Lemon myrtle is an Australian shrub (Backhousia citriodora) that has had favor with the aboriginals for thousands of years – and not just culinary. Its flowers and fruits can be eaten, but its leaves are the real treasures. Citrusy in smell and zesty in flavor, they’re home to an essential oil filled with healthy compounds.
Of these, citral is the most popular. In fact, most of lemon myrtle’s health benefits are attributed to it. Then there is citronellal, another beneficial compound. The herb is also an exceptional source of calcium. Vegans, are you listening?
But why should the rest of the world be introduced to lemon myrtle?
Why It’s So Great
Helps the Immune System Regulate Itself
A bacteria or virus trying to take you hostage? Your immune system will show up. Injured? There it is again. The immune system is focused on one thing – keeping your body healthy and strong. It works on multiple levels and in different ways, at times more aggressively than at others.
- An important part of this strategy is a group of charged molecules called free radicals that activated immune cells produce. They suck the life (read: electron) out of whatever they come in contact with (dramatic, but you get what we’re saying!). While this is great for eliminating disease-causing agents, extra free radicals may start attacking the body’s own cells. A fine balance needs to be maintained.
Normally, the body has its own fail-safes, antioxidant compounds and enzymes, that take care of (read: neutralize) the extra free radicals. But illness, junk food, or even just age may produce too many free radicals for the body’s own antioxidants to handle. That’s when antioxidants from healthy foods like lemon myrtle become so important. Thankfully, the queen of the lemon herbs steps up to the plate with its army of antioxidant compounds.
- The immune system also needs to keep a check on another strategy called inflammation. This is normally used to round up and target its resources to an infection site or injured tissue. But you can see how this may go wrong if blown out of proportion. Lemon myrtle selectively inhibits two pro-inflammatory enzymes (COX-2 and iNOS) so that things are a little muted.
Scientific research on lemon myrtle has mostly tapped into the use of its essential oil as an antiseptic, disinfectant, and natural food preservative. So, you will find a lot of studies on its antimicrobial properties, including one that shows the oil having a greater antimicrobial effect than isolated citral.
But other traditional uses of the herb are yet to be explored. These include its beneficial effects on digestion and sleep.
Unlike lemon juice, lemon myrtle leaves are not acidic. So you get the citrusy punch without having to worry too much about heartburn or the other side effects of acidic foods.
Since the leaves resemble bay leaves, that’s where you could start. To dishes you would normally add bay leaves, add lemon myrtle leaves instead. Just one or two would do as they’re quite strong in flavor. You could go with fresh or dried leaves; both have the beneficial essential oil.
Alternatively, brew yourself a soothing lemon-flavored tea and add some honey to it (2 leaves in a liter or water). Or add the leaves to your favorite black or green tea.
If you’re fond of toppings and seasonings, use the crushed dried leaves for just that. Think shortbread and pasta.
Note: Lemon myrtle is possibly the most concentrated source of plant citral which makes the essential oil extremely potent. We’d say stick to using the leaves in food. That’s probably where they’re most effective anyway.