who took part in a four-week placebo-controlled trial, experienced a significant decrease in agitation, and were more inclined to engage socially when the diluted oil was applied to the face and arms.
One of the most exciting findings in recent years is that a randomized controlled trial reported that patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s treated with lemon balm extracts for four months experienced better cognitive function than did those treated with placebo. This was, unsurprisingly, coupled with a reduction in agitation.
Lemon balm has also traditionally been used in the topical treatment and prevention of cold sores. Extracts of the leaf, when applied topically, have been shown to exert a direct antiviral effect on Herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2. This finding is of particular interest, as resistance to the antiviral drug acyclovir is quite prevalent, especially among immuno-compromised patients and bone-marrow transplant recipients.
Thomas Coghan, a 16th century Oxford don, said that lemon balm “is an hearbe greatly to be esteemed of students, for by a special property it driveth away heaviness of mind, sharpeneth the understanding and encreaseth memory’. A placebo controlled trial showed that both mood and cognitive performance were improved when healthy young adults were given the encapsulated dried leaf. Most notably they felt calmer and they performed better in memory tests. Although (thankfully) exam times are over for now, this may be something to keep in mind for next year!
Lemon balm is also used by medical herbalists for digestive complaints involving bloating and discomfort, especially where these are associated with anxiety and stress. Pharmacological studies have identified constituents in lemon balm with anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving and antispasmodic properties, which may contribute to a beneficial action on digestion. Additionally, lemon balm is an antibacterial, antifungal and anti-oxidant agent.
All in all, it is not surprising that approximately 50 tons of lemon balm leaves are sold each year for medicinal purposes in Germany alone. The fact that it has a long history of safe usage, is well tolerated and has no reported side effects is also reassuring. Medical herbalists typically combine lemon balm with other herbs to provide a suitable prescription for the individual patient.
*If you are on conventional tranquillisers, do not stop or reduce them without talking to your GP first.
Sabine Hiller BSc(Hons) MIIMH MNIMH – is a qualified professional medical herbalist based in Westport. She is a member of the Irish Institute of Medical Herbalists and the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (UK). She can be contacted at 098 35909.