Wheatgrass has been consumed in this country since the 1930s, although the origin of the substance as an edible component of the diet is unknown. Research dates man’s knowledge of the product back thousands of years, but consumption and means use is limited. In modern times, wheatgrass juice is readily available, primarily as a one ounce “shot” at smoothie bars and health food stores. It is an acquired, pungent taste, but proponents of the drink suggest that this amount of wheatgrass has as many nutrients as 2.2 pounds of conventional vegetables such as broccoli, carrots and cauliflower (this number varies with the source). Wheatgrass does contain many nutrients, including the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, biotin, lycopene, calcium, thiamine, riboflavin and arginine, although the levels of each are relatively low and its “superfood” claims have not been sufficiently substantiated. The chlorophyll that makes up approximately 70% of wheatgrass is purported to help prevent cancer, detoxify the liver, improve energy levels, increase immunity, provide anti-aging benefits and aid in the treatment of diseases such as ulcerative colitis.
While the efficacy of wheatgrass juice and supplements remains in question, several studies have attempted to connect the plant with its purported health benefits. One study compared the effects of wheat grass with spirulina on levels of oxidative stress in a group of healthy young subjects between the ages of 18 and 21. The subjects were divided into groups of ten; one group was given a placebo of calcium gluconate, while the other two groups were given either a wheat grass supplement or a spirulina supplement. Rather than using juices, the subjects took dry powder capsules before breakfast and dinner for a total of 1000 mg daily. The researchers took blood samples from each participant after 12 hours of fasting and tested them for assorted biochemical biomarkers. After 30 days, the researchers found that the wheatgrass group showed lower levels of blood malondialdehyde (a marker of lipid oxidation) as well as increased concentrations of antioxidants in the blood. The spirulina group showed a similar path, but the improvements were not as significant.
Many wheatgrass studies have looked at the effects of the plant on the disease thalassemia. A blood disease whose most prevalent symptom is anemia, patients with thalassemia often require blood transfusions, which can be costly and time-consuming. Additionally, because thalassemia tends to affect populations in economically challenged nations, the ability of the patient and his/her family to obtain the transfusions can be difficult, if not impossible. Because of these burdens, researchers in India looked at whether the consumption of wheatgrass might positively affect the transfusion needs of some of these patients. Patients were randomly selected from the Advanced Pediatric Center; their families grew the wheatgrass for the experiment in their homes. The transfusion needs of the patients in the year before the wheatgrass experiment were compared to their needs during the timeframe in which they drank approximately 100 mL of wheatgrass daily. The researchers found that of the 16 cases examined, half of them appeared to benefit from the ingestion of wheatgrass; the transfusion needs of these eight dropped at least 25% from their normal levels. Of the other eight patients, five saw smaller drops in need, and three saw either no change or very little change.
This study was quite small, and the parameters established by the researchers were arbitrary. Because the families prepared the wheatgrass juice themselves, there may have been slight variations in the makeup of the drink (the wheatgrass is harvested, ground into a pulp and the juice extracted through a strainer). Furthermore, the researchers themselves were uncertain as to the mechanism by which the wheatgrass appeared to affect the levels of hemoglobin. However, the results of this study indicate that further research of the effects of wheatgrass on thalassemia may be warranted.
Another disease often associated with the consumption of wheatgrass for its purported benefits is ulcerative colitis. A disease characterized by the gradual onset of bloody diarrhea, colitis is often mistaken for the milder irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and is similar to Crohn’s disease. Entire websites are devoted to the benefits of wheatgrass on the symptoms of colitis, although very little peer-reviewed research has been completed to establish a scientific link. A commonly cited study was performed in an Israeli medical facility in 2002. Twenty-three patients diagnosed with colitis received either 100cc of wheatgrass juice or a placebo every day for a month. Researchers evaluated the patients’ diaries listing the incidences of rectal bleeding and number of bowel movements and found that those patients given the wheatgrass juice exhibited marked improvements in these symptoms. Neither this nor the thalassemia study showed any adverse side effects associated with the consumption of wheatgrass.
Wheat grass supplementation has also been shown to be effective in the treatment of the myelotoxicity associated with the chemotherapy often used to fight breast cancer. Sixty patients were split into two groups; one group drank 60cc of wheatgrass juice daily during the first three cycles of chemotherapy, while the control group was only provided support therapy. The researchers found that of those women drinking the wheatgrass supplement, only five suffered what was termed a censoring event, in which the women had to reduce their intake of wheatgrass due to additional illness or termination of treatment. Of the fifteen censoring events in the control group, 11 were due to blood related events such as neutropenia, a hematological disorder characterized by low neutrophil cells. Overall, the researchers felt that the wheatgrass juice might be an effective supplement but that as a pilot study, additional research was needed.
While the majority of studies regarding the potential efficacy of wheatgrass appear positive, other studies have not shown wheatgrass to be an effective supplement. One small study looked at whether a wheatgrass ointment would have any effect on chronic plantar fasciitis. Researchers had 80 participants randomly select a cream from a box; one cream was a placebo while the other cream contained a 10% wheatgrass extract. Both creams contained a 1% solution of tea tree oil to mask the scent of wheatgrass. Participants applied the cream to their feet twice a day for six weeks and recorded their first-step pain. For the next six weeks, participants were required to continue recording their first-step pain but did not apply any cream. After 12 weeks both groups showed significant but relatively equal improvements in their fasciitis; they also showed no significant changes in calf strength or ankle dorsiflexion. The researchers surmised the similarities may have been due more to the deep tissue massage that went along with the application of the cream; also, the tea tree oil added to both creams might have had an effect, although it was unlikely. Finally, expectation bias, in which the participants may have spontaneous improvements, could have also played a factor in the similar improvements across groups.
Wheatgrass juice, similarly to other supplements, may have some beneficial value, but for the most part, additional studies need to be conducted. Wheatgrass has not been accepted by conventional medicine, but it does remain anecdotally popular.