Ingredient spotlight: Lemon Balm

I use lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) virtually every day in my practice as an organic fresh tincture, a dried herb and an essential oil. It is a herb I would simply not be without due to its multiple benefits across various body systems.

Let’s have a closer look at this zingy, lemony-smelling member of the mint family and how it has earned its reputation as a principal nervine, digestive and heart herb.

Melissa for mood

Lemon balm has been shown in human studies to elevate mood, improve memory and cognition, even relieve symptoms of mild-moderate Alzheimer’s disease such as irritability.

In two separate studies it was shown to elevate mood and improve cognitive performance in healthy young participants, whether given as a medicine or in food (1, 2). An extract of the leaf was also found to have dramatic effects in stressed volunteers in a 15-day study, with 70% of subjects achieving full remission for anxiety, 85% for insomnia, and 70% for both (3). This 2011 study demonstrated for the first time in a human trial that lemon balm has the capacity to relieve stress-related symptoms, with 95% of participants responding to treatment.

In my practice I use lemon balm for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and other types of depression alongside nervines like St John’s Wort, rose and lime flowers; for poor sleep or anxiety alongside passionflower, skullcap and oats; and for pre-menstrual and other types of tension alongside motherwort, vervain and cramp bark.

Melissa for ‘opening’

I think of lemon balm as an ‘opening’ remedy - it opens and relaxes the heart centre to release negative emotions, opens up the circulation for a gently warming effect, and also opens up the digestion with its carminative essential oils, easing cramps, bloating or indigestion.

It also helps to open up the bowels in cases of constipation associated with stress or anxiety, and opens up the appetite in people who are too tense to eat, relaxing the stomach and allowing juices to flow.

It’s opening effect on the circulation and calming effect on the heart means it is used alongside other herbs to bring down mildly elevated blood pressure, and for palpitations associated with hyperthyroidism. It can also help with other symptoms of an overactive thyroid like insomnia and anxiety, and compounds in the plant have been investigated for their ‘anti-thyrotropic’ activity (4).

Antiviral activity

Lemon balm essential oil is also a great topical antiviral for cold sores (herpes simplex) and shingles (herpes zoster). One 2008 study showed significant reduction in plaque formation with the oil for both HSV-1 (oral herpes) and HSV-2 (genital herpes), with higher concentrations of the oil abolishing viral infectivity nearly completely (5).

In practice I use a combination of St John’s Wort infused oil, liquorice base cream, lemon balm tincture and lemon balm essential oil for cold sores and shingles with great results.


1. Kennedy et al (2002) Modulation of mood and cognitive performance following acute administration of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm). Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2002 Jul;72(4):953-64.

2. Scholey et al (2014) Anti-stress effects of lemon balm-containing foods. Nutrients, 6(11), 4805–4821.

3. Cases et al (2011) Pilot trial of Melissa officinalis L. leaf extract in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Med J Nutrition Metab. 2011 Dec;4(3):211-218.

4. Auf'mkolk et al (1985) The active principles of plant extracts with antithyrotropic activity: oxidation products of derivatives of 3,4-dihydroxycinnamic acid. Endocrinology. 1985 May;116(5):1677-86.

5. Schnitzler et al (2008) Melissa officinalis oil affects infectivity of enveloped herpesviruses. Phytomedicine. 2008 Sep;15(9):734-40.

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