The Health Benefits of Fenugreek

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Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is an herb that has culinary and industrial uses, but also has been used in traditional and alternative medicine. Fenugreek seed extract is used in pill form as a supplement and the seeds are used to make a medicinal tea.

The health benefits ascribed to fenugreek include blood sugar lowering for diabetes and prediabetes, increasing milk supply during breastfeeding, relief of menstrual cramps, and raising testosterone levels. However, research has not proven any benefits, and there are risks of toxicity and birth defects in using large doses.

Fenugreek comes from Latin words meaning "Greek hay." It is native to southern Europe and Asia, where it has been grown since the Bronze Age as an herb, spice, and medicinal plant. Today, India is a major producer of fenugreek.

Health Benefits

While fenugreek has many traditional uses, there is no high-quality research evidence that fenugreek supplements or tea can relieve or prevent any health condition.

Lowering Blood Sugar

Preparations made from fenugreek seeds have been studied for effects in improving blood glucose control in people with diabetes and in preventing progression from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes.

Animal studies showed specific effects that would support this use, such as slowing carbohydrate digestion and absorption. But human studies have not teased out what mechanisms might lower blood glucose levels.

A meta-analysis of 10 human clinical trials found the fenugreek seeds reduced fasting blood glucose, two-hour glucose, and hemoglobin A1c. These effects were seen mostly in studies using high doses. However, the authors noted that the included studies were all of poor quality, including methodology deficiencies and publication bias.

A small study published in 2014 showed daily intake of 10 grams of fenugreek powder in pill form reduced the progression from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes as compared to a control group. They also saw improvement in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels.

As diabetes can have serious consequences if not adequately treated, you should see your healthcare provider for diagnosis, testing, and management. Discuss any herbal remedies with your healthcare provider before using them.

Breast Milk Production

Fenugreek seed tea or fenugreek seed pills are popular folk remedies for stimulating increased breast milk production. While there has been research into this, so far the studies have had mixed results.

One supporting research trial found that breast milk volume was significantly higher for the group that received fenugreek tea, and their infants regained their birth weight earlier, as compared to a placebo group and a control group.

It may be that the biggest benefit is psychological. In studies, people who are breastfeeding report perceived benefits for taking fenugreek, which is likely to given them the confidence to continue breastfeeding.

Fenugreek is rated as "generally regarded as safe" by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, it does pass into breast milk, and there is little known as to whether large doses are safe when breastfeeding.

Menstrual Cramps

Fenugreek seeds and tea have been traditionally used for menstrual cramps. The research supporting this use has produced limited evidence, according to a 2016 systematic review of studies.

One study tested fenugreek seed pills as compared with placebo. The double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study found larger pain reduction and shortened duration of pain in the group receiving the fenugreek capsules.

Testosterone and Libido

While research on the use of fenugreek for increasing testosterone levels is very limited, it's purported that compounds called furostanolic saponins can help stimulate testosterone production.

The available research on the use of fenugreek for increased testosterone levels includes a small study published in Phytotherapy Research in 2011, which found that a supplement containing fenugreek extract and several minerals improved several aspects of libido, but did not significantly influence testosterone levels.

A study published in 2015 measured testosterone levels in male subjects participating in a supervised resistance-training program for eight weeks, comparing those who took fenugreek glycoside fraction capsules with those who took a placebo.

The fenugreek group had a greater rise in free testosterone initially than did the placebo group. But after eight weeks, the difference between the groups was not significant. Larger studies are needed to examine the herb's effectiveness.

Possible Side Effects

Fenugreek may trigger a number of side effects, such as diarrhea, dizziness, and gas. In addition, use of large doses of fenugreek may lead to a reduction of blood sugar levels. Therefore, taking fenugreek in combination with diabetes medication may have harmful effects.

Fenugreek may also reduce potassium. People taking medications that reduce potassium levels and those with underlying heart disease should avoid fenugreek supplements.

Allergies are another concern due to possible cross-reactivity with related plant allergens. Fenugreek supplements should be avoided by people with allergies to peanuts, chickpeas, or coriander.

Urine and sweat may take on a maple syrup-like smell when supplementing with fenugreek due to a compound called sotolon, which can pass through the body relatively unchanged. While this is not a health problem, it might confuse diagnosis of maple syrup urine disease in infants.

There can also be more severe reactions when taking amounts greater than that commonly consumed as food. This includes cases of liver toxicity as well as a risk of birth defects when taken during pregnancy.

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

As an herb and spice, fenugreek leaves and greens are used in curries and dishes throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and South Asia. Dried leaves are used as an herb. You might find fresh fenugreek leaves at an international market, or you can grow them yourself from seeds.

Raw fenugreek seeds are bitter, so they are usually roasted in order to mellow the flavor, which then becomes mild and nutty. The seeds may be ground or used whole in flavoring foods or in brewing tea. Fenugreek seeds may be included in spice blends.

A compound in fenugreek smells like maple and it is used in producing imitation maple syrup.

As fenugreek seeds are high in fiber, some people soak them overnight and then consume a teaspoon-full for a fiber boost. Whether buying whole seeds or ground spice, look for the freshest product and use it as soon as possible for the best quality and flavor. Store in a cool, dark place.

Supplements made from fenugreek commonly are ground or powdered seeds or extracts from the seeds. Fenugreek seed powder or extract may be included along with other herbs and substances in products marketed for various uses.

It's important to keep in mind that supplements haven't been tested for safety and dietary supplements are largely unregulated. In some cases, the product may deliver doses that differ from the specified amount for each herb. In other cases, the product may be contaminated with other substances, such as metals.

While consumers face such risks when purchasing any dietary supplement, these risks may be of greater magnitude in the purchase of supplements marketed for bodybuilding, sexual enhancement, and weight loss.

When buying a supplement, look for products that have been certified by third-party agencies such as ConsumerLabs, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, or NSF International.

Self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences. If you're considering using fenugreek for any health purpose, make sure to consult your physician first.

Common Questions

Does fenugreek have protein?

Like most seeds, fenugreek seed has a good amount of protein, about 1 gram of protein per teaspoon or 2.5 grams per tablespoon.

Does fenugreek cause weight gain?

Research is limited as to the effects of fenugreek on weight in humans. The ability of fenugreek to slow carbohydrate digestion, stimulate insulin release, and lower blood glucose could theoretically increase appetite. German Commission E notes that fenugreek was traditionally used to treat anorexia.

However, some people use fenugreek seeds as an appetite suppressant as well. The seeds are high in soluble fiber and, when consumed with water, can make you feel full. However, there are no clinical studies that show it is effective for weight loss.

Can fenugreek improve the health of my hair?

You might see fenugreek listed as an ingredient in products aimed at hair growth or relief of dandruff. The research in such uses is very limited. One small older study found an oral supplement of fenugreek improved hair growth as compared to placebo.

In the lab, fenugreek leaf extract has some anti-inflammatory properties and it may have anti-fungal properties. These might help against dandruff and other scalp conditions. However, there is a lack of studies that would prove this.

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