I have long been enamoured with Lemonbalm (Melissa officinalis). I think it a pretty plant, I love its aromatic contribution to the garden but I relish its healing potential. Of course any plant with officinalis in the title was once upon a time – before foil packet medicines – an official herb of health. With this one I love its mental health attributes and its ability to help bust stress around exam time.
The scent alone has mood lifting benefits – lemony fragrances tend to ping energizing and antidepressant brain receptors. That refreshing whiff is a nifty touch of aromatherapy. Crush a leaf and try for yourself. The essential oil is often recommended to vaporise in a room or add to bath in times of moderated stress to severe anxiety. I love it because it not only calms the system but opens up the brains capacity to receive and store and recall information. It’s the perfect fragrance to get a nose to at exam time, not only are you less stressed you are better functioning.
To get a bit technical for a second, its volatile oils act to increase acetylcholine levels in the brain – that’s the neurotransmitter with a wide array of functions including mood regulation, cognitive function, memory storage and recall, rapid eye movement sleep, as well as neuromuscular signalling and motor control. So the aromatherapy has broad application. But ingesting the plant is a more potent dose of those volatile oils.
Those lemon-scented leaves are delicious in a herbal tea or used (dried or fresh) to flavour an evening meal or lunch with a citrus hint or to make a salad dressing with some zing. A tea is one of the simplest methods to get some into you – as we say. 1-2 tsps of chopped dried herb or several plucked leaves will match the strength of any shop bought tea bag. To capture the maximum quantity of volatile oils it is best to brew in a pot or cover the tea cup with a saucer to stop them evaporating. A brew length of 3-7 minutes will do the trick.
Lemonbalm tea has a long history in tackling anxiety and stress – its anxiolytic effect come not just in its psychologically soothing nature – hence ‘balm’ in the name – but in its ability to increase neurotransmitter levels related to cognitive function and intellectual performance – it’s the alertness with the tranquillity that works as such a potent therapy.
One of those neurotransmitters that it stimulates is gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) – which just happens to be the principal inhibitory neurotransmitter responsible for reducing neuronal excitability throughout our entire nervous system and which helps to attenuate the activation of the amygdala and other brain circuitry in the face of stress markers and negative emotional stimuli. In other words – Super calming.
Where the lift comes from is that Lemonbalm also contains flavonoids such as apigenin, luteolin, kaempferol and quercetin which can help bolster how we perceive our own general sense of wellbeing and improve peripheral blood circulation to – and the oxygenation of – our brain. Because lemon balm also deepens restorative sleep it helps rest the body away from the build-up of stress. In restorative sleep mode we actually upload our learned files and delete those nonsense moments of the day – we prioritise the lesson learned over the mistake made – this is why good sleep is so important to mental health.
Ok so maybe you don’t have a driving test or college exam looming, maybe you have long since aced or other your leaving cert, well lemonbalm is still worth growing. The principles that give it its lemon flavour – citral, citronellal, citronellol – are antispasmodic agents that work to calm the digestive as well as nervous systems. Those same agents making it useful to address menstrual cramps and also tension headaches. Lemonbalm’s polyphenolics such as rosmarinic acid have a potent anti-viral action so drinking lemon balm can also shorten a cold or flu.
To discover more about herbal teas and how to maximise their chemistry, check out my new book – a quick cuppa herbal.