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Wheatgrass

Other common name(s): couchgrass, wheatgrass diet, agropyron

Scientific/medical name(s): Triticum aestivum (subspecies of the family Poaceae)

Description

Wheatgrass is a member of the family Poaceae, which includes a wide variety of wheat-like grasses. Wheatgrass is commonly found in temperate regions of Europe and the United States. It can be grown outdoors or indoors. The roots and underground stems may be used in herbal remedies.

Overview

There have been almost no clinical studies in humans to support claims made for wheatgrass or wheatgrass diet programs. One very small study suggested that it may help people with colitis, a bowel problem.

How is it promoted for use?

Wheatgrass is promoted to treat a number of conditions including the common cold, coughs, bronchitis, fevers, infections, and inflammation of the mouth and throat. In folk medicine, practitioners used wheatgrass to treat cystitis, gout, rheumatic pain, chronic skin disorders, and constipation. Some proponents equate chlorophyll (the component that makes wheatgrass and other plants green) with hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood, saying that wheatgrass raises the body's oxygen levels.

Although most people use wheatgrass juice as a dietary supplement or as a serving of vegetables, some proponents claim that a dietary program commonly called "the wheatgrass diet" can cause cancer to regress or "shrink" and can extend the lives of people with cancer. They believe that the wheatgrass diet strengthens the immune system, kills harmful bacteria in the digestive system, and rids the body of toxins and waste matter.

What does it involve?

Wheatgrass is available planted in trays of soil and in tablets, capsules, liquid extracts, tinctures, and juices. Some people buy seeds or kits and grow it at home, either indoors or outside. It is most often made into juice (see Juicing), but can also be used to make tea. People generally drink the juice, although a few mix it with water and use it as an enema to “cleanse the liver” (see Colon Therapy). It is also mixed into smoothies and other drinks.

The wheatgrass diet, which is used by a small number of wheatgrass enthusiasts, avoids all meat, dairy products, and cooked foods. This diet emphasizes "live foods," such as uncooked sprouts, raw vegetables and fruits, nuts, and seeds (see Vegetarianism).

What is the history behind it?

The wheatgrass diet was developed by Boston resident Ann Wigmore, who immigrated to the United States from Lithuania. Wigmore believed strongly in the healing power of nature. Wigmore's notion that fresh wheatgrass had value came from her interpretation of the Bible and observations that dogs and cats eat grass when they feel ill. Wigmore claimed that the wheatgrass diet could cure disease.

In 1982, the Massachusetts Attorney General sued Wigmore for claiming that her program could reduce or eliminate the need for insulin in diabetics. She later retracted her claims. In 1988, the Massachusetts Attorney General sued Wigmore again, this time for claiming that an "energy enzyme soup" she invented could cure AIDS. Wigmore was ordered to stop representing herself as a physician or person licensed to treat disease. Although Wigmore died in 1993, her Creative Health Institute is still active. Wheatgrass is readily available, and her diet is still in use.

What is the evidence?

Wheatgrass is a natural source of vitamins and minerals. However, available scientific evidence does not support the idea that wheatgrass or the wheatgrass diet can cure or prevent disease. One small early study found that wheatgrass juice, when used along with standard medical care, seemed to help control symptoms of chronic inflammation of the large intestine, a condition called ulcerative colitis. This 2002 study tested fresh wheatgrass juice against a sham drink in a group of people with ulcerative colitis. All of them received regular medical care, including their usual diet. Those who drank about 3 ounces of the juice every day for a month had less pain, diarrhea, and rectal bleeding than those in the group drinking the placebo.

Although there are individual reports that describe tumor shrinkage and extended survival among people with cancer who followed the wheatgrass diet, there are no clinical trials in the available scientific literature that support this claim.

The American Cancer Society's nutrition guidelines recommend eating a balanced diet that includes 5 or more servings a day of vegetables and fruit, choosing whole grains over processed and refined foods and limiting red meats and animal fats. Choosing foods from a variety of fruits, vegetables and other plant sources such as nuts, seeds, whole grain cereals, and beans is healthier than consuming large amounts of one particular food.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

This product is sold as a dietary supplement in the United States. Unlike drugs (which must be tested before being allowed to be sold), the companies that make supplements are not required to prove to the Food and Drug Administration that their supplements are safe or effective, as long as they don't claim the supplements can prevent, treat, or cure any specific disease.
Some such products may not contain the amount of the herb or substance that is written on the label, and some may include other substances (contaminants). Actual amounts per dose may vary between brands or even between different batches of the same brand.
Most such supplements have not been tested to find out if they interact with medicines, foods, or other herbs and supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.

Wheatgrass is generally considered safe, although a few individuals have reported nausea, headaches, hives, or swelling in the throat within minutes of drinking its juice. Hives and swollen throat are often signs of a serious allergic reaction and should be handled as an emergency. Anyone having these kinds of symptoms after ingesting wheatgrass may have even more severe reactions to it later.

Because it is grown in soils or water and consumed raw, contamination with bacteria, molds, or other substances may be a concern. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not use wheatgrass.

Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

References

Ben-Arye E, Goldin E, Wengrower D, Stamper A, Kohn R, Berry E. Wheat grass juice in the treatment of active distal ulcerative colitis: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Scand J Gastroenterol. 2002;37:444-449.

Blumenthal M, ed. The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; 1998.

Byers T, Nestle M, McTiernan A, et al. American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention: Reducing the Risk of Cancer with Healthy Food Choices and Physical Activity. CA Cancer J Clin. 2002;52:92-119.

Fetrow CW, Avila JR. Professional's Handbook of Complementary & Alternative Medicines. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2004.

Gruenwald J, Brendler T, Jaenicke C, eds. PDR for Herbal Medicines, Third Edition. Thomson PDR, Montvale NJ, 2004.

Jarvis WT. Wheatgrass therapy. Accessed at: www.ncahf.org/articles/s-z/wheatgrass.html on June 20, 2007.

MacIntosh CJ. Wheatgrass and mold. Accessed at: www.cityfarmer.org/wheatgrass.html on June 10, 2008.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Wheat Grass, Clinical Summary. Accessed at: www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/69419.cfm on June 10, 2008.

US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. Unconventional Cancer Treatments. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1990. Publication OTA-H-405.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.


Last Medical Review: 11/01/2008
Last Revised: 11/01/2008