As exam time looms, Fiann Ó Nualláin highlights a plant said to lift the mood and ease stress.
I have long been enamoured with lemon balm (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.
The scent alone has mood lifting benefits — lemony fragrances tend to ping energising 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 brain’s 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. One or two teaspoons 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 teacup with a saucer to stop them evaporating. A brew length of three-to-seven minutes will do the trick.
Lemon balm tea has a long history in tackling anxiety and stress –- its anxiolytic effect comes 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 lemon balm 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.
Okay, so maybe you don’t have a driving test or college exam looming, maybe you have long since aced your Leaving Cert, lemon balm 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. Lemon balm’s polyphenolics such as rosmarinic acid have a potent anti-viral action so drinking lemon balm can also shorten a cold or flu.
It is also a boon to bees and pollinators — in fact the common name Melissa derives from the Greek for “honeybee” and has as an origin myth that of the nymph (of the same name) who cared for the baby Zeus by feeding him honey she charmed from the bees.
It is in the mint family so not as sweet as all that, and you will need to grow it in a container to check its roots and stop it swarming the entire garden.
You can start from seed indoors year-round or sow outdoors now (May-August). Light is needed for germination so just surface-sow onto pre-moistened seed compost, a top-watering could bury the seed beyond the light exposure it needs. Vermiculite is okay. The preferred germination temperature is 18C-20C and it generally takes two weeks to show emergence.
You will find pots of it in your local garden centre this weekend if seed is too long to wait.
Like all Mediterranean plants, it likes well-drained soil in full sun and not to be located where chilly breezes may batter its foliage. I like to pinch it out to make it more bushy and also because regular browsing actually strengthens its volatile oil output. The tradition is to cut back hard after flowering.