Barley grass is the leaf portion of the barley plant (Hordeum vulgare ) that remains after the seeds have been removed. As a grass, it is also known as a distichon, meaning that it grows in two separate ranks, or rows. The rows of barley grass are parallel to the central axis, forming a loose sheath over the stem, which is sometimes called the culm. This stem is hollow and jointed, and the seeds are ellipitical and furrowed. The barley plant, an annual that requires reseeding each year, reaches a height of up to 3 ft (about 1 m). The plant has an extensive history in human and animal nutrition . As a nutritional supplement, it is preferable to use young barley plants that have not yet developed seeds.
The barley plant appears to have been used by the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Vikings. It is believed that Columbus brought it to the Americas in 1493. Barley seeds have been used in both human nutrition and medicine. When the seeds are boiled, they release a thick substance that soothes sore throats. Barley seeds are used for the preparation of malt extract, which has a high sugar content that makes it suitable as a flavoring agent in pharmaceutical preparations.
Marketers make a number of claims regarding barley grass, including:
- It is the only vegetation on earth that can supply sole nutritional support from birth to old age.
- Barley grass juice contains nutrients such as vitamins C and E, which are much more potent together than when taken separately.
- Barley grass is high in calcium, iron , all essential amino acids, vitamin C , the flavonoids, vitamin B 12, and a number of enzymes and minerals.
- Barley grass can be used to treat disorders of the stomach and duodenum; pancreatitis ; and as an anti-inflammatory agent.
- Barley grass contains superoxide dismutase (SOD), a powerful antioxidant enzyme that protects the cells against toxic free radicals.
Although not substantiated, one source has claimed that barley grass is good for the following conditions:
- skin diseases
Barley grass contains vitamins, particularly B vitamins, as well minerals such as potassium , calcium, iron, phosphorus , and magnesium . Enzymes contained in the plant include SOD and nitrogen reductase. The latter reduces nitrogen—an element commonly found in protein—in a biological process. Although barley grass contains enzymes, the health benefits of these substances remain unclear. Enzymes are proteins, which are normally broken down into their component chemicals during digestion. However, the enzymes found in raw foods remain technologically unprotected from normal digestive processes. The medical literature is not consistent on whether any SOD is actually absorbed intact through the digestive tract. In fact, the percentage absorbed may be very small. Techniques are being developed to encapsulate enzymes into other molecules. This will allow the enzymes to be absorbed intact, so that they will remain active following digestion.
Barley grass and other cereal grasses may or may not be useful sources of natural vitamins and minerals. Evidence may be insufficient to justify claims that these products improve physical health or cure disease. Barley grass has not been reviewed by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the German Commission E. Nutrient concentration in barley grass products varies with the conditions under which the plant is grown. Like other natural supplements, commercial barley grass is not standardized; therefore, different crops contain varying amounts of nutrients. Young barley grass plants appear to contain higher concentrations of nutrients than older plants.
One well-publicized Chinese study reported that barley grass was beneficial in lowering cholesterol levels in patients with type 2 diabetes. This may be due to the plant's antioxidant abilities. Similar results were achieved by other researchers who studied the antioxidant effects of red wine and tomato juice.
Other health claims made for barley grass remain unconfirmed. For example, chlorophyll, the pigment found in barley grass and all green plants, may have some antibacterial effects. Chlorophyll reportedly inhibits the growth of cancer cells under laboratory conditions, but its value in human health is unknown.
Similarly, the claim that barley grass can provide full nutrition is subject to dispute. One researcher found that people on a vegan diet that included barley grass were likely to show reduced levels of vitamin B12, and to require supplementation with this essential nutrient.
Barley grass is available in capsule, powder, and tablet formulations. Capsules are sold in strengths of 470 mg, 475 mg, and 500 mg. Tablets are available in 350 mg and 500 mg strengths.
Barley grass may sometimes be rich in vitamin K , which interferes with the action of anticoagulants such as Coumadin (the brand name for warfarin, a drug used to treat and prevent blood clots ). Other than an allergic reaction, there are no known adverse effects attributed to barley grass.
There are no known side effects attributed to barley grass.
No drug interactions have been associated with barley grass, with the exception of samples that are high in vitamin K (interferes with Coumidin).
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Alberta Barley Commission. #200, 3601A - 21 Street N.E. Calgary, Alberta T2E 6T5 CANADA. (403) 291-9111. (800) 265-9111. Fax: (403) 291-0190. <http://www.albertabarley.com/kids/about.shtml>.
Green Green Grass.com. 7925-A N Oracle Rd #281 Tucson, AZ 85704. (888) 773-9808. [email protected] <http://www.greengreengrass.com/barleygreen_premium.html>.
Herbal Information Center. 3507 Marsala Ct. Punta Gorda, FL 33950 <http://www.kcweb.com/herb/barley.htm>.
Samuel Uretsky, Pharm.D.