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Heals minor wounds, eases indigestion, relieves menstrual cramps, treats cold sores, relaxes nerves, aids sleep, repels insects

Stomach comforter, blues banisher, herpes fighter, even bug repellent: The reputed uses of balm are so varied that it's no wonder this lemon-scented herb has been nicknamed "cure-all."

Although its therapeutic usefulness is little-known in this country, balm (sometimes referred to as lemon balm but officially called Melissa officinalis) is widely used and highly valued by legitimate herbal practitioners in Western Europe.

The leaves of this pungent member of the mint family have been used medicinally for some 2,000 years. The 11th-century Arab physician Avicenna believed it "causeth the mind and heart to become merry," and recommended it to dispel melancholy. Balm was considered a must-have plant for Elizabethan herb gardens, and over the centuries it seems to have been a popular home remedy for a host of common ailments. "Let a syrup made with the juice of it and sugar . . . be kept in every gentlewoman's house to relieve the weak stomachs and sick bodies of their poor sickly neighbours," wrote English physician Nicholas Culpeper in The Complete Herbal of 1653.

Modern research has suggested that there may be some truth to some, if not all, of these folk uses. There's no proof that balm makes you merry, but various small-scale laboratory studies in Germany have demonstrated that balm leaves contain compounds with sedative, digestive and anti-spasmodic effects, says Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., author of the Honest Herbal and professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University School of Pharmacy in West Lafayette, Indiana. Culpeper's crude recipe, then, may indeed help relieve tummy troubles.

Help for Herpes?

Recent research has shown another use for balm that the Elizabethans never dreamed of: battling herpes simplex, the virus that causes cold sores. "That's pretty well documented," says Dr. Tyler, adding that a cream containing highly concentrated balm compounds, sold in Europe but unavailable in the United States, has been shown to speed the healing of herpes lesions and lengthen the time between outbreaks.

Can you heal herpes by drinking balm tea? Don't bet on it. "You can't kill the herpes virus by taking it internally," says Norman R. Farnsworth, Ph.D., director of the Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "The studies showing antiviral activity are probably due to the tannins in balm; applied externally, they may act as an astringent and kill some surface viruses." Even applied externally, balm leaves or home brews probably aren't strong enough to be effective, says Dr. Tyler: "The tea would contain the tannins, but not in the same concentration as a commercial preparation."

Balm causes no documented safety problems, although it has been shown to inhibit certain thyroid hormones. For this reason, people with Graves' disease or other thyroid-related problems should use this herb cautiously, if at all.

Balm has another potential virtue: While bees may love it, mosquitoes reportedly hate it.

Putting the herb to work

Modern herbalists recommend a balm tea made from fresh or dried leaves to calm the nerves, aid sleep, ease menstrual cramps and reduce fever. Use about two teaspoons of chopped leaves (preferably fresh, not dried) to one cup of boiling water. Steep 10 to 20 minutes and drink while hot. Balm tincture is another option, with the usual dose being a teaspoon or less as needed.

Balm leaves are a fragrant and soothing addition to herbal baths or pillows. You can also apply a poultice of the crushed leaves to soothe insect bites and stings and help heal wounds, according to Dr. Farnsworth. Balm's properties as an insect repellent are unproven, but you might try rubbing balm oil, or the pleasantly scented leaves themselves, over your skin on a summer night, just in case.

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