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Fenugreek provides gentle soothing support for the gut and digestive functions

Fenugreek

Trigonella foenum-graecum Fabaceae

Fenugreek is a very warming and nourishing spice that helps support the body in many conditions.

  • 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.

  • Traditional uses

    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.

  • Research

    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.

Additional information

  • Safety

    A very safe food with no adverse events expected.

  • Dosage

    3g -10g of seed per day, although up to 50 g as a food is safe.

  • Constituents

    • Steroidal saponins diosgenin, yamogenin
    • Mucilaginous fibre (50%)
    • Flavonoids  apigenin and luteolin
    • Coumarin
    • 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.

  • Traditional energetics

    • 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.
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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