What Is Wheatgrass?
Wheatgrass is the common name for the shoots of the wheat plant, Triticum aestivum. It's harvested early in its development, typically 7-10 days after planting, for use as a dietary supplement.
About 70% of each sprout is made up of chlorophyll, which gives wheatgrass its bright green color. Chlorophyll is the green pigment that plants use to make food during photosynthesis. The structure of chlorophyll is similar to that of hemoglobin, the protein in your blood that carries oxygen to your tissues. So, it's sometimes also called “green blood.”
Fans of wheatgrass love it because it has such a high level of chlorophyll, which is an antioxidant that may have some health benefits. They also love it because it has enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, alkaloids, and tannins that may also have health benefits. Some people believe that wheatgrass can boost the immune system, kill harmful germs, and remove toxins from the body.
Wheatgrass is used in Ayurveda to treat high acid levels, inflammation in the colon, poor kidney function, and wounds. Ayurveda is a natural system of medicine that originated in India over 3,000 years ago, and its practitioners say that lifestyle changes and natural therapies can help balance your body, mind, spirit, and environment. Wheatgrass is also used in folk medicine to treat colds, coughs, fevers, gout, infections, joint pain, chronic skin disorders, constipation, and swelling of the throat and mouth.
Read on to see what current studies say about the health benefits of wheatgrass.
Health Benefits of Wheatgrass
Wheatgrass is low in calories and high in nutrients, including antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin E, and minerals, such as selenium, zinc, and iron. Antioxidants are chemicals that fight free radicals in the body. Free radicals can cause damage to your cells, which may lead to heart disease, cancer, and other long-term health conditions. With high levels of nutrients and antioxidants, wheatgrass has a lot of potential for health benefits.
However, despite all the health claims, there is very little evidence from studies in people that wheatgrass works to prevent or cure any diseases. Most of the studies so far are test tube studies that used cells from people with specific health conditions or were done on animals. Here’s what some of the studies have found wheatgrass may do:
Limit the toxicity of chemotherapy
We have the best support for wheatgrass juice as a way to limit the side effects of chemotherapy. A study of 60 people with breast cancer showed that wheatgrass reduced some of the harmful effects of chemotherapy. Specifically, wheatgrass lowered the risk of myelotoxicity, as well as the need for dose reductions and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (GCSF) support in these patients. Myelotoxicity is when chemotherapy medicines lower the ability of your bone marrow to make cells, such as white blood cells and platelets. Myelotoxicity is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy. This often leads to a need for reducing the dose of chemotherapy medicine, which can reduce its ability to kill cancer cells.
Another study involving 100 people with colorectal cancer showed that when patients took wheatgrass juice with their chemotherapy medicine, it increased the levels of an anti-inflammatory protein in them and kept their white blood cell levels from dropping. The authors concluded that wheatgrass juice supports the immune system of patients while they are taking chemotherapy medicine. Although these results are encouraging, they are still early and need further testing before doctors can recommend wheatgrass to cancer patients.
Improve symptoms of ulcerative colitis
One small study conducted in 2002 by researchers in Israel showed that treatment with wheatgrass juice eased the symptoms of ulcerative colitis -- inflammation of the colon. More research needs to be done, but it does point to possible benefits from wheatgrass.
Improve blood sugar levels
A study in rats showed that wheatgrass juice may help regulate blood sugar levels. In this study, rats with diabetes were fed wheatgrass juice, and this raised their insulin levels, which helped keep their blood sugar down. But because this study was done in rats, more research is needed in people with type 2 diabetes to find if there is an actual link between wheatgrass and blood sugar management.
Lower cholesterol levels
Several studies show the potential for wheatgrass to lower cholesterol levels, which can then help lower your risk of heart disease. The only studies available now, however, are animal studies. One study showed that wheatgrass could lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides similar to atorvastatin, a common cholesterol-lowering medication. While the results are promising, human studies are needed to determine if wheatgrass actually impacts cholesterol levels.
In two recent studies, cells were taken from people with mouth cancer and colon cancer. The researchers added wheatgrass juice to the cells and saw that it slowed the growth of mouth and colon cancer cells and may have helped kill the colon cancer cells. The authors of these studies need to repeat these results in animals before they can test if it works this way in people.
Fight food poisoning
The chlorophyll in wheatgrass has antibacterial properties. Some test tube research on cells shows that wheatgrass juice may slow the growth of seven types of bacteria that cause food poisoning. Again, researchers would need to repeat these results in animals before they can test if it would work to prevent food poisoning in people.
Chlorophyll has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, and wheatgrass has a lot of chlorophyll. One study in animals showed that a form of chlorophyll reduced swelling in mice and rats. In this same study, researchers also showed that chlorophyll could lower the amount of inflammatory proteins made by human kidney cells. Eventually, researchers hope to show that wheatgrass helps alleviate long-term inflammation, which could reduce your risk of developing conditions such as heart disease and cancer.
Aid in healthy digestion
Wheatgrass contains enzymes that help your body break down food and absorb nutrients, which may aid in good digestion. Drinking wheatgrass juice may also help detoxify your system, leading to reduced bloating, gas, and stomach upset.
Improve cognitive function
Wheatgrass may have neuroprotective properties, which means that it might help improve cognitive functions and lower the risk of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The nutritional value of wheatgrass depends on many factors including soil nutrients and pH, light exposure and temperature during growth, and when it was harvested. The juice is generally a concentrated source of many vitamins, minerals, enzymes, chlorophyll, and other nutrients that may provide health benefits.
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- All B vitamins: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), nicotinic acid (B3), B4, pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B9), B10, and cyanocobalamin (B12)
Nutrients per serving
A 1-oz shot of wheatgrass juice contains:
- Calories: 5
- Protein: 0 grams
- Fat: 0 grams
- Carbohydrates: 0 grams
- Fiber: 0 grams
- Sugar: 0 grams
What Are the Risks of Wheatgrass?
In general, wheatgrass is safe to consume. Some people have reported side effects after using it, especially in high doses. They have ranged from mild (headaches and nausea) to more serious allergic reactions (hives and swelling of the throat). Because most people eat wheatgrass raw, there is also a rare chance that it can be contaminated with bacteria or other organisms from the soil.
As with any new supplement you try, take a small portion at first and then gradually increase how much you take once you know how it affects you.
Some people should be wary of wheatgrass juice, such as:
Pregnant and immunocompromised people
Wheatgrass grows in soil or water and people consume it raw. Therefore, it can be contaminated with bacteria and mold that may be harmful to a developing baby, very young children, or people with weakened immune systems. This may be especially true if you grow your wheatgrass at home because commercial wheatgrass producers must follow safety guidelines so they can sell their products. People who are pregnant or nursing, young children, and people with weakened immune systems should probably avoid wheatgrass.
Wheatgrass is made from the fresh sprouts of the wheat plant. Even so, they do not contain gluten. Gluten is made in the seed kernels of the wheat plant, not in the green parts of the grass. If the grasses are cut at the right time, they shouldn’t have any gluten. There is, however, a risk of cross-contamination. So, if you are gluten-sensitive, you should make sure that your wheatgrass comes from a certified gluten-free producer. But it may be best to avoid wheatgrass altogether if you are sensitive to wheat (not just gluten) or allergic to grasses.
While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence showing that wheatgrass can help with many health complications, it shouldn’t be used as an alternative to conventional medical care. If you have any health concerns, always speak with your doctor first.
How to Use Wheatgrass
The shoots are tough to digest, so they're usually crushed or squeezed to make juice. You can find fresh wheatgrass in the produce section of most grocery stores, or you can grow it at home. If you grow it at home, run it through a juicer. Many take it as a 1-2 oz shot on its own or add a shot to their favorite smoothie recipe. It has a grassy, earthy taste, so some people mix it with fruit juice or coconut water to hide the taste.
Some grocery stores and many health food stores also carry wheatgrass powder or capsules. You can add the powder to smoothies and juices, or swallow the capsules with a glass of water.
Smoothies aren’t your only option for getting wheatgrass into your diet. You can also sneak it into other recipes, such as:
- Salad dressings
- Fruity cocktails or mocktails
- Dips such as hummus or guacamole
- Chocolate truffles or cupcake frosting