How does it feel?
Try dipping a finger into a jar of ground fenugreek and taste the pale yellow floury powder. It starts with sweetness, then a powerful acrid taste cuts in, with celery and nutty tones. As this fades it turns into gentle bitterness, before the sweetness, rather like maple syrup, comes back in. Throughout there is a mucilaginous almost oily (or ‘unctuous’) quality.
These many attributes make fenugreek a nutritious supportive remedy with an extra kick. It can be expected to warm, stimulate metabolic functions and nudge a range of hormonal controls around the body.
What can I use it for?
Fenugreek seed contains large quantities of mucilage that provides a protective coating on the gut wall and any other surface. This reduces the rate of absorption of fats and sugars and so makes fenugreek a great complement to the diet for someone wishing to better control cholesterol and glucose levels, perhaps as part of a weight-reducing diet as well.
It is also a great warming and nourishing tonic for a range of depleted conditions, and is a great addition to a convalescent regime when recovering from illness or chronic fatigue.
Fenugreek contains steroidal saponins which act as hormone modulators. It can be recommended for both women during the menopause, and even men with androgen deficiency in later life. It has a long reputation as a ‘galactagogue’, used to encourage breast milk production in both women and in farm animals.
Into the heart of Fenugreek
Fenugreek combines both gentle soothing support for the gut and digestive functions, with a substantial metabolic and hormonal activity. It is both warming and sustaining and should be recommended far more widely as a food supplement, particularly into middle and older age.
In traditional European medicine fenugreek is a convalescent remedy, for the gentle stimulation of appetite and the improvement of assimilation in the recovery from debilitated conditions; it also is used for its gentle bulk laxative effects.
In traditional Chinese medicine fenugreek was applied to deficient cold conditions with such symptoms as hernia and stabbing pains in the lower abdomen, and others as might arise in congestive period pains in women, low-grade pelvic inflammation; and congestion.
A persistent tradition has fenugreek being used to stimulate milk production, in lactating women, and in domestic animals as well. (Its oil and protein content make it a favourite highly nourishing cattle food in many countries).
What practitioners say
Diabetes: Fenugreek reduces raised blood sugar levels after eating.
Cholesterol: Fenugreek will also reduce blood levels of fats and cholesterol after meals.
Digestion: Through its combination of fibre and saponins, fenugreek can help reduce many digestive upsets. These properties can soothe inflammatory conditions of the oesophagus, stomach and intestines, so relieving pain, potential blood loss and any consequent diarrhoea. Taken in sufficient quantity fenugreek has a bulking effect in the bowel which steadies its performance, reducing either constipation or looseness. Furthermore its bitter quality helps the liver function and improves assimilation of nutrients.
Women’s health: Fenugreek seed has a particular affinity for women’s health. After birth it can encourage bowel movements as well as a healthy flow of breast milk. It may help with painful periods and is a good supplement to consider for the menopause.
Men’s health: There is research support for the traditional use of fenugreek in reducing impotence, premature ejaculation and low libido in men.
External: Fenugreek can be applied as an external poultice for drawing infections, boils, and splinters. It has also been applied eternally to reduce arthritic swellings.
In a triple-blind randomized controlled clinical trial 88 type 2 diabetic consumed either 10 g per day of powdered whole fenugreek seeds or wheat starch, for 8 weeks. Fenugreek seeds significantly decreased fasting blood glucose and HbA1c, serum insulin levels, insulin resistance, total cholesterol and triglycerides, and increased serum levels of adiponectin compared with placebo. In another study 114 newly diagnosed type II diabetic patients were divided into two groups: the first consumed 25 g fenugreek seed powder solution orally twice a day for one month and the second group had no treatment. Over the month the treatment group showed significantly lower total cholesterol, triglyceride level and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol level and significantly increased high-density lipoprotein cholesterol level compared with both baseline and the control group. In a further study on healthy volunteers fenugreek consumption improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitization.
In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial 115 women aged 40 to 65 years were allocated to either 600 mg per day de-husked seed extract or placebo for 12 weeks. There was a significant reduction in menopausal symptoms in the active group compared with placebo, reflected by significant improvements in flushing, psychosocial, physical and sexual symptoms. Oestradiol levels were similar in both the active group and placebo group after treatment.
Benefits of fenugreek for new mothers seems to be confirmed in a controlled study of women and infants in the first days after birth. Compared with placebo and controls, women who took a regular herbal tea made from fenugreek leaves saw less infant weight loss after birth, earlier regaining of birth weight and higher measured breast milk volume.
Men may also see the hormonal benefits of fenugreek. In one double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial involving 120 men aged between 43 and 70 years of age over 12 weeks, 600 mg/day of a standardised fenugreek seed extract significantly improved sexual function, and increased total serum testosterone and free testosterone increased compared to placebo.
Did you know?
The name fenugreek is derived from the Latin faenum graecum meaning ‘Greek hay’, as the Romans used the dried plant as fodder, apparently to boost dairy production.
A very safe food with no adverse events expected.
3g -10g of seed per day, although up to 50 g as a food is safe.
- Steroidal saponins diosgenin, yamogenin
- Mucilaginous fibre (50%)
- Flavonoids apigenin and luteolin
- Alkaloids trigonelline, gentianine
The fibre probably accounts for the role of fenugreek in reducing cholesterol and sugar absorption from the gut; the saponins are likely to have similar effects that may add to the benefits of fenugreek in diabetes.
- Rasa (taste) Pungent, astringent, bitter, sweet.
- Virya (action) Hot.
- Vipaka (post-digestive effect) Pungent.
- Guna (quality) Light, unctuous.
- Dosha effect VK-, P+.
- Dhatu (tissue) Plasma, blood, fat, bone, nerve, reproductive.
- Srota (channel) Digestive, excretory, water, sweat, respiratory, reproductive, lactation.