Today’s subject is an herb native to the Mediterranean region that has a long history of treating a wide variety of issues, including memory, cognition and anxiety. These days it’s found in gardens throughout Europe and North America, including mine, where it’s kind of annoying because spreads like crazy.
As far as my researchers can tell, the first written suggestion that lemon balm is good for brain and cognitive health appears in the 16th century, when John Gerard, an English botanist, gave it to his students to “quicken the senses.”
He was right, and then some. Recent research shows lemon balm has remarkable healing and regenerative effects on the brain. It’s an antioxidant that can stimulate memory – and reduce anxiety, too!
Here’s what we’ve learned…
Melissa officinalis is the botanical name for lemon balm. The plant’s small white flowers attract honey bees, which earned it the name Melissa, Greek for honey bee.
The plant is a member of the mint family, most notable for giving off a lemon scent. In fact, in a blind test I’m not sure I would be able to tell lemon balm from a real lemon.
Paracelsus (1493-1541), a German physician, thought it should be used for “all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system.”1
How Lemon Balm Helps Your Brain
Lemon balm’s main compound is rosmarinic acid (RA), which helps keep the brain healthy longer because of its antioxidant properties. Researchers in India discovered RA reduces free radicals and protects the brain’s nerve cells from deterioration.
Their results suggest RA might help prevent several neurodegenerative diseases caused by oxidative stress, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.2
A study from Canada links the traditional relaxing effects of lemon balm to elevated levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid). The herb suppresses an enzyme, GABA-transaminase, which downgrades GABA in the brain. This enzyme is a main target in current anxiety and neurological disorder therapies.3
The researchers determined rosmarinic acid is the major component in lemon balm that’s responsible for boosting GABA. If you suffer from mild anxiety, this herb may be worth a try.
In Finland, scientists assessed lemon balm extract for its effectiveness in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s patients. They found the extract restricted the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which reduces the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Low acetylcholine levels inhibit the brain’s signaling ability, which is common in Alzheimer’s cases.4
The Finnish results suggest lemon balm extract was effective in the management of Alzheimer’s disease. And by the way, suppressing this annoying enzyme and boosting the patient’s acetylcholine is exactly what expensive Alzheimer’s drugs like Aricept do.
Looks like there’s a powerful memory “drug” growing in my garden…
Lemon Balm Calms You Down, Helps You Remember
In 2014, researchers conducted two studies at the Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. They evaluated the mood and cognitive effects of lemon balm when given in the form of a beverage and in yogurt.
In each study, both forms were associated with improvements in mood and/or cognitive performance in young healthy adults.5
This report demonstrated both lemon balm products were capable of benefiting mood and performance in a number of ways.
Researchers at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, UK performed a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study on 20 young participants. After receiving single doses of varying amounts of lemon balm extract, cognition as well as calmness improved in everyone who took part.6
A study published in the American College of Neuropsychopharmacologyevaluated cognition and mood using active dried leaves of lemon balm. The scientists found that memory performance improved and calmness increased in all 20 participants.7
According to research published in Current Pharmaceutical Design, lemon balm possesses cognition-enhancing properties. The report also states that, when used as aromatherapy and essential oil, lemon balm reduces agitation and slows cognitive decline in those suffering from dementia.8
This study shows lemon balm may provide effective and well-tolerated relief for dementia either alone, in combination with, or as an addition to conventional treatments.
How to Get More Lemon Balm into Your Life
If you live in a somewhat warm climate, you may want to try growing your own lemon balm.
Because of its pleasant scent, it’s a delicious herb to add to many meat dishes or salads for extra flavor. You can also steep its leaves for 15 minutes or so for a lemony-flavored tea. If you don’t want to grow it, you can find lemon balm tea, dried leaves, extract oil and supplements online or in health food stores.
Lemon balm is generally safe for almost everyone. However, as with any substance, I can’t rule out a possible allergic reaction in some people.
- Anti-stress effects of lemon balm-containing foods.
- Rosmarinic acid and Melissa officinalis extracts differently affect glioblastoma cells.
- Bioassay-guided fractionation of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L.) using an in vitro measure of GABA transaminase activity.
- Acetylcholinesterase inhibitory guided fractionation of Melissa officinalis L.
- Anti-stress effects of lemon balm-containing foods.
- Modulation of mood and cognitive performance following acute administration of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm).
- Modulation of mood and cognitive performance following acute administration of single doses of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) with human CNS nicotinic and muscarinic receptor-binding properties.
- The psychopharmacology of European herbs with cognition-enhancing properties.