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Lemon Balm may increase memory function

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A few years ago, I planted lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) in my back yard because, I was told, it attracted bees and repelled mosquitoes. I'm not sure if it really repels mosquitoes but lemon balm might be one of the rising stars of alternative therapies for loss of memory and cognition in the elderly.

Alzheimer's disease, usually marked by memory loss, is the third leading killer of Americans. Heart disease is number one, followed by cancer at number two.

At a recent meeting of the Alzheimer's Association, one of the speakers reminded us that you could have heart disease and live a long life. Cancer survival is increasing, and for some types, cures are known. However, there are no effective medications or therapies for Alzheimer's disease.

Developing new drugs is a slow and expensive process. There is a way to shorten this process ... look to nature.

Lemon balm is a hardy, fast-growing plant that will, if given any opportunity, take over your yard. The leaves, when rubbed, give off a strong and pleasant lemon odor. Dried leaves make a very nice lemon tea. They can also be added to regular tea or salads as a flavoring. Despite its culinary benefits, does it improve memory? The answer is yes.

According to the Natural Medicine Comprehensive Database, lemon balm is often used for anxiety, restlessness, and even attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. It might have benefit also for Alzheimer's disease. Although all of the active ingredients have not been defined, some do bind to specific types of nerve cell receptors in the brain and might exert their positive effect by stimulating those nerves specifically involved in memory and cognition.

Lemon balm, as a memory aid, does have some real research behind it. There have been several studies over the past few years demonstrating improvements in memory in healthy young men. These studies, done at the Human Cognitive Neuroscience Unit at North Umbria University, Great Britain, showed that taking standardized extracts of lemon balm quickly enhanced the memory and cognitive abilities of young healthy men on standardized performance tests. In addition, it appears that higher doses of lemon balm (1,600 mg) are associated with even better performance.

Researchers noted that mood also improved and the participants seemed calmer, especially during testing. If it works this well in healthy young men, it might be very beneficial for the elderly.

However, the immediate and widespread use of lemon balm for enhancing memory in the elderly is problematic because the safety of long-term lemon balm use is unknown. In addition, no well-controlled studies have been done specifically with Alzheimer's patients.

Since nature has provided lemon balm, it does not need the long years of development like new drugs. With a little effort it could be established as either effective or not effective. If effective, it could have an immediate clinical impact on a devastating disease.

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