What it is
A member of the mint family, lemon balm has a distinct lemony flavor and aroma, which makes it a popular garden herb. Although it’s mild enough to use for treating children’s ailments, lemon balm is a powerful herbal healer for adults as well.

Why it’s used
Herbalists today primarily use lemon balm for easing insomnia, anxiety, stress, and digestive upsets. It is also used to ward off insects and heal bug bites. The recent discovery of the herb’s antiviral compounds has made it popular as a topical treatment for oral and genital herpes.

History and folk remedies
Lemon balm has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years as a medicinal plant. As early as the tenth century, Arab physicians recommended the flavorful herb for easing nervous tension. In medieval Europe, extracts of lemon balm became a fashionable sedative; the emperor Charlemagne decreed that the herb be grown in every monastery garden in his domain. Throughout the Middle Ages, herbalists prescribed lemon balm for insomnia, headaches, nervous stomach, anxiety, depression, and menstrual cramps. From the time of ancient Greece, lemon balm was also used to help heal minor wounds and to treat bug bites and stings.

How it works
Researchers have identified a variety of compounds in lemon balm with mildly sedative properties that relax the nervous system. Other compounds, including fragrant essential oils, help to relieve indigestion. The plant contains polyphenols, compounds that fight infection-causing bacteria; this supports the traditional use of lemon balm for healing wounds. Laboratory studies also show that lemon balm has antiviral properties. Scientists theorize that the herb prevents viruses from attaching to cells.

Scientific support
In a German study, lemon balm combined with valerian (Valeriana officinalis) was found to significantly improve sleep quality when compared with a placebo (Fitoterapia, 1999, vol. 70, no. 3). Another study showed that the same herbal formula was as effective as the pharmaceutical tranquilizer Halcion but without the negative side effects typical of sedative drugs (Therapiewoche, 1992, vol. 42).

The botanical name Melissa comes from the Greek word for bee, because bees love this flowering herb. German researchers have also proven the effectiveness of lemon balm as a herpes treatment. In a recent study, 116 people with herpes sores (oral and genital) were given either a cream containing 1 percent lemon balm extract or a placebo. Those using the herb had a significantly better recovery rate than those using the placebo (Phytomedicine, 1994, vol. 1, no. 1). Another study followed 66 individuals just starting to develop a cold sore. On day two, those using the lemon balm cream were healing more quickly, had less discomfort, and exhibited fewer and smaller blisters than those not taking the herb (Phytomedicine, 1999, vol. 6, no. 4).

Lemon balm can be taken in tea form or as a liquid extract. It is used as a cream for herpes treatment. Lemon balm leaves can also be rubbed against the skin and used as an insect repellent.

To make a lemon balm tea, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 2 teaspoons of dried leaf (or 2 tablespoons of fresh leaves). Cover, steep for 15 minutes, strain, and drink. For insomnia, drink 1 cup 30 minutes before bed. For stress and anxiety, drink up to 3 cups throughout the day. If you prefer using a concentrated liquid extract, take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon diluted in a small amount of warm water up to three times a day. To use for herpes, apply a cream (available in natural products stores and some pharmacies) at the first indication of an outbreak.

Lemon balm liquid extract costs approximately $8 per ounce. The cream is $8 for 0.18 ounce.

Side effects
Lemon balm is a safe, gentle, nonaddictive herb. However, if you are taking prescription sedatives, consult your physician before using medicinal amounts of lemon balm to prevent excessive sedation. Lemon balm should also not be used during pregnancy. In animal studies, lemon balm has been found to depress thyroid activity. If you suffer from hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), you should not use medicinal amounts of lemon balm without first consulting your health care practitioner.

Herbalist and author Laurel Vukovic lives in Ashland, Oregon, and has published nine books, including Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).