As its name implies, lemon balm—which is in the mint family—has a slightly tart taste. It's a popular addition not only in foods and drinks, but also in aromatherapy and beauty products. Besides tasting and smelling good, lemon balm is full of benefits, and has long been used for its calming, stress-relieving properties. Here's what you need to know before you try it.
What are the benefits of lemon balm?
1. It could help calm anxiety. Some small studies (in people and rats) have linked lemon balm to reduced feelings of stress and anxiety. Researchers for one pilot study believe the herb makes the neurotransmitter gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) more readily accessible in the brain. (GABA helps regulate your body's stress response.) It should be noted, however, that too much lemon balm (exceeding 0.6 grams) can actually lead to feeling more anxious. The sweet spot for anxiety seems to be 0.3 grams, according to the study.
2. It could boost your mood... Similarly, there is evidence that lemon balm can help reduce depression, though the exact science behind why is still unknown. "In the acute model, [lemon balm] significantly reduced depressive-like behavior but the type of related neurotransmitter could not be determined," reads one rat-based study.
3. ...or help you, ahem, get in the mood. All the positive mood-boosting benefits of lemon balm extend to sexual desire too. One small study found that women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder (where a person experience an unusual lack of sexual fantasies or desire) who took capsules of 500 mg of lemon balm twice a day for a month felt more interested in sex than those who took a placebo.
4. It's antimicrobial. Using lemon balm could help fight against spreading infection thanks to its antimicrobial properties, especially when combined with mint.
5. It's packed with antioxidants. Like most plants and herbs, lemon balm is rich in antioxidants, which helps protect the body from damage caused by free radicals (you know, the stuff that can cause inflammation, disease, and signs of aging). The antioxidants decrease significantly, however, when the leaves become dried out, so if you're looking to fully reap these benefits, go for fresh lemon balm over the dried leaves generally used in tea.
6. It could help relieve heartburn. Registered dietitian Julie E, RD, loves lemon balm for this purpose. "I carry lemon [balm] oil in my purse and when I dine out, I ask for hot water and I add two drops of lemon to it," she says. "That way, it acts as a digestive aid and soothes the GI tract." There is some preliminary scientific evidence that backs her up, though more studies need to be performed in this area.
Are there any side effects of lemon balm?
As with any herbal remedy, lemon balm could potentially interact with certain medications, including sedatives, thyroid meds, and HIV treatments. That's why you should talk to your doctor or see a specialist before dosing yourself with lots of it. "We all have unique bodies and just because something could be beneficial overall doesn't necessarily mean it's beneficial to you," Julie E says.
When it comes to buying lemon balm, Julie E says the source matters. "This is always my number one concern," she says. "Just because a label looks good does not mean it's a clean product. You have to find brands that do third party independent lab assays and are not afraid to show these off." She explains that in order for a product to be considered "clean," everything from the soil, water, possible pesticide use, and packaging all need to be taken into account. Look for organic and non-GMO labels to ensure you're getting the best quality possible.
What are some lemon balm uses that will actually benefit me?
1. Sip it as a tea. Because lemon balm has such an appealing smell and taste, it's extremely versatile. One of the easiest ways to consume it is by brewing it as a tea. You can buy lemon balm leaves either fresh or dried to make it yourself, or buy tea blends that have lemon balm in them.
2. Add it to food. Similarly, lemon balm leaves can be ground up and incorporated into meals. "You can put it into anything you think would taste good, in place of lemon zest," Julie E says. She says you can also buy a lemon balm concentrate or tincture and add a few drops into various dishes to brighten up the taste. "Just use a lot less than you would lemon zest, because an oil is more concentrated," she says. Some of her favorite ways to incorporate lemon balm into food are by adding a couple drops to plain yogurt or into desserts.
3. Try lemon balm aromatherapy. You don't need to consume lemon balm in order to benefit from its mood boosting effects; just inhaling it helps. "One of the best ways is to inhale it deeply through the nose so it travels to the brain and nervous system, bringing instant calm and soothing," Julie E says. "I recommend place a few drops in the palms of your hand and inhale deeply, but you can also place on a tissue and inhale. When someone responds well to this, I often have them put a tiny drop on the skin below their nose so they can get a nice whiff every so often throughout their day."
Similarly, you can also put a few drops of lemon balm into a diffuser. Not only will it make your whole room smell fresh and clean, but inhaling it will bring on those calming benefits.
In general, lemon balm can be a helpful herb to integrate into your life, especially if you experience anxiety, depression, or want to boost your cognitive function. And because it smells so darn great, others around you will reap the benefits too, just by being around you. Talk about an herb that keeps on giving!
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