Lemon balm is generous. Plant a small patch in your garden and it will soon take over, spilling into neighboring beds and walkways. If you wisely sow seeds or grow a small plant in a container, it will soon fill the pot.
As summer progresses, lemon balm’s dense foliage grows longer and longer with flower stalks emerging. Those tiny white flowers may not look like much, but bees and other pollinators absolutely love them. Lemon balm is so loved by bees that its genus name, Melissa, comes from Greek origins of both “bee” and “honey.”
Lemon balm is the perfect medicine for our time. To be fair, I think I say that no matter what day, week, month, or year it is. Twelfth-century herbalist Saint Hildegard von Bingen said, “Lemon balm contains within it the virtues of a dozen other plants.”
With its ability to strongly modulate inflammation as well as lift our spirits, I love infusing lemon balm into my life in many different ways, including yummy treats like a delicious lemon balm cake. But before we get to the recipe, let’s take a closer look at lemon balm’s gifts.
For Anxiety, Depression, and Insomnia
Lemon balm has been used for medicine for thousands of years by many people in the Mediterranean. Pliny, Hippocrates, Galen, Culpepper, and even Shakespeare all spoke of its attributes.
In a 2018 double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial, 80 patients with chronic stable angina were separated into two groups. One group received 3 grams of lemon balm daily for 8 weeks while the other group received a placebo. The results showed that lemon balm can decrease depression, anxiety, stress, and sleep disorders in patients with chronic stable angina.5
One of my favorite ways to enjoy the relaxing gifts of lemon balm is to make a strong tea and then take the time to enjoy each and every sip.
To Modulate Inflammation
Lemon balm is full of antioxidants and can powerfully decrease inflammation and oxidative stress. There have been some interesting studies about this!
For example, lemon balm can protect the eyes. An in vitro study showed that by protecting human retinal pigment epithelial cells from oxidative stress-induced cell death, lemon balm has therapeutic potential for the prevention of dry age-related macular degeneration.6
In an interesting human clinical trial, 55 radiology staff members were asked to drink lemon balm tea twice a day for 30 days. (The radiation from X-rays can damage DNA and induce oxidative stress.) Oxidative stress markers were recorded before they began drinking the tea and again after the 30 days. Researchers recorded numerous improvements in oxidative stress markers, including a “marked reduction in plasma DNA damage.”7 I wish more radiology staff and others regularly exposed to low levels of radiation knew about this study!
Effective Against Viruses
Lemon balm is also famous for its ability to inhibit viral infections. Many people turn to it to reduce herpes sore outbreaks. An in vitro study showed that a lemon balm extract could even inhibit attachment and penetration of acyclovir-resistant herpes virus.8 An older double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial showed that lemon balm is effective against herpes labialis.9
Lemon balm has also been shown to be effective against influenza A. One in vitro study concluded that “lemon balm essential oil ingredient seems to act as natural and novel antiviral substance through the different stages of influenza virus (H9N2) replication.”10 I would love to see human clinical trials developed to see the results in vivo.
Is Lemon Balm Safe for Everyone?
It is commonly repeated that lemon balm, while generally regarded as safe, is not appropriate for people with hypothyroidism.
This supposed contraindication has its roots in questionable studies in the 1980s (in vitro animal studies). Another source of this information may come from the fact that lemon balm is frequently used in formulas for people with hypErthyroidism. However, herbs are often modulatory in nature and it being helpful for hypErthyroidism doesn’t inherently make it unsafe for hypOthyroidism.
To date there is no evidence that lemon balm adversely effects people with hypothyroidism. In fact, many herbal practitioners prefer to use it for many of the symptoms associated with hypothyroidism.
Using Lemon Balm
Lemon balm has many gifts ranging from reducing anxiety to modulating inflammation and addressing viral infections. This is just the beginning as lemon balm is known to do so much more!
How can you get the best results with lemon balm?
Lemon balm can be used fresh or dried. I love lemon balm both ways. A cold infused fresh lemon balm tea is a refreshing treat in the summer and I drink dried lemon balm tea all year long.
Herbalists use lemon balm in small to large amounts ranging from 3 to 30 grams per day. Many of the clinical trials use about 3 grams per day.
Lemon balm can also be used in foods, such as this delicious lemon balm cake.
Lemon Balm Poppy Seed Honey Cake
Gather the heart-lifting lemon balm from your garden (or farmers market or friend’s garden) and infuse it into this delicious tasting lemon balm cake. Serve it with lemon balm tea (or fresh infused lemon balm water) and make it an event with a simple picnic on your lawn, balcony, or community green space.
If you don’t have access to fresh lemon balm, you could try using a couple tablespoons of dried lemon balm in the cake. (I haven’t tried this but it will probably work.) Or you can omit it in the cake and simply used dried lemon balm for the icing.
I used a honey bee cakelet pan to make these — it seemed especially fun because of lemon balm’s strong affinity for bees. You can bake this lemon balm cake in a variety of pans including muffin pans, 8-inch cake pans or even an 8-inch loaf pan. When using different pans, you’ll need to adjust the baking time. When I cooked this recipe in an 8-inch loaf pan, I increased the baking time to 60 minutes.
What you’ll need…
- 1/2 cup fresh lemon balm leaves
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup oil (such as olive oil)
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup buttermilk or thin yogurt
- 2 teaspoons poppy seeds
- 1/2 cup fresh lemon balm leaves (or 1/4 cup dried)
- 1 cup just-boiled water
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1 tablespoon arrowroot powder
- More poppy seeds for sprinkling
- Lemon balm leaves for garnish (optional)
For the cake:
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a baking pan (see notes above).
- Finely mince the lemon balm. (I use a food processor for this but a knife is fine too.)
- Mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.
- In a large bowl, mix together the oil, minced lemon balm, honey, and vanilla extract. (I use a cake mixer for this step.)
- Add the eggs, mixing them in one at a time, and then the buttermilk (or yogurt).
- Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture in two batches. Mix on low speed until combined, and do not overmix. Mix in the poppy seeds.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
- Bake until it is brown around the edges and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes for a cakelet pan or 60 minutes for a loaf pan.
For the icing:
- Steep the lemon balm in 1 cup of just-boiled water for 5 minutes.
- Strain into a small pan. Add the honey and stir until it is dissolved.
- Separate two tablespoons of the lemon balm and honey mixture into a small bowl and allow to cool. Once cool, add the arrowroot powder and stir well.
- Add this mixture back into the small pan with the lemon balm and honey.
- Heat the pan on medium-low heat. Whisk the mixture continuously until it begins to thicken. Pull it from the heat just as it thickens; otherwise, it will continue to thicken and become overly gel-like.
- Spoon the icing over the cake.
- Sprinkle poppy seeds on top.
- Garnish with fresh lemon balm leaves if desired.
Now I’d love to hear from you!
Do you adore lemon balm?
What are you favorite ways to enjoy this delicious and aromatic plant?
Please share in the comments below.
- Akhondzadeh, S., et al. “Melissa Officinalis Extract in the Treatment of Patients with Mild to Moderate Alzheimer’s Disease: A Double-blind, Randomised, Placebo-controlled Trial.” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 74, no. 7 (2003): 863–66. doi:10.1136/jnnp.74.7.863. ↩
- Ballard, Clive G., et al. “Aromatherapy as a Safe and Effective Treatment for the Management of Agitation in Severe Dementia: The Results of a Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial with Melissa.” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 63, no. 7 (2002): 553–58. ↩
- Kennedy, D. O., et al. “Modulation of Mood and Cognitive Performance following Acute Administration of Melissa Officinalis (Lemon Balm).” Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior 72, no. 4 (2002): 953–64. doi:10.1016/S0091-3057(02)00777-3. ↩
- Kennedy, D. O., et al. “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.” Neuropsychopharmacology 28, no. 10 (2003): 1871–81. ↩
- Haybar, Habib, Ahmad Zare Javid, Mohammad Hosein Haghighizadeh, Einollah Valizadeh, Seyede Marjan Mohaghegh, and Assieh Mohammadzadeh. “The Effects of Melissa Officinalis Supplementation on Depression, Anxiety, Stress, and Sleep Disorder in Patients with Chronic Stable Angina.” Clinical Nutrition ESPEN 26 (2018): 47–52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnesp.2018.04.015. ↩
- Jeung, In Cheul, Donghyun Jee, Chang-Rae Rho, and Seungbum Kang. “Melissa Officinalis L. Extracts Protect Human Retinal Pigment Epithelial Cells against Oxidative Stress-Induced Apoptosis.” International Journal of Medical Sciences 13, no. 2 (February 3, 2016): 139–46. https://doi.org/10.7150/ijms.13861. ↩
- Zeraatpishe, Akbar, Shahrbano Oryan, Mohammad Hadi Bagheri, Ali Asghar Pilevarian, Ali Akbar Malekirad, Maryam Baeeri, and Mohammad Abdollahi. “Effects of Melissa Officinalis L. on Oxidative Status and DNA Damage in Subjects Exposed to Long-Term Low-Dose Ionizing Radiation.” Toxicology and Industrial Health, September 21, 2010. https://doi.org/10.1177/0748233710383889. ↩
- Astani, Akram, Mojdeh Heidary Navid, and Paul Schnitzler. “Attachment and Penetration of Acyclovir-Resistant Herpes Simplex Virus Are Inhibited by Melissa Officinalis Extract.” Phytotherapy Research 28, no. 10 (2014): 1547–52. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.5166. ↩
- Koytchev, R., R. G. Alken, and S. Dundarov. “Balm Mint Extract (Lo-701) for Topical Treatment of Recurring Herpes Labialis.” Phytomedicine 6, no. 4 (October 1, 1999): 225–30. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0944-7113(99)80013-0. ↩
- Pourghanbari, Gholamhosein, Hasan Nili, Afagh Moattari, Ali Mohammadi, and Aida Iraji. “Antiviral Activity of the Oseltamivir and Melissa Officinalis L. Essential Oil against Avian Influenza A Virus (H9N2).” VirusDisease 27, no. 2 (June 2016): 170–78. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13337-016-0321-0. ↩