Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)is a plant cultivated as a semi-arid crop worldwide, with multiple uses for both the seeds and the leaves. The name comes from the Latin for “Greek hay”, and it is thought to have been originally cultivated from the wild in the Near East. Seeds have been recovered from Iraq dating to 4000 BCE, and seeds were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. In ancient Egypt, it was used for incense and for embalming mummies. In Rome it was used to assist in childbirth. It has also been popular in Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
As a food, their seeds are a common ingredient in India in pickles, curry powders and pastes. The young leaves are eaten as greens or used as a flavouring. The dried leaves have a bitter taste and distinctive smell. Today there are 70 to 90 species cultivated worldwide.
Fenugreek seeds contain 30 per cent mucilaginous fibre, tannins, the flavonoids quercetin, luteolin, vitexin and apigenin, 50 per cent polysaccharides, alkaloids trigonelline and nicotinic acid, coumarins, steroidal saponin diosgenin (a steroidal component which can be used to produce the contraceptive pill), fixed and volatile oils, vitamin C, the B vitamins, beta carotene, potassium, magnesium, calcium, zinc, manganese and copper, and a range of important amino acids such as lysine, tryptophan and 4-hydroxyisoleucine, with more bioavailable amino acids than soy protein.
A major therapeutic effect of fenugreek is the regulation of blood sugar at various metabolic levels.
An interesting trial was conducted on 10 healthy humans, five male and five female, who were given 50gm of glucose on six different occasions, then fed buns or flatbreads with 10 per cent fenugreek powder, compared to controls who had no fenugreek in the food. When blood samples were collected after eating, those that ate the fenugreek-laced buns or flatbreads had a significant reduction in their glycaemic response, indicating that fenugreek may reduce post-meal glycaemia.
A meta-analysis of clinical trials involving 894 participants showed a significant reduction in fasting blood glucose levels, postprandial blood glucose and HbA1c levels with fenugreek consumption. It not only helps prevent type-2 diabetes but can also regulate blood glucose and lipids in those already diagnosed.
Rat studies have shown that fenugreek is hepatoprotective, and by inhibiting oxidative stress can reduce fibrosis of the liver induced by toxins. In vitro studies on liver cells showed that fenugreek may also protect liver cells from alcohol damage.
It has been shown to lead to an increase in mean HDL levels, along with lowered levels of triglycerides and LDLs, particularly in diabetic subjects.
Fenugreek was used traditionally as a galactagogue, increasing both the quantity and quality of breast milk. Studies have shown that babies of women drinking fenugreek tea gained weight earlier than others, and the breast milk volume of the women drinking the tea was significantly higher than the other groups.
In menopausal women, fenugreek tea led to a reduction in menopausal symptoms, fewer hot flushes and fewer sweats both during daytime and at night. Fenugreek also reduced the number of cysts and the symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in younger women.
Fenugreek has also been shown to help healthy menstruating women with low libido, increasing sexual desire and arousal.
In men taking it as a supplement has been reported to increase muscle strength, energy, libido and sexual function.
Weight management and appetite
Fenugreek seeds have a long history of treating metabolic and nutritive problems, as well as modulating feeding behaviour. To test this, a clinical trial was organised where 20 healthy male volunteers took fenugreek seed over three 14-week periods, with another 14-week washout period. The participants consuming the fenugreek seed significantly decreased their dietary fat intake, lowering their total energy intake, compared with the controls.
Apart from its traditional use to regulate bowel function, fenugreek also reduces the severity of heartburn. In a pilot study, people with heartburn took a fenugreek fibre product for two weeks, 30 minutes before two meals a day. The results showed reduced use of antacids by the subjects taking fenugreek, and was as effective as a common antacid medication.
Known to reduce the risk of several neurological disorders including neuropathic pain, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and rat studies have been positive when testing these hypotheses.
People who are allergic to peanuts, chickpeas or soy may react to fenugreek as they belong to a similar botanical family. While it as a food is generally considered safe, high doses may be toxic and may adversely affect fertility and reduce thyroid function. It is considered best to avoid it also during pregnancy.
References available on request.