Lemon BalmMichael Vertolli, RH September 1, 2008
Ease Your Way into Autumn with this Soothing Herbal Medicine
September is a time of transition. In the natural world, it is the transition from summer to fall. The days are getting shorter and the sun is lower in the sky. Although the last days of summer can sometimes produce some pretty hot weather, in general it is getting cooler.
One of the things I love most about this time of year is the change in the quality of sunlight. It is more golden, especially in the late afternoon. I also love the growing chorus of crickets, katydids, grasshoppers and other insects of the open fields. In the early evening it can be almost deafening. Our insect friends are taking part in a last minute mating frenzy so that they can lay their eggs before the frost arrives. It is a sign that winter is just around the corner.
In the human world September is also a time of change. For students it’s time to hit the books and get back into a more structured and disciplined lifestyle. The same is true for most of us if we tend to take our holidays in the summer and generally live in a more mellow and flexible way. For most businesses it’s a time when things get busy after the summer slowdown unless we are in a summer sport or tourist industry, in which case things move in the opposite direction.
For most of us, periods of transition are also times of increased stress. We need to make important decisions, deal with more things, break out of old patterns and create new ones. Each of us has a different capacity to handle stress. Some people can move through certain kinds of stressful situations and barely notice it, while others have a harder time adapting. In a different situation their responses could be reversed.
Our response to stress is partly due to constitutional or genetic factors, but mostly due to learned stress responses. As a result, we all have the capacity change the way we respond to stress to a significant degree. Although recognizing this is empowering, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Our response to stress is usually something that we developed as a child and have been repeating for decades. Over the years we have created a deep psychological rut and it takes a considerable amount of introspection and self-awareness to be able to break these old patterns.
There is also a considerable amount of support available if we look for it. Eating a healthy diet and getting lots of exercise can help us manage stress better. Counseling, prayer, meditation, visualization, tai chi, yoga and other disciplines are also very helpful. The important thing is to work with a method that we feel a strong connection with. It is best if practising some prayer or meditation is a joy not a chore that we would rather avoid, otherwise we won’t stick with it long enough to experience the benefits. Learning to manage stress better and change old response patterns is a gradual process that can take years. This may sound like work, and it is, but the rewards far outweigh the effort if we want to live a healthier and more joyful life.
In our society we have a tendency to ignore stress until it becomes unbearable and then go to a doctor to initiate a life-long pattern of reliance on pharmaceutical tranquilizers and antidepressants. Aside from the fact that these drugs have many physical and emotional side-effects, they are only taking the edge off the symptoms and not addressing their underlying cause.
Some medical professionals will claim that an unhealthy response to stress results from a “chemical imbalance” in our brain and that drugs are the only treatment option. Although there is some truth to the “chemical imbalance” hypothesis, abnormal patterns of neurotransmitter release are only partially due to genetic factors. Years of repeating unhealthy stress response patterns will eventually change our brain chemistry. The good news is that learning to change how we respond to stress will eventually normalize the patterns of neurotransmitter release in our brain. Our brain can essentially rewire itself. This is something that herbalists have long suspected based on how our clients respond to treatment. However, it is no longer necessary to rely on conjecture. In the last couple of decades there has been plenty of research that backs this up.
Recognition that behavioural patterns can lead to imbalances of brain chemistry does not mean that we are to blame for our stress and anxiety. Our stress response patterns usually develop when we are small children. The immature and inexperienced psyche of a child does not have the necessary tools to respond in a healthy way in difficult situations. They do the best that they can with the tools that they have to try to make stressful situations more tolerable. Unfortunately, many of these patterns are maladaptive in our adult world and years of repeating them can alter our brain chemistry, making it even more difficult to change. We are dealing with both a psychological and a biochemical rut.
From an herbalist’s perspective it is necessary to deal with both the psychological and the biochemical aspects of stress and anxiety. This requires a three-pronged approach. Firstly, it is essential to get lots of exercise and eat a healthy diet. Secondly, those who have difficulty dealing with stress need to address it on a psychological and spiritual level using whatever methods appeal to them. Finally, there are many herbs that can help support the healing process.
LEMON BALM CALMS THE NERVES
One of the most important categories of herbs that can help reduce the effects of stress and normalize our brain chemistry is nervines. These herbs interact with our nervous system in ways that are extremely complex. They contain dozens of active constituents that interact with many or our neurotransmitters. They also increase the flow of blood to our brain.
Nervine herbs tend to be general tonics for our nervous system. In general, it is the milder ones that are most tonic and have the widest application. Of the many herbs that fall into this category, one of my favourites is lemon balm (Melissa officinalis).
Like many of the herbs from the Mint family, lemon balm is an extremely versatile herb; its action on our nervous system is broad and very tonic. It is a calming and uplifting herb that helps to take the edge off stress and reduce emotional ups and downs. It also reduces anxiety and depression. Because it increases blood flow to our brain and is not one of the stronger sedatives, the calming affects of lemon balm are not accompanied by any mental dullness. In fact, it actually tends to make us more alert. It helps improve our concentration and memory. It can also be useful for the treatment of various kinds of dementia and other neurological conditions.
Although it does not have a strong influence on the female reproductive system, lemon balm has a gentle harmonizing influence on female hormones and is particularly useful for anxiety, mood swings and depression associated with a woman’s menstrual cycle or with menopause.
As a general nervous system tonic, lemon balm can be quite effective used on its own, however, it is more effective when combined with one or more of the other good nervine herbs. It is particularly synergistic with lavender flower (Lavandula angustifolia), German chamomile flower (Matricaria recutita), motherwort herb (Leonurus cardiaca), Roman chamomile flower (Chamaemelum nobile), scullcap herb (Scutellaria spp.), St. Johnswort herb (Hypericum perforatum) or valerian root (Valeriana officinalis). For people experiencing significant mental and/or physical fatigue, it’s recommended to also combine lemon balm with at least one of the nervine herbs that tend to have a mild stimulating affect on our mind such as hyssop herb (Hyssopus officinalis), maidenhair tree leaf (Ginkgo biloba), peppermint herb (Mentha x piperita), rosemary herb (Rosmarinus officinalis), spearmint herb (Mentha spicata) or wild mint herb (Mentha arvensis).
Although lemon balm is not one of the stronger sedatives when used on its own, it does work well in sedative formulations in combination with more sedating herbs such as hops (Humulus lupulus), passionflower herb (Passiflora spp.), scullcap herb, valerian root or wild lettuce herb (Lactuca spp.).
Lemon balm also reduces tension headaches, general muscle tension and can be helpful or the treatment of migraines.
In all of these applications you can combine lemon balm with one or more of the above herbs on your own, or look for tincture or tea formulations in retail stores that contain lemon balm in combination with some of them.
ANTIVIRAL AND CIRCULATORY BENEFITS
The benefits of lemon balm are not limited to its actions on our nervous system. It has significant benefits for our cardiovascular system. This herb improves general circulation throughout the body, helps to lower blood pressure and has a tonic action on the heart. It is particularly useful for the treatment of heart palpitations due to stress and anxiety.
Lemon balm is an excellent herb for the treatment of fever. It is very safe and can be used for infants and small children. It is also effective for treatment of eruptive fevers such as measles or chicken pox. And its antiviral properties help the immune system to eliminate viral infections. This makes it even more effective for treatment of fevers of viral origin.
As an antiviral, lemon balm is very effective for the treatment of chronic virus infections such as the herpes viruses. In these cases it will not get rid of the underlying infection, but helps to eliminate symptoms associated with acute outbreaks such as herpes lesions or shingles. Here it can be used internally or topically as an ointment.
Lemon balm also helps to improve digestion. It reduces indigestion, gas and bloating. It can be taken as required when we overindulge or eat something that upsets our digestive system. It also helps to reduce inflammation in the digestive tract. Once more it is particularly useful if any of these symptoms are to some degree related to stress or anxiety.
LEMON BALM TEA OR TINCTURE
Lemon balm makes a very pleasant tasting tea. Although the tea is effective, for chronic conditions it is preferable to use the tincture of the fresh plant most of the time. This is because the herb contains a very small amount of essential oil which tends to be largely lost during the drying process. I have yet to come across any commercially dried lemon balm that retains much of its original flavour, even from the best sources of herbs.
To make a tea, use about two teaspoons per cup (three for the fresh herb) and allow it to steep for 10-15 minutes with a lid over the cup. Lemon balm tincture is made with alcohol, and can be found in most health food and herbal stores.
GROWING & HARVESTING
Lemon balm is very easy to grow. Give it lots of space and it will spread rapidly within a couple of years. Like other colonial species from the Mint family, it can be very invasive in the garden. It’s a good idea to sink some kind of barrier into the ground around the area where you want to contain it. It will still produce seedlings outside the barrier. They need to be weeded out on a regular basis to keep them from spreading.
Although lemon balm can handle full sun, it actually grows best in areas where it gets shade 20-40% of the day. In drier years it will need to be watered fairly regularly. In spite of its invasive nature when cultivated, this herb does has not naturalized in Ontario. We don’t find it growing in the wild.
Anyone who grows lemon balm can harvest some of it for making a tea of the fresh herb any time from late May to early September. However, if we wish to harvest it for long-term use by drying it or making a tincture, the best time is during the first couple of weeks after it comes into flower. In most of Ontario this tends to be some time between mid July and early August, but it can vary depending on where we live and the weather conditions in any given year. Harvest the top 4-5 inches of the herb and strip the leaves and flowers from the lower 50-60% of the main stalk. This portion of the stalk is discarded as it is of a relatively low potency.
Lemon balm is a very safe herb, however, it should not be used on a regular basis during pregnancy. It should also be used with caution by anyone who is taking sedative, mood altering or anticonvulsant medications unless they are under the supervision of a qualified herbalist or other natural health practitioner who is experienced with the use of this herb.
Every season has its beauty. Life can be much more joyful at this or any time of the year if we don’t anticipate difficulties but rather embrace the changes and allow ourselves to experience the beauty of the season. If things get a little hectic at times, there’s always a cup of lemon balm tea. Enjoy!
Michael Vertolli, RH
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit his website: http://www.livingearthschool.ca/index.html Blog: http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/