By Dr. Mercola
Because it grows quickly, exudes a lemony essence and really is a grass that’s lush, hardy and attractive, lemongrass as a plant probably matches the first image that pops into your mind when you hear the word. Often used as an ornamental screening plant, it’s like grass on steroids, arcing in graceful plumes, especially when it grows to its potential height of 6 feet. About 55 varieties exist worldwide.
One highly appreciated function, as many gardeners and nature-lovers can attest: It’s a natural mosquito repellent. You can even break off the leaves to rub on your skin. (Just make sure to test it on your skin first.) Not exclusively an ornamental plant, although it certainly is that, Cymbopogon citratus is also an herb used in cooking to give stir-fries, soups and many other dishes a hint of lemony brightness.
Lemongrass stalks closely resemble tough green onions, but the flavor does not. Originally from tropical and other warm-weather areas like India, Thailand and China, lemongrass has been described as having a very complex and sophisticated flavor — like lemon, but with a mild, delicate tang and a hint of ginger and mint. As a tea, these fragrance components are pleasant, but it’s the medicinal aspects I’ll highlight today.
Lemongrass has a history of medicinal use among several cultures worldwide for a variety of conditions, including digestive disorders, fevers, menstrual disorders, joint pain, inflammation and nervous conditions. Several regions have found it useful medicinally, the American Botanical Council1 notes:
- In the Philippines, the tea is used to alleviate stress, treat colds, fevers and gastrointestinal distress, and decrease pain and arthritic conditions.
- In southern Brazil, lemongrass is an herbal medicine used for pain and sedation.
- In India, Cuba, Indonesia and Brazil, lemongrass tea is used to treat bladder problems, including urinary tract inflammation, incontinence and kidney stones.
- In Nigeria, extracts of lemongrass treat hypertension, obesity and diabetes mellitus, as well as malaria, to lower fevers and to kill parasites.
Lemongrass Tea: Hint of Ginger; Medicinal Powerhouse
East Indian lemongrass (aka Cochin or Malabar grass) and West Indian lemongrass are popular for extracting the oil for perfumes, lotions and deodorants, but Medical News Today2 notes that these two varieties are also the only ones suitable for cooking. In addition:
“Inflammation is a factor in many adverse health conditions, including pain and heart disease. As such, lemongrass tea could be a beneficial drink for people to incorporate into their diet … Lemongrass contains the inflammation-fighting compounds chlorogenic acid, isoorientin and swertiajaponin.”3
As with most herbs, extracted oils and healing plants, studies on lemongrass usually mention that any therapeutic properties can be attributed to the synergy of many compounds working together rather than a single compound. In any case, however, the advantages are too diverse and dramatic to ignore, as studies suggest lemongrass may:
Prevent infection — Terpenes, ketones, aldehyde and esters are compounds in lemongrass that fight numerous infections4
Boost red blood cell count — One study showed that lemongrass tea significantly increased red blood cells in all 105 participants6
Enhance oral health — A study found that among 12 herbs, lemongrass extracts were one of the most effective against cariogenic streptococci7
Reduce bloating — A high dose or prolonged treatment with a low dose of lemongrass tea suggested renal function improvement8
Fight free radicals — Unstable atoms that can cause premature aging and damage cells, cause premature aging and, ultimately, a host of diseases
Decrease inflammation — Citral is one compound in lemongrass oil that lowered skin cell inflammation in one study.10
One of the most dramatic benefits of lemongrass tea is how it fights free radicals, making it exceptionally effective as an antioxidant. In fact, they’re one of the greatest culprits in causing inflammation, as they can break down cells over time. Livestrong notes citral as one of the most volatile oils:
“Citral acts as an antioxidant that can help protect your cells from damage by free radicals. These unstable molecules form during digestion or when you’re exposed to toxins. Over time, they can damage your cells and raise your risk of chronic disorders, including atherosclerosis and heart disease.”11
More Studies Reveal Powerful Compounds in Lemongrass
One study12 noted a number of powerful plant chemicals in lemongrass, such as flavonoids, phenolic compounds including luteolin, quercetin, kaempferol and apiginin, which all exerting disease-fighting, pharmacological activities, including:
- Antifilarial (antiparasitic)
Various other effects from the compounds in lemongrass that are being studied include antimalarial, antimutagenicity (reducing the rate of mutation13), antimycobacterial (such as organisms that cause tuberculosis), antioxidant, hypoglycemic and neurobehaviorial problems, have also been studied.
In addition, a study in Japan14 found that the glutathione in lemongrass could be used in the future for skin cancer prevention, and in India, researchers reported it as “highly useful in the development of anticancer therapeutics,” particularly leukemia.15 Polysaccharides in lemongrass were found to produce antitumor activity when tested in a study in East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai.16
You can avail yourself of all of the aforementioned compounds and plant chemicals contained in lemongrass by starting a regimen of tea made from the stalks or leaves to treat a number of maladies, in much the same way people in areas where the plant has grown for millennia have used it to treat colds, headache, bacterial infections, sore throats, circulatory problems and stress. Livestrong observes:
“Terpenoids in lemongrass influence genes that improve insulin resistance and decrease circulating lipid levels, according to a Japanese study published in the June 2010 issue of the journal PPAR Research.17 These compounds may be helpful for managing diabetes, obesity and elevated cholesterol levels in some people, say the researchers.”18
Recipe and Uses for Lemongrass Tea
While you can purchase lemongrass tea already prepared, both in health food stores or online, you can also make your own, and it’s no more difficult than buying the stalks and chopping them. You can also add them to curry paste, sauces, soup stock and stir-fries. Look for them in the produce section or the freezer section in supermarkets.
Make sure the stalks are firm, not rubbery, and that the lower parts of the stalks are pale yellow, while the upper stalks are green. The Spruce Eats explains that the best way to use each stalk is by cutting off the lower bulb so you can remove the tough outer leaves. Then:
“From here, you have two options. The first is the easier of the two. Simply cut the yellow stalk into 2- to 3-inch lengths. Then ‘bruise’ these sections by bending them several times. You can also create superficial cuts along these sections with your knife, which will help release the lemon flavor. Add these bruised stalks to your soup or curry.
When serving, remove the lemongrass pieces, or ask your guests to set them aside as they eat. The second option is to slice the lemongrass. In this case, we are preparing the lemongrass to be consumed, adding fiber, nutrients, and more flavor to the dish. You will need a very sharp knife, as the stalk is quite firm. Cut the yellow section of the stalk into thin slices and place these in a food processor. Process well.”19
An alternative (and possibly quicker) option to slicing is to simply pound the stalks with a pestle and mortar until they become soft and fragrant, and then add them to your dishes. As for lemongrass tea, you can use either the leaves, dried or fresh, or the woody stalks. Add one-half teaspoon of stevia, if desired.
Lemongrass Tea Procedure:
- Cut the stalks into 1- to 2-inch pieces.
- Boil 1 cup (or slightly more) of water.
- Pour the water over the lemongrass pieces and cover to keep it hot.
- Allow the lemongrass to steep for at least five minutes.
- Strain the liquid through a mesh strainer and pour into your cup.
You can start by drinking one cup of lemongrass tea per day, then increase it to more over a matter of days, if desired. You may find, as researchers did in the studies, that your oral health improves, bloating is relieved and even pain and inflammation become less of a factor in your life.
Quick Tutorial on Growing Lemongrass
You can buy a small lemongrass plant at the grocery store or gardening shop in early spring, trim it to about 6 inches high above the root line and add a pinch of cinnamon as a root starter. As they grow they become an attractive indoor plant in a sunny spot on your windowsill, or you can use the plant as an excellent base for starting it outside in rich, loamy soil, which retains water better. Growing lemongrass is quite easy, given the optimal amount of sun (a lot), water and fertilizer. According to Hobby Farms:
“Lemongrass is harvested for both the stalk and foliage. You can begin harvesting lemongrass as soon as the plant is about a foot tall. Cut, twist or break off a stalk that is at least one-quarter-inch thick. The most tender part is at the bottom, so remove it as close to the ground as possible. Once you have harvested the number of stalks you want, remove the woody outer portion and the leaves. Slice the tender part of the stalk, and add as needed to your recipe.”20
The edible part of the plant is nearest the bottom of the stalk. When the stalks get to be around a quarter-inch to a half-inch thick, cut the stalks close to their roots. One of the great things about harvesting lemongrass stalks is how easy it is to preserve them by freezing. Make your last cuttings before the first frost in the fall.
Freeze whole stalks or cut them into 1-inch pieces, and they’ll be usable in recipes for about six months. If your favorite recipe calls for one or two stalks, store that amount in freezer containers to make the job quick and easy.