What Is It?
Folk healers in the Middle Ages considered melissa (Melissa officinalis) something of a cure-all, relying on it for everything from indigestion to insect bites. Today, this mint-family member–often called lemon balm because of the citrus-y aroma of its leaves–is still used to prepare healing oils, tinctures, compresses, ointments, teas, and other remedies for a variety of complaints.
Generally, it is the leaves of this perennial plant that are used medicinally, although the small white and yellow flowers are occasionally incorporated as well.
Now found throughout North America and in other parts of the world, melissa is actually indigenous to the Mediterranean region and northern Africa as well as to western Asia and southwestern Siberia.
In the ninth century, the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, thought melissa so beautiful and so valuable to the health of his subjects that he ordered it planted in all monastery gardens. Benedictine missionaries later shipped the herb to other regions, and eventually it appeared in gardens all over Europe. As the centuries have passed, old uses for this herb have endured, and new ones have been discovered.
Sedative, spasm-reducing (spasmolytic), and antibacterial properties abound in this fragrant herb. Europeans have long favored a tea made from the dried leaves for easing nervous system disorders. A compress soaked in the concentrated, cooled tea makes a comforting healing dressing for insect bites, stings, and other sites of skin inflammation.
As an astringent, the tea applied topically probably promotes healing in minor wounds by tightening the skin. Today, researchers are even considering the value of melissa for treating hyperthyroidism because the plant appears to contain thyroid-regulating compounds.
Specifically, melissa may help to:
Treat cold sores and shingles: Clinical trials indicate that substances in melissa’s volatile oils make this herb a promising remedy for treating cold sores, the painful lip lesions caused by the herpes simplex (type 1) virus. Melissa has been shown to speed healing of the lesions, especially when taken at the first signs of an outbreak. It also appears to increase the time between outbreaks when used regularly. Even genital lesions caused by a different herpes simplex virus (type 2) may respond to melissa treatment.
Topical formulations of melissa have also been recommended for treating shingles, a relatively common and quite painful skin condition that is actually a reactivation of the chickenpox virus. Shingles is caused by a relative to the herpes simplex virus: herpes zoster.
Calm jangled nerves and ease indigestion. Melissa’s antispasmodic actions appear to relax the smooth muscles of the digestive tract, making it potentially valuable for relieving gas, bloating, and indigestion.
–To be effective for fighting cold sores and other lesions caused by the herpes simplex virus, you need to use a cream-based product containing a concentrated extract of melissa. In Germany, the melissa cold sore cream/ointment is sold under the name Lomaherpan; in the United States it can be found under various names, such as Herpalieve and Herpilyn.
For cold sores: Apply the cream three to four times a day.
For calming jangled nerves and easing indigestion: Make a tea from dried melissa. To prepare the tea, use 1 to 2 teaspoons of the herb for each 8-ounce cup of hot but not boiling water. Cover the tea and let it steep for 10 to 20 minutes to get the medicinal benefits. Drink the tea throughout the day as needed.
Guidelines for Use
When using melissa cream for cold sores, be sure to apply it as soon as possible after the sore starts to appear; studies indicate that accelerated healing was most noticeable in the first two days.
The volatile oils in melissa have sedative properties that can dangerously increase the effects of barbiturates such as pentobarbital and phenobarbital.
When used together, the sedative actions of herbs and prescription medications can build up to unwanted levels. Take care when combining melissa with other sedating substances such as prescription tranquilizers, or even with other herbs reported to have sedating actions, such as valerian and passionflower.
Possible Side Effects
For the most part, melissa has been used very safely (internally and topically). Allergic skin reactions have been reported, however, so be sure to stop using the herb if redness, irritation, or other unusual reactions develop.
A small number of patients using melissa cream for colds sores reported a burning sensation at the site of application.
Because melissa may inhibit certain thyroid hormones, people with thyroid problems such as Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder, should consult their doctor before taking melissa.
Don’t take melissa if you are pregnant.
Avoid melissa if you have glaucoma, an eye disorder. One study in laboratory animals found that the herb increased pressure in the eyes; more research in humans is needed but in the meantime, caution is warranted.
Cold Sores Apply cream to sores 3-4 times a day.
Shingles Apply liberal amount of cream to blistered skin 3 times a day.
David Edelberg, MD