Lemon grass is a perennial, aromatic tall grass with a light lemon scent used for culinary and medicinal purposes. For centuries, herbalists have used the herb as an effective digestive tonic and nervous system relaxant. Lemon grass oil is used to help clear blemishes and maintain balanced skin tone. Lemon grass is also used as an insect and mosquito repellent. Now, according to Israeli scientists, they can add cancer prevention to the list of attributes associated with lemon grass.
If you are a cancer patient in Israel, your doctor is telling you to drink fresh lemon grass tea on the days that you go in for radiation or chemotherapy treatments. Ben Gurion University of the Negev researchers made a discovery last year that the lemon aroma in herbs like lemon grass kills cancer cells in vitro, while leaving healthy cells unharmed. In a fascinating article published in the Health section of Israel21c, it states that the study found the citral in lemon grass causes cancer cells to commit suicide in a process called apoptosis, a mechanism called programmed cell death. A drink with as little a one gram of lemon grass contains enough citral to signal the cancer cells to commit suicide.
It all began when researchers at Ben Gurion University of the Negev discovered last year that the lemon aroma in herbs like lemon grass kills cancer cells in vitro, while leaving healthy cells unharmed.
The research team was led by Dr. Rivka Ofir and Prof. Yakov Weinstein, incumbent of the Albert Katz Chair in Cell-Differentiation and Malignant Diseases, from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at BGU.
Citral is the key component that gives the lemony aroma and taste in several herbal plants such as lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus), melissa (Melissa officinalis) and verbena (Verbena officinalis.)
The BGU investigators checked the influence of the citral on cancerous cells by adding them to both cancerous cells and normal cells that were grown in a petri dish. The quantity added in the concentrate was equivalent to the amount contained in a cup of regular tea using one gram of lemon herbs in hot water. While the citral killed the cancerous cells, the normal cells remained unharmed.
The findings were published in the scientific journal Planta Medica, which highlights research on alternative and herbal remedies. Shortly afterwards, the discovery was featured in the popular Israeli press.
Why does it work? Nobody knows for certain, but the BGU scientists have a theory.
“In each cell in our body, there is a genetic program which causes programmed cell death. When something goes wrong, the cells divide with no control and become cancer cells. In normal cells, when the cell discovers that the control system is not operating correctly – for example, when it recognizes that a cell contains faulty genetic material following cell division – it triggers cell death,” explains Weinstein. “This research may explain the medical benefit of these herbs.”
The success of their research led them to the conclusion that herbs containing citral may be consumed as a preventative measure against certain cancerous cells.
As they learned of the BGU findings in the press, many physicians in Israel began to believe that while the research certainly needed to be explored further, in the meantime it would be advisable for their patients, who were looking for any possible tool to fight their condition, to try to harness the cancer-destroying properties of citral.
That’s why Zabidov’s farm – the only major grower of fresh lemon grass in Israel – has become a pilgrimage destination for these patients. Luckily, they found themselves in sympathetic hands. Zabidov greets visitors with a large kettle of aromatic lemon grass tea, a plate of cookies, and a supportive attitude.
“My father died of cancer, and my wife’s sister died young because of cancer,” said Zabidov. “So I understand what they are dealing with. And I may not know anything about medicine, but I’m a good listener. And so they tell me about their expensive painful treatments and what they’ve been through. I would never tell them to stop being treated, but it’s great that they are exploring alternatives and drinking the lemon grass tea as well.”
Zabidov knew from a young age that agriculture was his calling. At age 14, he enrolled in the Kfar Hayarok Agricultural high school. After his army service, he joined an idealistic group which headed south, in the Arava desert region, to found a new moshav (agricultural settlement) called Tsofar.
“We were very successful; we raised fruits and vegetables, and,” he notes with a smile, “We raised some very nice children.”
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