Lemon balm, scientifically known as Melissa officinalis, is an herb in the mint family that is native to southern Europe. The leaves of the lemon balm plant have been used for centuries to make medicine and flavor foods and drinks. In recent years, lemon balm leaves have gained popularity for their potential health benefits. But are the claims about lemon balm leaves being a superfood legitimate? Let’s take a closer look at what research says about the health effects of consuming lemon balm leaves.
Like most leafy green vegetables, lemon balm leaves are low in calories but contain many important micronutrients. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), one cup (19 grams) of fresh lemon balm leaves contains:
- Calories: 14
- Fat: 0.5 g
- Carbohydrates: 2.4 g
- Fiber: 1.6 g
- Protein: 1.1 g
- Vitamin A: 22% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Vitamin C: 9% of the DV
- Calcium: 5% of the DV
- Iron: 9% of the DV
Lemon balm leaves are especially high in antioxidants, including rosmarinic acid and flavonoids like quercetin and kaempferol. Antioxidants help neutralize unstable molecules called free radicals that can damage cells and contribute to disease.
May support brain health
Some of the most exciting potential benefits of lemon balm relate to brain health.
In traditional medicine practices, lemon balm has been used to reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and enhance memory and cognition. Modern research suggests these traditional uses may be valid.
In a small study in 20 young adults, those who took a single dose of 600 mg lemon balm extract reported increased calmness and reduced alertness compared to those who took a placebo. The lemon balm group also performed better on math tasks assessing memory and attention.
Other studies have found that taking lemon balm extract for 15-30 days can improve mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety in people with mild to moderate anxiety disorders.
Additionally, lemon balm has shown promise for improving cognitive function in people with Alzheimer’s disease. In one study, Alzheimer’s patients who took lemon balm extract for 4 months showed improved scores on cognitive assessments compared to those who received a placebo.
Researchers believe that two of lemon balm’s compounds – rosmarinic acid and the terpene eugenol – are likely responsible for many of its positive effects on brain health and function.
May help manage blood sugar
Some research indicates that lemon balm may help improve blood sugar control, especially when combined with standard diabetes medications.
In one study in people with type 2 diabetes, taking lemon balm extract for 3 months lowered fasting blood sugar levels, hemoglobin A1C, and LDL “bad” cholesterol compared to placebo. The lemon balm group also experienced increased insulin levels and improved insulin resistance.
Another study found that inhaling lemon balm essential oil for 15 days significantly reduced blood sugar in women with gestational diabetes compared to placebo. The lemon balm group also had lower hemoglobin A1C and improved insulin resistance.
Overall, these results suggest that lemon balm may be a beneficial complementary therapy for people with diabetes when used alongside standard treatment.
May ease stress and anxiety
As mentioned earlier, lemon balm has traditionally been used to promote calmness and reduce anxiety. Studies demonstrate that it may be effective for enhancing mood and relieving stress.
In a systematic review of 18 studies, lemon balm preparations were found to significantly improve state-of-mind calmness and reduce state-of-mind alertness compared to placebo.
Similarly, an analysis of 9 studies concluded that lemon balm supplementation can reduce stress and anxiety symptoms in both healthy adults and people with anxiety disorders.
Researchers believe that rosmarinic acid, a key compound in lemon balm, is likely responsible for these mood-enhancing, stress-reducing effects.
May improve sleep quality
Drinking lemon balm tea and taking lemon balm supplements have been used for centuries to promote restful sleep.
Some research supports this traditional use, showing that lemon balm may increase sleep efficiency and quality.
In one study in over 70 adults, taking a 500 mg capsule of lemon balm extract for 15 days significantly increased sleep efficiency and reduced wake after sleep compared to placebo. Participants also reported an overall improved quality of life.
In another study, elderly people with mild to moderate sleep disorders received a lemon balm and valerian extract for 2 weeks. The supplement group reported improved sleep quality and reduced daytime drowsiness compared to placebo.
So if you struggle with sleep issues, adding some lemon balm tea or supplements to your nightly routine may help you get more restful and high-quality sleep.
May improve digestive symptoms
Lemon balm has traditionally been used to treat digestive issues, including abdominal pain, nausea, and flatulence. Some research indicates it may be helpful for relieving certain digestive symptoms.
In one study in people with IBS, participants who took an herbal remedy containing lemon balm for 8 weeks experienced a significant improvement in abdominal pain and discomfort compared to placebo.
Another study found that children with indigestion who were treated with a mixture of lemon balm and angelica root had faster improvement in symptoms compared to those who received conventional antispasmodic medications.
Additionally, animal studies have shown that lemon balm can protect the gastric lining from ulcer development and accelerate healing of existing ulcers.
While more research is needed, lemon balm appears promising for relieving certain digestive woes, especially when combined with other herbs and traditional medicine approaches.
Contains powerful antioxidants
Antioxidants are compounds that help neutralize oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Oxidative stress has been linked to chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, neurodegenerative disorders, and certain cancers.
Lemon balm contains two antioxidant compounds that are thought to provide many of its health benefits – rosmarinic acid and flavonoids.
Rosmarinic acid has strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial effects in research studies. It also appears to be the compound responsible for improving mood, reducing anxiety and enhancing cognition.
Flavonoids like quercetin and kaempferol are found in high concentrations in lemon balm. These powerful antioxidants have been shown to reduce oxidative stress and lower the risk of chronic diseases in research studies.
Loaded with antioxidants like these, adding lemon balm to your diet may help combat oxidative stress and inflammation in your body.
Easy to add to your diet
One of the best things about lemon balm is how easy it is to incorporate into meals, beverages, and supplements:
- Add fresh leaves to salad, soups, sauces, and seafood dishes
- Infuse lemon balm leaves into hot or iced tea
- Puree lemon balm leaves into homemade pesto sauce
- Steep dried leaves into tea or lemon balm sun tea
- Take lemon balm extract in capsule or liquid tincture form
- Use lemon balm essential oil aromatically or topically
Lemon balm has a light, lemony flavor that enhances many savory and sweet recipes. Try getting creative with adding lemon balm into your recipes or enjoy it on its own.
May cause side effects in some people
When consumed in normal food amounts, lemon balm is considered very safe. However, lemon balm supplements or essential oils can cause side effects in sensitive individuals, including:
- Drowsiness or sedation
- Abdominal pain
- Wheezing or trouble breathing
Lemon balm may also interact with certain medications, especially sedative medications. Speak with your healthcare provider before taking lemon balm supplements if you take any medications or have any medical conditions.
Additionally, lemon balm may stimulate thyroid activity. Those with underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) should avoid lemon balm supplements and essential oils.
Not well studied during pregnancy or breastfeeding
There is limited research on lemon balm use during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Speak with your healthcare provider before supplementing with lemon balm if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
However, enjoying lemon balm tea or using fresh or dried lemon balm leaves in cooking is likely fine during this time. But consult your doctor if you have any concerns.
With benefits for brain health, blood sugar control, sleep, stress, digestion, and more, lemon balm is an herb that lives up to its medicinal hype. Adding lemon balm leaves or supplements to your health routine is an easy way to reap the benefits of its antioxidants and bioactive plant compounds.
While generally very safe, test for personal tolerance and speak to your healthcare provider before supplementing with lemon balm, especially if you take any medications or have underlying health conditions.
But enjoying lemon balm leaves in moderation in recipes, teas, and other culinary applications is a safe, delicious way to incorporate this healthy herb into your diet.