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Lemon balm might help reduce stress and anxiety

It’s long been used by some people to help them deal with anxiety and depression. But does it work?

Lemon balm has been used for anxiety and depression, but does it work?
Lemon balm has been used for anxiety and depression, but does it work?
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The pandemic has brought a new level of stress to our lives that’s led many to turn to exercise, meditation and dietary or herbal remedies, including lemon balm, to find a sense of calm.

Lemon balm has long been used by some in response to anxiety and depression. But does it work?

Preliminary study data show lemon balm can reduce anxiety, nervousness and excitability and potentially help ease the effects of stress.

Also, a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial among agitated patients with Alzheimer’s disease found the use of aromatherapy with lemon balm essential oil had a calming effect.

But there are considerations that make it difficult to determine lemon balm’s health benefits. There are only limited “proof of concept” human studies that would allow us to determine lemon balm’s efficacy as a treatment.

What is lemon balm? Formally known as Melissa officinalis L., it’s a perennial herb in the mint family with uses dating to 40-90 CE. It’s popular in pollinator gardens to attract bees — it’s no coincidence that its genus, Melissa, is Greek for bee.

For over two millennia, it’s been used in teas and as an herb to flavor food and, as an oil or extract, for medicinal purposes including as a treatment for sleeping disorders, central nervous system disorders and especially anxiety and depression. It’s been shown to have antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Lemon balm is commonly combined with other medicinal plants, though, so it’s hard to pinpoint its effects. Also, multiple studies — in humans and animals — have tested doses of lemon balm extract that are too high to be feasible for clinical practice.

Lemon balm generally is considered safe and is well tolerated in adults when taken for up to eight weeks. Though not reported to be statistically significant, some trials involving doses ranging from 900 to 1,200 milligrams had reports of increased intraocular pressure and thyroid hormone inhibition. So people with eye and thyroid disorders should use caution.

Herbal supplements can interact with medications, so consult with your doctor before starting on lemon balm or any other supplement.

Environmental Nutrition is an independent newsletter written by experts on health and nutrition.