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Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a small, creeping plant in the mint family. With fragrant lemon-scented leaves and pretty flowers, it smells divine and is a real looker. But it’s also no slouch in the health benefits department, either.
Native to the Mediterranean region, lemon balm’s been used for centuries as both a culinary herb and natural medicine. In recent years, lemon balm has also gained attention as a potential treatment for anxiety disorders. It’s believed to improve mood and cognitive function while reducing feelings of stress and tension.
But this isn’t just wishful thinking. Let’s dig in and take a closer look at this mind-easing plant.
Lemon balm can be used fresh or dried in food and medicinal preparations. You’ll find it in plenty of forms, like teas, supplement pills, and essential oil. If you’re the DIY sort, you can also buy a lemon balm plant or seeds to grow your own.
There are several varieties of lemon balm as well, including:
- all gold
All varieties of this herb contain many terpenes and flavonoids — antioxidant substances thought to be responsible for lemon balm’s anxiolytic (aka anti-anxiety) effects. Each variety has its own proprietary mix of these compounds, though, which may impact its cost and effectiveness.
Once in the body, lemon balm is believed to work by inhibiting certain brain chemicals and boosting calmness.
Anxiety is a general term for experiencing a range of fears or worry-based reactions to stressful situations.
Symptoms may include:
- worrying about the future
- feeling on edge
- being tense
- trouble concentrating
- feeling scared
- intrusive thoughts
These symptoms can lead to physical responses like accelerated heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, and fatigue.
Experiencing any of these feelings throughout life isn’t always a definite sign of anxiety. But when these responses become excessive or chronic, interrupting daily activities or diminishing your quality of life — that’s when you might be entering the anxiety disorder territory.
Studies show that lemon balm may be helpful in reducing anxiety symptoms by elevating mood and reducing levels of stress hormones. Additionally, lemon balm has been shown to improve cognitive function and reduce feelings of stress and tension.
What the science says about how lemon balm works
A 2021 review and analysis of existing studies on lemon balm’s ability to quell anxiety suggests there’s a lot that looks promising. Based on its findings, anxiety and depression in study participants were significantly alleviated by lemon balm as compared to a placebo. (Plus, there were no serious side effects.)
The article is quick to point out, though, that the studies it reviewed were dissimilar in size and structure — so, overarching conclusions should be taken with some caution.
Another review of literature from 2018 found that lemon balm inhibited a central nervous system neurotransmitter that’s involved in anxiety. Lemon balm behaved in a way similar to standard pharmaceutical options — and exhibited comparable anti-anxiety effects — but with a more favorable safety and tolerability profile.
According to an animal study from February 2022, lemon balm has the potential to help with those physical effects of anxiety too. It found that certain plant compounds have a sedative quality that can calm various gastrointestinal and heart-related tissues.
While there have been several studies on various aspects and applications of lemon balm for stress, anxiety, and depression — rooted in everything from PMS to insomnia — experts agree that additional research is worthwhile.
So, if you’re feeling pretty confident about lemon balm’s effectiveness, incorporating it into your self-care routine can be super simple and rewarding.
Here are some suggested preparations and dosing:
- Aromatherapy. Apply a couple of drops of essential oil to your pulse points or put a few drops into a diffuser. If applying to the skin remember to dilute with a carrier oil first!
- Tea. Steep 1/4 to 1 teaspoon of dried lemon balm in 1 cup of hot water.
- Food. Add leaves or powdered lemon balm to the dishes you prepare.
- Capsules. Take 300–500 milligrams one to three times per day.
- Tinctures. Take up to 60 drops per day.
- Extract. Use 300 milligrams twice a day for 15 days for anxiety or 1200 milligrams once daily for stress and tension related to premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).
While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with your healthcare provider before you begin using essential oils and be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.
Medicinal lemon balm may also be available in other formulations — like syrups, bath products, salves, steams, and more.
Beyond the basics
There’s evidence that combining lemon balm with other herbal remedies might provide even more anxiety relief. Natural alternatives that are often paired with lemon balm include valerian, lavender, passionflower, and ashwagandha. You’ll probably see blended products for sale.
You won’t have to wait long to start feeling the soothing effects of lemon balm. Its anxiety-reducing influence may be noticeable within as little as 1 hour. The anti-anxiety effects of lemon balm could last about 4 to 8 hours. But it’s impossible to pin down exact timeframes as your body’s biology and the type and amount of lemon balm you use make a difference.
Lemon balm is generally considered to be safe. Adverse reactions seem to be relatively mild, temporary, and rare — especially when compared to Rx anxiety meds. But, there are still things to consider before going all-in on lemon balm.
Interactions and contraindications
You should skip lemon balm if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, have a history of seizures, or are going in for surgery soon. Lemon balm may also not be suitable for children.
Some medications are known to interact with lemon balm — including other medications that you take for anxiety, such as antidepressants or benzodiazepines. Lemon balm may also be problematic for several other medications including but not limited to:
Always talk with a healthcare professional before using herbs or aromatherapy if you have any health conditions or are taking medication.
Typical side effects
If you use lemon balm properly, the chance of experiencing side effects is minimal. You should still be aware of what they are, though. These are some commonly reported ones:
- increased appetite
- painful urination
- increased body temperature
- stomach upset or pain
- skin irritation (for topical applications)
Taking smaller doses or alongside food may reduce the likelihood of side effects.
- Eaten. Lemon balm consumed in food should pose no problems. The quantities you’re getting are fairly little.
- Ingested. When taken as a supplement, lemon balm should be safe at doses of 500 mg per day for no more than 4 to 6 months.
- Topical. External application of lemon balm is fine for adults.
Overall, it’s recommended that you only therapeutically use lemon balm intermittently for short periods of time. For example, you could use it for a few weeks and then abstain for a week. Continue this cadence until you hit that 4-to-6-month threshold, at which time you’d stop taking lemon balm for a bit.
It’s best not to combine lemon balm and alcohol use.
Consulting a pro about your health situation and the care plans you’re considering is never a bad idea. In fact, when thinking about adding a new supplement into the mix — it’s a downright smart move.
And, if you’re currently taking any over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription drugs or other herbal supplements, talking with a physician is critical. It may be the only way you’ll discover if and how lemon balm interacts with any of your other medications.
More broadly, if you’re experiencing anxiety — whether or not lemon balm is a promising possibility for you — a health pro can suggest a number of other options that can also be helpful. Together you can pinpoint the underlying problems and address them in a thoughtful, holistic approach.
Lemon balm has been shown to help provide anxiety relief. Available in many forms, lemon balm can be administered orally — in food, as a tea, or as a supplement — or topically. When used properly, lemon balm is safe for adults.
Before starting a routine with lemon balm for anxiety, though, be sure to check in with a health professional. They’ll let you know if you have any potential risk factors, like interactions with other medications or health conditions. They can also help you create a comprehensive plan — which may include more than just lemon balm — for addressing your anxiety.