Medical Attributes of Melissa officinalis – Lemon Balm

By Jillian Stark, Melissa Jones, and Nichole Braddock
Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA

July, 2007
Melissa officinalis, commonly called the Lemon or Sweet Balm, is an herb that is native to Southern Europe. Belonging to the Lamiaceae (Mint family), the plant’s habitat generally consists of wastelands and mountainous areas having acidic soils (Anon, 2007). This perennial rooted plant blooms with white or yellowish flowers between the months of June to October, and emits a “fragrant lemon odor when bruised” (Grieve, 1931).  The genus name Melissa comes from the Greek word meaning “bee,” owing to the sweet nature of the flowers. The common name, balm, abbreviated from balsam, was indicative of the “chief of sweet-smelling oils” (Grieve, 1931).

According to the Renaissance physician Paracelsus, the sweetness of the Melissa would “completely revivify a man” (Grieve, 1931). Many others wrote of the brain-healing, revitalizing, wound-healing effects of “Canary wine” and “Carmelite water” made from lemon balm.  Pliny and Dioscorides often expressed that when the leaves were seeped into wine, it produced a cure for venomous bites and scorpion stings (Grieve, 1931).  Referenced as early as the first century A.D., lemon balm was found to have practical and edible uses that are still utilized today. Leaves of M. officinalis are used to make balm teas as well as use as flavoring agents for salads and other prepared foods. More commercial uses include using the oils and leaves to make potpourri and perfume as well as fly and ant repellant (Anon, 2004).

The chief chemicals acquired from lemon balm oil are citral A and B (geranial and neral), citronellal, beta-caryophyllene, and rosmarinic acid (Toth, 2003).  Collection of the extract rosmarinic acid is considered to be maximal upon full flowering (Toth, 2003).

Medicinally, the number of uses has grown beyond original herbal claims, so that Melissa officinalis has now taken the form of a wide-range cure-all remedy.  These uses include acting as an antibacterial, antiviral, antispasmodic, aromatherapeutic, digestive soother, emmenagogue, anti-pyretic (fever reducer), and a sedative.  The herb has also shown to be useful as an antioxidant, immuno-stimulant, antihormonal, anti-cancer and a colic treatment (Anon, 2007).

As an antiviral agent, lemon balm has been tested against Herpes Simplex Virus type 2 (HSV-2). Its volatile oils were found to inhibit HSV-2 replication in HEp-2 cells (Allahverdiyev et al., 2004). However, according to Allahverdiyev (2004), only small doses have proven beneficial while concentrations over 100 mcg/mL were established as slightly toxic.

Antispasmodic and relaxant properties of M. officinalis have been confirmed in studies involving the ileum of rats where it inhibits their response to potassium chloride, acetylcholine, and serotonin (Sadraei et al, 2003). Although these effects were concentration dependent, this might prove to be helpful in patients plagued by diarrhea due to prominent irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Lemon balm has been used as an emmenagogue to treat delayed menstruation in women (Anon, 2004). It causes more circulation and blood to flow to the uterine area to regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle.  Even at low doses, M. officinalis is not recommended during pregnancy due to its abortifacient properties (Anon, 2005).     

Lemon balm’s reported sedative and anxiolytic properties have been examined through peer-reviewed research. As a sedative, it has been shown to provide a definite decrease in behavior patterns in mice when given in low doses (Pelt, et. al. 1991).  Combinations of M. officinalis, Matricaria recutita, and Foeniculum vulgare were shown to improve infantile colic within one week of treatment (Savino, 2005).  In children less than 12 years of age who suffer from restlessness and nervous dyskoimesis, the combination of lemon balm and valerian (Euvegal forte; Schwabe Pharmaceuticals, Karlsruhe, Germany) proved to ease the symptoms until they were mild or non-existent (Muller, 2006).  This sedative effect has also been studied in healthy, young adults, who reported elevated calmness even while on the lowest prescribed dose (Kennedy, 2003). In 2006, Kennedy and Scholey conducted another study on M. officinalis to see whether it had cognition-enhancing effects.  The main anxiolytic effects have been attributed to M. officinalis extracts binding to nicotinic and muscarinic receptors in the brain. However, cognitive-enhancement has been observed with extracts that have “high cholinergic binding properties” (Kennedy, 2006). Such extracts have also shown to slow down the mental degeneration of Alzheimer’s patients when given as a chronic regimen (Kennedy, 2006).

Antioxidant activity has been confirmed through in vitro experiments where lemon balm extracts underwent iron-mediated oxidation and autoxidation (Marongiu, 2004).  Although collected using carbon dioxide, the extracts displayed antioxidant activity with no substantial differences in efficacy observed (Marongiu, 2004).

The immune-stimulatory effects of water extracts of M. officinalis have shown to elicit both humoral and cellular responses in mice (Drozd, 2003). However, when rosmarinic acid is used independently of the plant, it “inhibits several complement-dependent inflammatory processes,” mainly C5 convertase (Charlesworth, 1991).

Citral, extracted from lemon balm as well as lemon grass and verbena, tends to induce apoptosis in hematopoietic cancer cells when taken in concentrations as low as one cup of prepared tea.  Citral also causes DNA fragmentation and “caspase-3 catalytic activity induction” (Dudai, 2005).

Melissa officinalis is rife with further medicinal possibilities. Currently, the beneficial properties of the lemon balm remain little more than a natural home-remedy, standing merely in the periphery among popular commercialized herbs in the United States.  Potential to become the next St. John's wort remains only a vision until uses, therapeutic dosages, and precautions are further standardized.  

LITERATURE CITED

Allahverdivev, A, N. Duran, M. Ozguyen, & S. Kolta. 2004. Antiviral activity of the volatile oils of Melissa officinalis L. against Herpes simplex virus type-2. Phytomedicine 11(7-8): 657-661.

Anonymous. 2004. “Database File for: Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis). In Tropical Plant Database. Raintree Nutrition. http:www.rain-tree.com/lemonbalm.htm.  Accessed 24 June 2007

Anonymous. 2005.  "Generic Name: Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) - ORAL." MedicineNet.com. http://www.medicinenet.com/lemon_balm_melissa_officinalis-oral/article.htm. Accessed 9 July 2007

Anonymous. 2007.  Plants for a Future: Database Search Results. Plants for a Future. Melissa officinalishttp://www.ibiblio.org/pfaf/cgi-bin/arr_html?Melissa+officinalis.  Accessed 24 June 2007

Bolkent, S, R. Yanardag, O. Karabulant-Bulan, & B. Yesilvaprak. 2005. Protective role of Melissa officinalis L. extract on liver of hyperlipidemic rats: a morphological and biochemical study. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 99: 391-398.

Charlesworth, J.A. B.A. Pusell, P.W. Peake, P. Martin, and V. Timmermans. 1991.  The inhibitory effect of rosmarinic acid on complement involves the C5 convertase.” Immunopharmacology 13: 853-857.

Drozd, J, & E. Anuszewska. 2003. The effect of the Melissa officinalis extract on immune response in mice. Acta Poliniae Pharmaceutica 60: 467-70.

Dudai, N, Y. Weinstein, M. Krup, T. Rabinski, & R. Ofir. 2005. Citral is a new inducer of caspase-3 in tumor cell lines. Planta Medica May 71: 484-488.

Grieve, M. 1931.  “Balm” A Modern Herbal. Botanical.com.  http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/balm--02.html. Accessed 24 June 2007

Kennedy, D.O, Little, W, Haskell, C.F., & Scholey, A.B. 2006. Anxiolytic effects of a combination of Melissa officinalis and Valeriana officinalis during laboratory induced stress. Phytotherapy Research Feb;20(2):96-102.
    
Kennedy, D.O. & A.B. Scholey. 2006. The psychopharmacology of European herbs with cognition-enhancing properties. Current Pharmaceutical Design 12: 4613-4623.

Kennedy, D.O. G. Wake, S. Savelev, N.T. Tildesley, E.K. Perry, K.A. Wesnes & A.B. Scholey. 2003. 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 28: 1871-1881.

Marongiu, B, S. Porcedda, A. Piras, A. Rosa, M. Deina, & M.A. Dessi.  2004. Antioxidant activity of supercritical extract of Melissa officinalis subsp. officinalis and Melissa officinalis subsp. inodora. Phytotherapy Research 18: 789-92.

Muller, S.F. & S. Klement. 2006. A combination of valerian and lemon balm is effective in the treatment of restlessness and dyssomnia in children. Phytomedicine 13: 383-387.

Sadraei, H, A. Ghannadi, & K. Malekshai. 2003. Relaxant effect of essential oil of Melissa officinalis and citral on rat ileum contractions. Fitoterapia 74: 445-452.

Savino, F, F. Cresi, E. Castagno, L. Silvestro, & R. Oggero. 2005. A randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial of a standardized extract of Matricaria recutita, Foeniculum vulgare and Melissa officinalis (ColiMil) in the treatment of breastfed colicky infants. Phytotherapy Research 19: 335-340.


This paper was developed as part of the BIO 368 - Medical Botany course offered at Wilkes University during the summer of 2007. Course instructor was Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D. (kklemow@wilkes.edu). The information contained herein is based on published sources, and is made available for academic purposes only. No warrantees, expressed or implied, are made about the medical usefulness or dangers associated with the plant species in question.

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This page posted and maintained by Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D., Biology Department, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766. (570) 408-4758, kklemow@wilkes.edu.