Lemon Balm: A powerful herbal medicine for our time
Updated: Apr 11, 2021
Melissa officionalis- Lemon Balm:
Physical distancing and washing your hands are absolutely critical, but we must not forget that a strong immune system is fundamental for protecting our bodies from infection in the first place. We all need to focus on the basic pillars: proper nutrition, sleep, and gut health- these are critical for maintaining our wellbeing right now.
In Naturopathic medicine practice, our goal is to “treat the person” not the disease or condition. We focus on the “terrain” more than the “organism”. This means we know that certain things make our terrain more inhospitable to infection and some things make us more vulnerable. For example, we know that chronic stress makes us more vulnerable, so we look to stress management as a key strategy for keeping us healthy and balanced. No one is immune from experiencing stress at this time, so naturally we are all asking ourselves, how can we enhance our ability to manage stress? How can we support our nervous system to move through these stressful experiences with more ease?
Of all the Naturopathic Medicine tools that are in our large toolkit, the ones I find myself using every day for maintaining health and developing resilience (the ability to overcome adversity) are botanical medicines (herbs) and mindfulness meditation practice.
By now we have all heard of the multitudinous benefits of a meditation practice- calming and soothing the mind is key for immunity. Why is meditation finally making the mainstream rounds? If we can put the brakes our nervous system expending our precious fuel on cheap “fight vs flight” bursts, we allow our body to remain well-stocked with the resources it needs for maintaining the immune system. Currently there is no medicine or treatment for COVID. So we realize there is a need to thoughtfully and carefully pace ourselves along the bumpy journey; we’re on more of a long-distance marathon than a fast sprint! If there was an herb that had a superpower akin to meditation (in the way that is equally indispensable at this time) hands down, meditation’s favourite soul sister would be Melissa or lemon balm.
Not only is lemon balm one of our favourite anti-viral herbs, it is a nervine tonic meaning it provides fundamental nourishment to our frayed nervous system. In addition, it’s a digestive aid and a very timely plant in the Connect part of the world to boot! ☺ As spring has sprung, it will be seen growing in many of the yards in our Kitsilano, Vancouver neighbourhood and is easily made into a delicious herbal hot or cold tea!
There are two basic ways lemon balm is a wonderful digestive ally.
SUPPORTING “REST + DIGEST”:
Firstly, if we are eating in fight or flight (or stress mode) our digestion suffers. Simple activities like listening to the news updates can tell our body “there are more important things to do” than make our digestive juices and enzymes needed to break down incoming food. So if we allow ourselves to first move into “rest and digest” mode by deep belly breathing, meditation or drinking a cup of Melissa tea to soothe and calm our nervous system, we can “prime the pump” of our digestive system which will allow us to get the most out of our healthy food choices.
Melissa is a carminative herb meaning that it contains volatile oils (like peppermint) that soothe and settle the gut wall. This aids in reducing pain and also allows for gas to be removed from the digestive tract. The herb’s oils stimulate the digestive system to work properly and with ease by coordinating and regulating contractions.
GLADDENING HERB SUPPORT:
Last but not least, lemon balm is one of my favourite nervines- a plant that nourishes the nervous system. It is referred to as a “gladdening herb” because of its use in traditional herbal medicine (across cultures and times!) to address depression, anxiety, and times of “overwhelm”. Does this sound relevant to today? Modern research has validated lemon balm’s “uplifting” role, finding mood elevation to occur via a number of neurotransmitter effects- one in particular being dopamine which is aids us in positive mood, motivation and cognitive function (think focus, concentration) 1. I find it fascinating that in addition to promoting dopamine which aids us in positive mood, lemon balm is noted to have activity at GABA receptors which also provides anxiolytic or anxiety reducing activity. Extracts of the whole plant are reported to be potent inhibitors of GABA transaminase, the enzyme that breaks down GABA, thereby increasing blood levels of this primary relaxing neurotransmitter! 2. This is the beauty and elegance of herbs- they can play multiple roles at once, performing the ultimate balancing act—increasing something that is low, decreasing something that is high. To sum it up, herbs like lemon balm are wonderful plant allies helping humans maintain homeostasis and resilience.
Lemon Balm can be made into an herbal tea with the fresh or dried leaves. It is also found in capsules and we often use it in tincture form as part of a formula with multiple herbs to address a person’s unique health picture. With all herbs before making recommendations, we consider an individual’s medical history, constitution and current medications to make sure there are no interactions.
Sourgens H et al. Antihormonal effects of plant extracts. TSH- and prolactin-supressing properties of Lithospermum officinale and other plants. Planta Med. 1982;45(2):78-86.
Awad R et al. Bioassay-guided fractionation of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L.) using an in vitro measure of GABA transaminase activity. Phytother Res. 2009 Aug;23(8):1075-81.