Lemon balm is a member of the mint family. Although native to Europe, it grows around the world. At maturity, the plant reaches around two feet in height and sometimes grows higher if left unattended. Clusters of light yellow flowers grow at the junction of the leaf and stem. The deeply wrinkled leaves, similar in shape to mint leaves, vary in color from yellow to dark green according to soil and climate. If you rub the leaves between your fingers, you will be left with a lemon scent on your hand.
Humans have recognized the benefits of lemon balm for centuries. Prior to the Middle Ages, it was seeped in wine to treat insect bites, heal wounds and help lift a person’s spirits. Over time the herb was used to help with indigestion, sleeplessness, pain, stress, anxiety and lack of appetite.
Lemon balm is often planted in herb gardens and is used to attract bees. There hasn’t been a great deal of study on the herb uncombined with other ingredients, except for topical use. Most often it is combined with other herbs for a natural approach to several ailments. Modern studies indicate that earlier physicians may have been correct in their praises of the herb.
Lemon balm is usually applied or ingested as an oil. The oil is made from the plant’s leaves. The leaves contain the substance eugenol, which helps calm muscles spasms, numbs tissue and kills bacteria. They also have tannins, which are probably responsible for the oil’s antiviral properties. Terpenes is also found in lemon oil and has antiviral properties as well as some relaxing qualities.
Several studies have shown that when lemon balm is combined with other relaxing herbs, such as valerian, chamomile and hops, it helps to induce sleep. In one study, 81% of the subjects of a double blind study reported sleeping better when given a combination of lemon balm and valerian than those receiving a placebo. Similar results were obtained in a study regarding anxiety.
However, it’s uncertain if the positive results are due to the combination of the herbs or one herb by itself. When lemon balm was studied by itself it did improve sleep in a separate double blind study.
Ointments containing lemon balm have proven effective against cold sores. There is also some evidence that it helps with indigestion. It may improve cognitive functions and have a calming effect on Alzheimer’s patients when used in aromatheraphy.
Lemon balm essential oil is also frequently used in furniture wax, perfume, massage oils and skin creams.
If you have the herb in your garden, you can harvest the leaves yourself. The fresh leaves can be used to enhances salads, sauces, vegetable dishes or used as a garnish.
They can also be dried for a variety of uses. The ideal temperature for the process is 85 to 90 degrees. Place them in one layer on a flat surface or hang them upside down by their stems. Make sure the drying area is out of direct sunlight and airy. Once dried you can put the leaves in tea, use them to make potpourris or add to a hot bath for a relaxing aroma.
Lemon balm also has its side effects. The essential oil has been linked to high eye pressure and people with glaucoma should avoid the herb.
There are no studies on the herb’s effects on small children or the unborn. Pregnant or nursing women are advised to avoid the herb and it isn’t recommended for small children.
Some people are allergic to lemon balm and may experience trouble breathing and a tightness in the chest along with a rash, itching and uncontrolled swelling. Such reactions require immediate medical attention as they could prove to be life threatening.
Too much of the herb may have an overly relaxing effect. The person may experience some mental impairment until the effects wear off.
For the most part, lemon balm is a beneficial herb with many uses. It can be purchased over the internet in various forms. Be aware of the above cautions and consult your health professional before self treating an ailment, but otherwise enjoy.