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Melissa oil is a substance extracted from the leaves of the plant Melissa officinalis. It is commonly called lemon balm because of its pleasant, citrus-like odor. This soothing smell contributes to its popular use in aromatherapy. With a mild scent and taste, Melissa oil and the leaves of Melissa officinalis can be found in many desserts, candies and herbal teas. The oil is believed by some to hold a number of medicinal properties as well as many cosmetic uses.
Melissa officinalis is a perennial plant and a member of the Lamiaceae family, which includes many commonly used herbs such as mint, thyme, oregano, sage, basil and others. Melissa officinalis plants typically grow to about two feet in height. Their leaves resemble those of mint plants, with ovoid shapes that curve toward a point at the end of each leaf. In spring and summer, groups of tiny yellow flowers can be found near the leaves.
Melissa officinalis has been used throughout history to ease mild ailments such as indigestion, headaches, menstrual difficulties, gas and insomnia. Although few studies exist on its medicinal uses, the plant’s oil and leaves contain monoterpenes, hydrocarbons that contribute to its possible antiviral and sedative effects. Melissa officinalis and its oil are thought to help reduce fevers because the plant is rich in tannins, substances that are believed to possess antiviral properties. Melissa officinalis also contains eugenol, a chemical compound that kills bacteria and numbs tissue.
Melissa oil also has proved useful in treating skin ailments such as cold sores, especially those related to the virus herpes simplex. Studies found that, when applied as a lemon balm cream, the oil extract helps reduce redness and swelling of herpes lesions, although it does little or nothing to ease the pain. Applying a mixture of crushed leaves and hot water to cold and herpes sores is also believed to be beneficial.
While Melissa oil remains popular in the homeopathic field of aromatherapy, researchers have done more rigorous studies to determine if it can truly ease anxiety and insomnia. A recent study found that patients given doses of lemon balm extract reported greater feelings of calm and alertness than those given placebos. Another study suggested that lemon balm can help those suffering from insomnia when combined with other herbs, although the extent of the lemon balm’s contribution is uncertain.
Melissa oil also can be used as an insect repellent and in treating insect bites. The oil is commonly used in the making of perfume, soap, varnish and different foods. In its pure form, the oil is often expensive, so it is common to see the oil adulterated with other substances.
Originating in southern Europe, the plant was taken north by the Romans. It is now grown throughout the continent and in North America. The name “Melissa” derives from the Greek word for honey bee, and it appears in the plant’s Latin name because of its frequent proximity to bee hives.