Lemon balm

Melissa officinalis

Common Names

Balm, melissa, sweet balm, English balm, garden balm, balmmint, bee balm, common balm, heart’s delight and honey plant.

Please note: Melissa officinalis is sometimes called ‘bee balm’ due to its affinity with bees, but it should not be confused with Monarda fistulosa or M. didyma, which also has this common name.

Lemon balm (1).jpg

Parts Used
Leaves. Best harvested prior to flower.

Herbal Actions

Nervine, mild sedative, mild antidepressant, diaphoretic, calmative, antispasmodic, carminative, emmenagogue, stomachic, vasodilating hypotensive, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory.

Energetics

Warming, drying, and diffusive

“Lemon balm contains within it the virtues of a dozen other plants”
 - Hildegarde von Bingen

12th century mystic and healer of Germany

Lemon balm & bee_steven foster.jpg

Sweet Melissa

The genus name, Melissa, translates to “honeybee” in Greek and Roman languages, earning that name for observing bees’ special affinity for the plant. It has been used as a medicine for thousands of years. Melissa officinalis was traditionally steeped in wine to make an elixir to uplift the spirits and alleviate melancholy due to its fragrant aroma. Fresh leaf lemon balm tea is bright and crisp, with a strong lemony taste and slightly drying finish. It is deeply comforting and immediately brings on a sense of calm and relaxation.

Lemon balm’s earliest recorded use begins in Ephesus, an ancient Greek city on the coast of Ionia, in what is now present-day Turkey. According to the ancient writings of Philostratos, the people from Athens came to colonize Ionia were led by the Muses who took the form of bees. Honeybees were such an important aspect to Ephesians’ identity and they minted them on their coins. The Ephesian culture was goddess worshipping and their ceremonial life modeled that of the honeybee hive: the Queen Bee as the Great Goddess, and the Worker Bees as the priestesses, called the Melissai, who served the Great Goddess/Queen Bee. The Ephesians constructed the famous Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Lemon balm was a sacred herb in the Temple of Artemis, because the bees favored it more than any other herb. In fact, it was discovered that if you plant lemon balm near hives it encourages bees to stay near and not swarm and leave for another location. Today we now know that Melissa officinalis produces volatile oils that mimic the honeybees’ pheromone responsible for communicating hive location and food sources.

Lemon balm-Melissa-bee coins Ephesus.jpg

Ancient coin of Ephesus

The Moors brought it to Spain around the 7th century and in the 9th century it spread across Europe. The first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne thought so highly of the plant for both its beauty and healing properties that he ordered it planted in all monastery gardens. In the 15th century, Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus believed that lemon balm was an “elixir of life” that could increase strength and add years to your life.


In the late 14th century, the nuns of the Carmelite Abbey in France began to make a “miracle water” using the lemon balm found in the monastery’s gardens. This is known as Carmelite water, which consisted of multiple herbs and spices with Melissa officinalis always as the main ingredient. This “perfume,” as it was called, was very fragrant and it was used to cover body odors as people seldom bathed in those days. This formula was also called “Eau de Melisse,” and it was revered by kings and nobles as well as commoners. It became a popular cure-all for various ailments and was used both internally and externally. Nicholas Culpepper, the 15th century English botanist and physician, praised the virtues of Carmelite water writing: “It causeth the Mind and Heart to becom merry, and reviveth the Heart fainting to foundlings, especially of such who are overtaken in their sleep, and driveth away al troublesome cares and thought...”

Lemon balm_Carmelite Water monks drawing.jpeg
Lemon balm_Carmelite Cordial label.jpg

The London Dispensary in 1696 states: 'An essence of Balm, given in Canary wine, every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness.' John Evelyn an English writer, gardener and diarist wrote: 'Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully chasing away melancholy.' Lemon balm was brought to North America from Europe during the 1500-1700s, during the colonization of the Americas, and it has become one of the most popular medicinal plants used among modern herbalists today.

Lemon balm.jpg

Medicinal Use

Melissa officinalis is a gentle, yet effective calming herb that soothes nervous tension and eases tension type headaches. It promotes restful sleep, improved digestion, and restores a frazzled nervous system. Recently this herb has gained intrigue as an antiviral. This idea rose out of the powerful effect lemon balm has as a treatment for herpes outbreaks. It works because dormant viral infections turn into outbreaks under stress, and stress reduction (even when applied locally at topical level) causes reduced inflammation of nervous tissues. So, Melissa isn’t antiviral because it kills viruses, but rather its nervine properties greatly reduce stress which reduces and prevents herpes virus outbreaks.

The type of person who needs Melissa medicine is someone who is generally nervous or easily anxious, may have heart palpitations, cannot eat much when they are upset or stressed (which is most of the time), and has difficulties with sleep. Lemon balm eases digestion with its antispasmodic properties, especially when there are gripping pains and excess gas.

Lemon balm_vintage print.jpeg

It has a tonic effect on the cardiovascular system because of its mild vaso-dilation of the peripheral vessels. This also attributes to its mild diaphoretic effects (promotes sweating). Traditionally Melissa is used to treat colds and flus accompanied with a fever by helping to bring on a sweat. Its sedative properties also helped calm the pain and discomfort associated with these illnesses. Melissa officinalis also has a strong reputation for helping lift one’s spirits when sadness and melancholy take hold. It’s invigorating scent and taste helps lighten depressive states. It is gentle enough for children, especially for colic in babies, fussiness and pain from teething, and discomfort from colds. Make a tea, strain well and leave unsweetened. Cool and put into a bottle or child’s cup.

Lemon balm (5).JPG

More recently lemon balm has been studied for its use in the herpes simplex virus. A German company developed a very concentrated Melissa officinalis cream and had patients use it on their cold sores. The patients reported quicker healing times from the already erupted sores, and prevented more from surfacing. In some patients it also reduced the frequency between outbreaks. These effects were also observed using the same concentrated cream on genital herpes sores. Other new research shows that Melissa officinalis interferes with thyroid hormones binding to receptor sites, thus depressing TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels in the body. This proves useful in Grave’s disease or hyperthyroidism, where the over-activity of the thyroid gland needs to be calmed. 

Today, we have identified over 100 chemicals in Melissa officinalis and know that it is high in flavonoids and tannins which have antioxidant effects that strengthen the integrity of tissues. Its uplifting lemony flavor and scent are from volatile oil phytochemicals that are antidepressant in nature. Melissa officinalis contains eugenol, a known pain-relieving compound, which explains more of its relaxing qualities. This herb is dearly beloved by most herbalists across the globe today. Its very nature is that of joy and sweetness.

Preparation & Dosage

Infusion
Fresh or dried herb: 1-2 teaspoons in 8 ounces of boiling water, cover steep and drink 1-4 times daily.
 
Tincture
Fresh herb: 1:2, 85% alcohol, 10% glycerin; 2-5 ml, 3 times daily
Dried leaf: 1:5, 65% alcohol, 10% glycerin; 2-5 ml, 3 times daily
 
For cold sores:
Place 1-2 drops of a tincture of lemon balm on cold sore every few hours. Typically resolves in a day or two. You can also infuse 1 ½ tablespoons of fresh or 3 teaspoons of dried lemon balm leaves in one cup of water for ten minutes. Strain and dab onto spots 3-5 times daily.
 
For shingles:
Add five drops of Melissa essential oil to one teaspoon of olive oil and massage into the affected area. Cautionary Note: Melissa EO is contraindicated in causes of glaucoma due to a potential rise in ocular tension (animal study) and it may cause skin reactions.

 

Lemon Balm harvest.jpg

Contraindications

Thyroid – Do not use in cases of hypothyroidism; lemon balm inhibits thyroid hormone production.
Glaucoma – Do not use in cases of glaucoma; lemon balm may increase intraocular pressure.
Pregnancy – There is conflicting information regarding use during pregnancy. Some herbal texts caution use during pregnancy. This may be due to its effects on the cardiovascular system and thyroid suppressive properties. Some herbal texts recommend it during pregnancy to help with nausea, depression, high blood pressure, headaches, muscle aches, and relaxation. Consult with a qualified herbal practitioner to determine if lemon balm is safe for you during your pregnancy based on your individual health needs.

Lemon balm flowers_gobotany.jpg

References