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Info about Melissa

Scientific Name: Lemon Balm

Other Names: Balm Mint, Melissa, Melissa officinalis, Sweet Balm

Who is this for?

Lemon balm is probably more popular as an herbal remedy in Europe than it is in the United States, where it may be used more for flavoring. It is approved for "nervous sleeping disorders" and "functional gastrointestinal complaints" by Commission E of the German Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices. Commission E is the German governmental agency that evaluates the safety and effectiveness of herbal products. The United States does not have a comparable agency to evaluate herbal products.

Lemon balm contains volatile oils, including citronellal and citrals A and B, which are known to have sedative properties. Also called essential oils, volatile oils usually evaporate quickly at room temperature, providing the characteristic smell and taste of the plant. In both animal and human studies, lemon balm taken by mouth has had calming effects. In larger doses, it may promote sleep. In one study, researchers found that using lemon balm also improved memory and lengthened attention span in individuals suffering from Alzheimer's disease. This effect may be due to its content of antioxidants, which are thought to protect body cells from damage caused by a chemical process called oxidation. Another small but interesting study used lemon balm as aromatherapy (the use of fragrances to affect mood) to calm overexcited individuals suffering from dementia. Dementia is an increasing deficiency in thought processes caused by brain damage such as from a stroke or disease such as Alzheimer's disease.

Traditionally, lemon balm has been used to treat menstrual cramps, urinary spasms, and gastrointestinal complaints. It is thought that the volatile oils in lemon balm contain chemicals that relax muscles — particularly in the bladder, stomach, and uterus, thereby relieving cramps, gas, and nausea. However, results from laboratory research are inconclusive, and human studies have not been conducted to confirm these effects.

Lemon balm may block some of the activity of thyroid hormone in the body. Therefore, it has been used in the past to treat Grave's disease, an autoimmune condition in which the thyroid gland produces excess thyroid hormone. Although laboratory and animal studies show that lemon balm may help decrease thyroid in the body, no human studies have been conducted for this possible use.

When applied to cold sores or genital sores caused by the herpes simplex virus, creams or ointments containing lemon balm have speeded healing. The infections did not spread as much and individuals using topical lemon balm also reported more relief from symptoms such as itching and redness. At least part of this effect is due to antiviral properties of caffeic acid and rosmarinic acid, which are contained in lemon balm. In laboratory studies, lemon balm has also displayed some antibacterial and antifungal activity, but no human studies have been done to prove its usefulness for treating these infections.

When should I be careful taking it?

Due to the possibility that it may alter the production and utilization of thyroid hormones, lemon balm should not be taken by individuals with thyroid conditions.

In animal studies, lemon balm increased pressure inside the eyes. Even though similar results have not been reported in humans, individuals who have glaucoma should not take lemon balm.

Precautions

Very little information is available on how lemon balm might affect a developing fetus, an infant, or a small child. Therefore, its use is not recommended during pregnancy, while breast-feeding, or during early childhood.

What side effects should I watch for?

The few side effects attributed to oral lemon balm include dizziness and nausea.

On the skin, lemon balm may cause mild irritation at the place where it is applied.

What interactions should I watch for?

Prescription Drugs

When lemon balm is used with prescription drugs that promote sleepiness, the effects of the drug may be exaggerated, resulting in sedation or mental impairment. Prescription drugs that can cause sleepiness include:

  • Anticonvulsants such as carbamazepine, phenytoin and valproic acid
  • Barbiturates such as phenobarbital
  • Benzodiazepines such as alprazolam and diazepam
  • Drugs for insomnia such as zaleplon and zolpidem
  • Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline, amoxapine, doxepin and nortriptyline

Due to its potential effects on thyroid hormone utilization, lemon balm may interfere with therapy for hyperthyroidism (thyroid hormone excess) or hypothyroidism (thyroid hormone deficiency).

Non-prescription Drugs

The sleep-producing effects of over-the-counter products containing diphenhydramine may be enhanced by taking lemon balm at the same time. Diphenhydramine is contained in many non-prescription sleeping pills as well as in some cough and cold products, therefore caution should be used when taking these medications with lemon balm because excessive drowsiness may result.

Herbal Products

Lemon balm may cause excessive sedation if it is taken with other potentially sedating herbs such as:

  • Catnip
  • Hops
  • Kava
  • St. John's Wort
  • Valerian

Foods

No interactions between lemon balm and foods have been reported, but drinking alcohol at the same time as using lemon balm by mouth may result in increased drowsiness.

Some interactions between herbal products and medications can be more severe than others. The best way for you to avoid harmful interactions is to tell your doctor and/or pharmacist what medications you are currently taking, including any over-the-counter products, vitamins, and herbals.

Should I take it?

A perennial member of the mint family of plants, lemon balm is believed to have started in the area around the Mediterranean Sea. Easily grown in most mild climates, it has spread not only throughout temperate areas of Asia and Europe, but also to Australia, northern Africa, and North America. It grows as small, bushy plants that have heart-shaped leaves and white or yellowish flowers. The whole plant has a lemon-like smell, especially when the leaves are bruised or crushed. For use in cooking and medicine, lemon balm leaves are collected before the flowers bloom. Leaves contain small percentages of volatile oils that may be extracted by processing with steam. Lemon balm oil has been used to add a lemony taste in cooking and in manufacturing beverages, candies, other foods, and pharmaceuticals. It may also be used to add fragrance to perfumes and air fresheners.

Dosage and Administration

As an individual product, lemon balm is available as capsules, extracts, and other oral dose forms. To treat sleep problems, it is frequently included in combination products with other sedating herbals such as valerian. For gastrointestinal (GI) complaints, lemon balm may be combined with peppermint or other herbals that also have GI effects.

Tea may be made from either fresh or dried lemon balm. Up to a tablespoon of lemon balm leaves may be soaked in about one cup (8 ounces) of boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes. After the leaves have been removed, this tea may be consumed as often as desired — usually two or three times a day.

Lemon balm tea may be cooled and applied to the skin as a wash or poultice. In Europe, a commercial cream containing 1% of a standardized lemon balm extract is sold to treat oral and genital infections with the herpes virus. Standardization by the manufacturer should assure the same amount of active ingredient in every batch of the commercial preparation. Standardization of herbal products is not required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so not every product will contain the same amounts of active ingredients. General recommendations for topical lemon balm are to apply it up to four times a day to treat active herpes or twice a day to keep herpes from recurring.

Summary

Lemon balm may be taken by mouth as a sedative. It is also taken to relieve menstrual cramps and stomach complaints such as cramps and nausea. When applied to the skin, topical forms of lemon balm may speed the healing of cold sores or genital lesions caused by herpes viruses.

Risks

Lemon balm should not be taken by individuals with thyroid conditions or glaucoma. Not enough is known about its possible effects to recommend its oral use for pregnant or breast-feeding women or young children.

Side Effects

Oral lemon balm may cause dizziness or nausea. Topically, it may produce irritation where it is applied.

Interactions

Taking lemon balm by mouth may interfere with drugs that treat thyroid conditions and it may increase the sedative effects of drug and herbal sleeping aids or alcoholic beverages.

References

Akhondzadeh S, Noroozian M, Mohammadi M, Ohadinia S, Jamshidi AH, Khani M. Melissa officinalis extract in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease: a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled trial. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. 2003;74(7):863-866.

Anon: Lemon balm. In: DerMarderosian A, Beutler JA, eds. Facts and Comparisons: The Review of Natural Products. St. Louis, MO, Facts and Comparisons. February 1999.

Ballard CG, O'Brien JT, Reichelt K, Perry EK. Aromatherapy as a safe and effective treatment for the management of agitation in severe dementia: the results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with Melissa. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2002;63(7):553-558.

Blumenthal M, Gruenwald J, Hall T, Rister RS, eds. The Complete German Commission E Monographs. Austin, Texas: American Botanical Council; 1998.

Davis JM. Lemon balm. Department of Horticultural Science, North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, North Carolina State University. Revises May 1997. Available at: http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-126.html. Accessed November 21, 2003.

Douglas M. Lemon balm. Melissa officinalis. New Zealand Institute for Crop & Food Research Limited. Updated June 1993. Available at: http://www.crop.cri.nz/psp/broadshe/lemon.htm. Accessed November 21, 2003.

Dragland S, Senoo H, Wake K, Holte K, Blomhoff R. Several culinary and medicinal herbs are important sources of dietary antioxidants. Journal of Nutrition. 2003;133(5):1286-1290.

Gardiner P. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). The Longwood Herbal Task Force. Revised May 10, 2000. Available at: http://www.mcp.edu/herbal/lemonbalm/lemonbalm.pdf Accessed: November 21, 2003.

Herbs2000. Lemon balm. Melissa officinalis. No date given. Available at: http://www.herbs2000.com/herbs/herbs_lemon_balm.htm. Accessed November 4, 2003.

Jellin JM, Gregory P, Batz F, Hitchens K, et al, eds. Pharmacist's Letter/Prescriber's Letter. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, 3rd Edition. Stockton CA: Therapeutic Research Facility, 2000.

Kennedy DO, Scholey AB, Tildesley NT, Perry EK, Wesnes KA. Modulation of mood and cognitive performance following acute administration of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm). Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior. 2002;72(4):953-964.

Koytchev R, Alken RG, Dundarov S. Balm mint extract (Lo-701) for topical treatment of recurring herpes labialis. Phytomedicine. 1999;6(4):225-230.

Kucera LS, Cohen RA, Herrmann EC Jr. Antiviral activities of extracts of the lemon balm plant. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1965;130(1):474-482.


(Note: The above information is not intended to replace the advice of your physician, pharmacist, or other healthcare professional. It is not meant to indicate that the use of the product is safe, appropriate, or effective for you.)

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