Medical Attributes of Melissa officinalis – Lemon Balm
By Jillian Stark, Melissa Jones, and Nichole Braddock
Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA
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,
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
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”
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.
Allahverdivev, A, N. Duran, M. Ozguyen, & S. Kolta. 2004.
activity of the volatile oils of Melissa
officinalis L. against Herpes
simplex virus type-2. Phytomedicine
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."
Accessed 9 July 2007
Anonymous. 2007. Plants for a Future: Database Search
Results. Plants for a Future. Melissa
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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,