In October 2022, the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) released a monograph containing quality control standards and a therapeutic compendium for lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, Lamiaceae) leaf and aerial parts.1 A member of the mint family, lemon balm is widespread and has been used medicinally for millennia.
“Lemon balm is an underused botanical that anyone can grow in their garden and benefit from,” wrote Roy Upton, RH (AHG), DipAyu, president of AHP and editor of the lemon balm monograph (email, October 17, 2022). “It makes a pleasant-tasting tea, and the health benefits are quickly experienced after drinking a cup. A common garden herb, it is sustainable, low cost, [and] safe for virtually anyone, including children.
“It is highly effective as a calmative, anxiolytic, sleep aid, and mood enhancer, and, topically, its use for treating herpes cold sores is fairly well documented,” Upton added. “Clinically, I have had many [people] use a lemon balm/zinc/lysine ointment for cold sores, with individuals reporting that it worked much better than other zinc/lysine ointments they tried. That feedback was consistent over many years, so the potential for benefit is great.”
AHP monographs establish identification, purity, and quality standards for botanical raw materials and preparations. The therapeutic compendia provide a comprehensive review of pharmacological and safety data, including medical indications and evidence from clinical, animal, and in vitro studies; modern and traditional uses; pharmacokinetics; pharmacodynamics; and guidance for structure and function claims. The compendia also cover dosages, interactions, side effects, contraindications, toxicology, and more. This information can be used by individuals in the herbal community, from consumers and health care practitioners to industry members like quality control personnel, purchasing agents, and other people at dietary supplement manufacturers.
AHP’s new lemon balm monograph is “lovingly dedicated” to botanist, author, and photographer Steven Foster (1957–2022). It is also the first of three monographs to launch AHP’s Monographs Without Borders initiative, which, through mutual dedication to the world of medicinal plants, actively seeks to build collaborations and friendships with researchers in countries where international relationships are challenged. The two other monographs that currently are planned in this series are on saffron (Crocus sativus, Iridaceae) and chamomile (Matricaria recutita, Asteraceae). All three of these plants are important in traditional Persian medicine, most notably in Iran. A significant amount of research is conducted on each, and they also are integrated into national health care in Iran.
In 2016, a research group in the Department of Pharmacognosy of the School of Pharmacy of Mashhad University of Medical Sciences in Mashhad, Iran, released a comprehensive review of lemon balm2 that included much of the information that AHP monographs and therapeutic compendia typically contain. AHP asked the research group if they would like to expand their work into an AHP monograph, and they agreed. “It was a great opportunity to take already-existing good work and build on it,” Upton wrote.
The monograph also includes contributions from Mary Hardy, MD, of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine in La Jolla, California. A multidisciplinary group of experts in the fields of herbal medicine, botany, chemistry, pharmacognosy, pharmacology, and lemon balm cultivation reviewed the monograph before publication. Work on the monograph began in 2018.
“What I appreciated most about working on this monograph was seeing how much clinical research exists on lemon balm,” Hardy wrote (email, October 23, 2022). “Of course, I knew that this herb is strongly supported by traditional use, but I was excited to learn it is also so well supported by clinical research. There was even an article about a lemon balm formula helping children with ADHD symptoms but not necessarily a diagnosis. It fit my prejudice that we should use less toxic, milder treatments before medications that may have side effects.”
CAMAG, a laboratory equipment manufacturer in Switzerland, developed the high-performance thin-layer chromatography (HPTLC) method that was used for the monograph. Anna Rita Bilia, PhD, of the University of Florence, Italy, developed the high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) methodology for the European Pharmacopoeia, which allowed AHP to use it to promote international harmonization among standards-setting organizations. Alkemist Labs generated the chromatograms for the monograph.
One of the challenges of producing the lemon balm monograph related to botanical classification. According to Upton, botanists subsumed three different species under M. officinalis, creating three subspecies: M. officinalis subsp. officinalis, M. officinalis subsp. altissima, and M. officinalis subsp. inodora. “Usually, this means the herbs work similarly and can be used interchangeably, but in this case, that is not so,” Upton wrote. He added that lumping the species together likely was based on genetic work that does not take into consideration any medicinal relationship.
“These were considered separate species and have significant botanical, chemical, and pharmacological differences,” Upton wrote. “Neither altissima nor inodora has much of a lemon smell, so the idea that they are subspecies of ‘lemon balm’ seems silly. A potential adulterant of lemon balm is lemon catmint (Nepeta cataria var. citriodora, Lamiaceae). Unfortunately, we were not able to get authenticated samples of this, so we were limited in being able to provide analytical tools to differentiate between it and lemon balm. Obtaining authenticated samples of [uncommon] species is always a challenge.... Hopefully, the discussion provided in the monograph will help suppliers.
“Another challenge is that the chemical analysis of lemon balm established in pharmacopeial standards, including [those of] AHP, which quantify rosmarinic acid, will not detect M. officinalis subsp. altissima,” Upton added. “In previous decades, essential oil analysis was used as the primary measure of lemon balm quality, but this has changed over the years. This underscores the importance of botanical, macroscopic, microscopic, and HPTLC methods to identify the species.”
AHP hopes the lemon balm monograph will increase knowledge about this underused and widely available herb. It also hopes to help clarify distinctions among M. officinalis, which historically is what has been used most often, and other subspecies with which it may be mixed. Lastly, AHP hopes the monograph “marks the beginning of international collaborations that help underscore the camaraderie and collegiality that exist among medicinal plant researchers, despite cultural and political differences,” Upton wrote. “AHP recognizes that health and healing is a human endeavor, critical to all humanity, regardless of race, religion, or politics, and that plants can be a catalyst for commonality and peace.”
The lemon balm monograph is the 43rd monograph published by AHP since 1998. It is available for purchase through AHP’s website1 and was made possible by the financial support of EuroPharma USA, Herb Pharm, Joanna Miller, Natreon Inc., Nature’s Way, Planetary Herbals, Traditional Medicinals, and Vitality Works.
Lemon balm also was the subject of an extensive herb profile in HerbalGram issue 1153 and has been adopted by Four Elements through the American Botanical Council’s (ABC’s) Adopt-an-Herb botanical education program.4
About Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is a bushy perennial that is native to southern Europe and can grow to two or three feet tall. Like other mints, it has square stems and opposite, branching leaves. Its flowers are small, yellow to pinkish-white and have the “lipped” look typical of the mint family.
The plant’s leaves smell like lemon (Citrus limon, Rutaceae) when bruised or crushed, hence the name lemon balm. Bees are highly attracted to the plant, and the genus name Melissa is Greek for “honeybee” or “bee.” In Greek mythology, Melissa was a nymph who discovered how to obtain honey, and, in one version of the myth, was transformed into a bee by Zeus. Lemon balm has been used to prevent beekeepers from losing bees due to swarming.
Greek philosopher and botanist Theophrastus (372–287 BCE) provided one of the first known descriptions of lemon balm. Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BCE), Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (ca. 23–79 CE), and Greek physician Dioscorides (40–90 CE) also reportedly wrote about lemon balm. It is thought that “Carmelite Water,” or Eau de Carmélite, an alcoholic extract of lemon balm and other herbs, originated in about 1200 CE, when Christian hermits living in caves on Mount Carmel in present-day Israel realized the benefits of lemon balm.
Lemon balm has been used to calm nervous disorders, alleviate insect bites, increase perspiration, and treat colds, gastrointestinal and sleep disorders (including insomnia), and fevers. It has shown antimicrobial, antioxidant, antispasmodic, antiviral, neuroprotective, and sedative effects. The plant contains phenolic acids (including rosmarinic acid), flavonoids, and essential oil (with citronellal, neral, and geranial as dominant compounds).
- AHP Monographs — Lemon Balm Leaf; Lemon Balm Aerial Parts. American Herbal Pharmacopoeia website. Available at: http://herbal-ahp.org/ahp-monographs-lemon-balm-leaf-aerial-parts/. Accessed October 19, 2022.
- Shakeri A, Sahebkar A, Javadi B. Melissa officinalis — A review of its traditional uses, phytochemistry and pharmacology. J Ethnopharmacol. 2016;188:204-28. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2016.05.010.
- Engels G, Brinckmann J. Lemon Balm. HerbalGram. 2017;115:8-16. Available at: www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/115/table-of-contents/hg115-herbprofile/. Accessed October 19, 2022.
- Four Elements Adopts Lemon Balm through ABC’s Adopt-an-Herb Program. HerbalGram. 2018;119:20-21. Available at: www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/119/table-of-contents/hg119-abcnews-aah-lemonbalm/. Accessed October 28, 2022.