For millennia, fenugreek has been an important part of diet and medicine. Regrettably, it has only recently been introduced to the West. Plants like fenugreek are not only nutritious: they can provide us with numerous health benefits. Read more to understand how fenugreek can help improve your health.
What Is Fenugreek?
Fenugreek is a leafy green legume native to Eurasia and Africa that is widely used for its nutritional and aromatic value [R].
For almost six thousand years, traditional healers in Africa and Asia have used it to ease labor, alleviate digestive problems, and improve skin conditions such as boils, eczema, and inflammation. It is also revered in traditional Ayurvedic medicine [R, R, R].
Fenugreek goes by many names around the world. It is methi in Hindi, hulba in Arabic, moshoseitaro in Greek, uluva in Malayalam, shoot in Hebrew, and dari in Persian. Fenugreek is a common ingredient in spice powders in Indian cuisine. It is used fresh in salads and cooked or dried in other dishes [R].
Today, it is most often taken by athletes, diabetics, and people who struggle to maintain normal levels of fat in their blood [R].
Snapshot of Fenugreek
- May increase free testosterone
- Improves sexual function in men and women
- Supports brain function
- Protects the heart, kidneys, and stomach
- May prevent obesity
- Reduces blood sugar
- Improves skin health
- May fight cancer
- May increase milk supply in breastfeeding women
- Antioxidant properties
- Easy to grow in a pot or a garden
- Delicious addition to many dishes
- Some people may be allergic
- Should not be taken during pregnancy
- Potential for harmful drug interactions
Fenugreek Nutrition Facts
Fenugreek oil contains a high concentration of polyunsaturated fats (approximately 84%). Polyunsaturated fats protect your heart and enhance cell and blood vessel repair after injury [R].
Fenugreek is also rich in dietary fiber, which accounts for between 45 and 50% of the seeds by weight. Diets high in fiber support good overall health, aid digestion, and reduce blood fat and sugar [R].
Each tablespoon of fenugreek seed contains approximately 7 g of fiber, 3.6 g of protein, and 1.1 g of fats. It also contains many nutrients, including [R]:
- 1.7 – 6 mg of vitamin C
- 47.6 μg of vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- 0.04 – 0.05 mg of vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- 0.84 mg of vitamin B3 (niacin)
- 0.08 mg of vitamin B6
- 0.33 mg of zinc
- 0.13 mg of copper
- 3.6 mg of iron
It may not sound like much, but those are significant amounts in terms of daily recommended intakes.
Consider, for example, that the National Institutes of Health recommends that adults should get between 8 mg (for a man) and 18 mg (for a woman) of iron in their diets per day. A single tablespoon of fenugreek seeds contains 20 – 45% of the daily recommended intake of iron [R, R].
How Does Fenugreek Work?
The Testosterone Boost
Some commercially available “testosterone boosters” with fenugreek claim to increase testosterone by blocking aromatase, 5-alpha reductase, or sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). But what does this mean, and is it true?
Aromatase and 5-alpha reductase convert testosterone into estrogen and DHT. Thus, a substance that blocks these enzymes should increase the ratio of testosterone to estrogen and testosterone to DHT. According to one study, fenugreek saponins partially block aromatase and 5-alpha reductase [R].
Note that only one study has identified this mechanism, and it has not been investigated in cell studies.
Meanwhile, sex hormone binding globulin, or SHBG, binds to testosterone in the blood and decreases free testosterone. Only one study has investigated the effect of fenugreek on SHBG so far. This study found no significant change in SHBG after two months of supplementation [R].
In brief: fenugreek extracts may increase testosterone by partially blocking aromatase and 5-alpha reductase but probably have no effect on SHBG.
Through these combined effects, fenugreek might decrease blood sugar regardless of insulin sensitivity. However, some studies suggest that it also increases insulin sensitivity by increasing the number of insulin receptors [R].
To understand fenugreek’s anticancer potential, we’re going to zoom into its effects on cancer on a cellular level.
Essentially, compounds called saponins in fenugreek may de-active key cancer-promoting pathways.
Specifically, the saponin diosgenin suppresses tumor cell formation by blocking tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and two more proteins (IKK and p65). As a result, it also blocks the inflammatory hub NF-κB and increases the rate at which cancer cells die [R].
We decided to dig even deeper and see which active compounds in fenugreek carry these health benefits.
A number of the health benefits of fenugreek are due to its saponins. Many plants produce different saponins; plants use these soap-like compounds as weapons against disease and plant-eating animals; however, some herbivores learn that some saponins are healthy and will deliberately consume the plants that make them [R].
Saponins help protect against cancer; they lower cholesterol, sugar, and fat in the blood; they reduce the risk of excessive blood clotting and kidney stones. And what’s more, fenugreek’s steroid-like saponins might be responsible for the plant’s testosterone-boosting action [R, R, R].
Trigonelline, another compound of fenugreek, is an alkaloid with an array of health benefits. Its structure is very similar to vitamin B3. It is non-toxic to people and has antibacterial, antiviral, fat-lowering, sugar-lowering, anti-tumor, and brain-protective effects [R].
Health Benefits of Fenugreek
1) For Men
Testosterone and Libido
Testofen is a commercial fenugreek extract that contains 50% “fenuside,” a proprietary blend of saponins. Gencor, the company that produces Testofen, claims that fenuside increases testosterone, sexual desire, and muscle mass.
Some clinical research supports these claims. In a study of 60 healthy men, two Testofen tablets daily increased sexual arousal, orgasm, and self-reported energy and strength [R].
One study found that free testosterone and total testosterone increased in men taking Testofen, but other studies found no clinically significant change. Note that the study finding increased testosterone was funded by Gencor, the manufacturer of Testofen [R, R].
One other study has found that a different fenugreek extract called Furosap increased free testosterone without increasing total testosterone. This distinction may account for the apparent conflict in the research on Testofen [R].
One in five men with type 1 diabetes suffer from erectile dysfunction, and the condition worsens with age. In diabetic rats, fenugreek seed extract significantly improved sexual function. Fenugreek seeds and seed extract may, therefore, help diabetic men overcome erectile dysfunction [R].
2) For Women
The reproductive health benefits of fenugreek are not limited to men. This herb may soothe PCOS and menstrual complaints in women and boost their sexual function. It is also traditionally used to promote milk production, which is – at least in part – backed up by science.
Newborns greatly benefit from their mother’s breast milk, which is full of nutrients, immune-boosters, and growth hormones. Not being able to produce breast milk can be a very frustrating experience for new mothers. The exact cause is often hard to pinpoint and conventional treatments are limited [R].
That’s where herbal galactogogues come in: substances that promote the production of breast milk in women. Traditional practitioners consider fenugreek to be one such galactagogue.
In a single study, drinking fenugreek tea doubled milk production and infant weight gain. However, a meta-analysis of galactagogues describes mixed results. Although promising, more research is required to confirm this benefit [R, R].
If you are struggling with milk production, discuss your symptoms and concerns with a doctor before taking any remedies, especially since the efficacy and safety data of most herbal galactogogues is limited [R].
Interestingly, some women report using fenugreek to naturally boost breast growth. Based on its effects on milk production, this herb might stimulate the growth of breast tissue – in theory. However, such claims are far-stretched and no studies are available to back them up.
Painful Menstruation & PCOS
In one clinical study, researchers gave 101 young women either fenugreek seed or a placebo and tested the severity of their pain during two consecutive menstrual cycles. All of the women had similar pain levels before the study, but those who took fenugreek seed reported much less pain at the end of treatment [R].
Saponins from fenugreek seeds may also improve the symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS. In a study of women of reproductive age with PCOS, a standardized fenugreek extract called Furocyst increased luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone and shrank their ovarian cysts [R].
Fenugreek may also improve sexual function and desire in women. In one study of 80 healthy women of reproductive age, fenugreek seed extract increased free testosterone, estradiol, and sexual desire compared to the placebo [R].
2) May Protect the Brain
It reduced the activity of an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase in rats, which breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. In short, acetylcholine supports cognitive function, memory, and learning [R].
In this study, fenugreek also reduced the production of amyloid beta proteins, which otherwise build up into a plaque and damage the brain [R].
Amyloid beta is formed when enzymes called secretases break down another protein (called amyloid precursor protein). Fenugreek seeds appear to decrease the expression of these secretases. As a result, they reduce amyloid beta production and protect the brain [R, R].
3) Supports Heart Health
In a clinical trial, 24 people with type 2 diabetes consumed powdered fenugreek seeds, either soaked in hot water or mixed with yogurt, for 8 weeks. Those took the seeds in hot water had significantly reduced blood sugar, triglycerides, and LDL (the “bad” cholesterol), compared to those who ate fenugreek with yogurt [R].
Fenugreek seeds reduced cholesterol levels in rabbits by approximately 50% in both animals with and without high cholesterol. Its leaves also reduced total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides and increased HDL (good) cholesterol in rabbits [R].
After a heart attack, the heart and blood are full of reactive oxygen species, causing oxidative stress and tissue death. As a result, researchers are considering antioxidant therapies to protect the heart. In rats, fenugreek seed increased the activity of antioxidants in the heart and improved the health of heart tissue [R, R].
Altogether, fenugreek may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and protect the heart once disease has already developed.
Prevents Excessive Blood Clots
Doctors frequently prescribe anticoagulants like warfarin to people at high risk for heart attack and stroke. These medications help prevent the formation of blood clots that may cut off supply to vital organs [R].
Fenugreek seed increased the time required for normal human blood samples to clot, so supplements might act in a similar way to warfarin: to prevent excessive blood clots and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Note that this effect was only tested in cells, while animal and clinical studies are lacking [R].
However, warfarin can interact with many drugs and supplements. If you have been prescribed anticoagulants, consulting a doctor before supplementing is a must. Please see more about this in the “Drug Interactions” section of this article.
4) May Help Prevent Obesity
In a rat study, animals fed fenugreek seed gained less weight and had lower BMI. Their blood also had lower fat and sugar levels than the control. A similar study on mice found no change in body weight but significant improvements in cholesterol levels [R, R].
5) Reduces Blood Sugar
In both humans and rats, fenugreek seed also improves insulin sensitivity. This is important because insulin is the body’s tool for lowering blood sugar, and this mechanism is damaged in people with type 2 diabetes [R, R].
6) Supports Digestive Health
According to multiple rat studies, fenugreek seed extract and oil may reduce the overall incidence of ulcers and prevent acid reflux [R].
In India, fenugreek is a popular digestive remedy. The seeds are traditionally used to reduce flatulence and diarrhea. Although many traditional Ayurvedic texts support these benefits, scientific research is lacking. On the upside, adding fenugreek to your diet is safe and does provide beneficial nutrients, mucilage, and fiber [R].
7) Supports the Kidneys
In a rat study, fenugreek seeds increased red blood cell count and hemoglobin and decreased calcium salts in the kidneys. These markers indicate improvements in kidney health and a lower risk of kidney stones [R].
Aluminum salts are often used to bind phosphates and reduce their blood levels in people with kidney failure. However, when aluminum builds up in the brain and bone, it can cause serious health problems [R].
In rats, fenugreek seed powder improved kidney function and reduced damage to the brain and bones after aluminum treatment. Fenugreek also increased antioxidant levels, decreased oxidative stress, improved the overall quality of kidney tissue, and normalized kidney weight [R].
8) Boosts Hair Growth and Skin Health
Fenugreek for Hair
Fenugreek seeds and leaves are often used in hair care, particularly in India. The seeds or leaves can be soaked and mashed into a paste, applied to the scalp, and rinsed out. In traditional Indian hair care, this is reported to help hair growth, preserve color and silky texture, and prevent dandruff [R].
Some research suggests that fenugreek saponins block the conversion of testosterone into DHT. DHT has been implicated in progressive hair loss, and some natural supplements with similar mechanisms can slow or even reverse balding [R, R].
Use caution when applying fenugreek to the skin for the first time. Some people may have a significant allergic reaction [R].
In a clinical study, a skin cream containing fenugreek seed extract increased skin moisture and decreased the formation of dark spots and bumps [R].
Cell studies support these results and suggest that fenugreek may also protect the skin from damage. In one study on human cells, three types of fenugreek saponins decreased skin cell damage and inflammation from sun exposure. The cells also produced less melanin, the dark pigment that causes spots and tanning [R].
In a rat study, fenugreek seed oil sped up wound healing when applied directly to the skin. Similar to grape seed and sesame oil, fenugreek seed oil reduced inflammation and promoted the growth of new skin [R].
As mentioned above, some people may have a skin allergy to fenugreek, so be careful the first time you try it. Do a patch test before using it in larger quantities. Simply apply a couple of fenugreek oil drops on a small skin area (such as the inside of your elbow); wait for at least 24 hours and look for signs of irritation [R].
9) May Fight Cancer
Multiple cell studies also point to its anti-cancer effect. The saponins in fenugreek prevent cell division in cancer cells and also promote cell “suicide” signals [R].
When healthy T cells (a type of white blood cell) were treated with fenugreek extract and exposed to radiation, they were more sensitive to programmed cell death. As a result, the radiation-damaged cells were quickly cleared. This is essential for cancer prevention [R].
Fenugreek seed extract also reduced or prevented the growth of human colon, leukemia, breast, prostate, and bone cancer cells in test tubes [R].
10) Lowers Inflammation & Oxidative Stress
Fenugreek has long been used as a liver support remedy. Animal studies reveal it may indeed enhance liver health and detox. In rats whose livers were damaged by alcohol, fenugreek seed extract reduced free radicals, increased antioxidants, and reduced enzymes that indicate damage [R].
In rats with arthritis, fenugreek seed mucilage reduced fluid build-up in the joints and increased antioxidant defense, vitamin C, and glutathione. It also increased important antioxidant enzymes, such as catalase and glutathione peroxidase [R].
Fenugreek reduces inflammation by decreasing the production of inflammatory molecules called interleukins. It also prevents white blood cells from overcrowding one spot [R].
Its ability to enhance free radical scavenging and combat inflammation might reduce the risk of numerous chronic diseases.
11) Kills Microbes
When applied directly to bacterial plates, fenugreek seed extract blocks the growth bacteria such as E. coli and M. furfur. Sprouted fenugreek seeds may have even better antimicrobial activity, especially against H. pylori bacteria that commonly cause ulcers [R].
Defensin, a protein extracted from fenugreek leaves, inhibited the spread and reproduction of two fungal species [R].
12) May Prevent Osteoporosis
Diosgenin from fenugreek decreases the number of osteoclasts in the bones. Osteoclasts are a type of bone cell that breaks down old bone tissue. These cells are hyperactive in people with osteoporosis, and they are often the target of osteoporosis therapies [R, R].
Fenugreek seeds might, therefore, support bone health in people with osteoporosis. Clinical studies are needed to determine the actual benefits.
Combining fenugreek seed and creatine supplements may improve athletic performance. In a study of 47 resistance-trained men, supplementation with 5 g creatine and 900 mg fenugreek extract increased upper body strength and improved body composition [R].
A combination of fenugreek seed and Lespedeza cuneata extracts improved markers of testosterone deficiency syndrome in a study of 44 otherwise healthy men. After 8 weeks of taking 400 mg of combined supplement per day, about a third of the participants tested negative on a survey designed to identify severe androgen deficiency [R, R].
Fenugreek is often sold in combination with other supplements, such as blessed thistle or fennel, to increase milk production in breastfeeding mothers. The effectiveness of these combinations has not been studied.
How to Take Fenugreek Supplements
As a dietary supplement, fenugreek is available in capsules or as loose defatted seed powder. Ground up seeds can also be mixed into foods and liquids; this powder is used as a spice in vindaloo paste.
Search for fenugreek seed or “methi” recipes for some creative ways to get this superfood into your diet.
Fenugreek is considered a relatively easy plant to grow in a pot or in the ground; both the seeds and the greens are good to eat. Both fenugreek leaves and seeds can also be soaked in hot water to make tea. One tablespoon of the seeds is typically enough to make a cup of tea.
Fenugreek oil is also sold for hair care, usually combined with other nourishing oils.
The dosage of fenugreek varies based on the supplement’s form and purpose. The recommended dose on a bottle of Testofen, for example, is 600 mg (or two capsules) per day.
A single cup of tea made from boiled fenugreek seeds may be enough to reduce your appetite.
Studies on the clinical use of defatted fenugreek seed powder typically use large doses of up to 100 g per day, though people with type 2 diabetes may see a benefit with as little as 5 g per day [R].
Commercial supplements typically contain less than 1 g of powder per capsule. Standardized supplements like Testofen or Furosap may have higher concentrations of saponins and, therefore, stronger effects.
If you are looking to get a larger dose without breaking the bank, try cooking with or grinding up the whole seeds.
Fenugreek Side Effects & Safety
There is one reported case of a man developing pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot in the lung, after taking a testosterone-boosting supplement containing fenugreek. The mechanism of this event is unclear; it is also surprising given that fenugreek tends to prevent clotting [R].
People who are allergic to chickpeas may also have adverse reactions to fenugreek because the two plants contain similar proteins and allergens. Some patients reported wheezing and spasms in the airway [R].
Fenugreek seed extract can cause hyperthyroidism in rats. If you have thyroid problems, consult your doctor before using fenugreek [R].
Traditionally, fenugreek was used to induce labor. While this effect has not been confirmed in modern research, it should not be taken during pregnancy. Fenugreek is safe after birth and during breastfeeding [R].
Because of its blood-thinning properties, fenugreek seed increases the effect of warfarin, a commonly prescribed anticoagulant. While the effect is minor, it may increase the risk of blood loss, even from small cuts [R, R].
The sticky fiber in fenugreek seed that helps it moisturize dry skin also coats the lining of the digestive tract and blocks the absorption of drugs taken orally. Therefore, prescription drugs should be taken separately from fenugreek [R].
Since fenugreek works to lower blood sugar, it should not be combined with glucose-lowering medication like insulin. This combination may cause hypoglycemia (abnormally low blood sugar), which can cause unsteadiness, dizziness, and nausea, especially in older people. If you have a history of hypoglycemia, talk to your doctor before taking fenugreek supplements [R, R, R].
Men who are prone to low testosterone and people prone to insulin resistance are among the most likely to benefit from dietary or supplemented fenugreek.
- At rs12150660, the G allele is associated with lower testosterone than the T allele [R].
- At rs6258, the rare T allele is associated with lower testosterone than the C allele [R].
- At rs2075230, the G allele is associated with slightly lower testosterone and SHBG than the A allele [R].
- At rs5934505, the common T allele is associated with lower testosterone than the C allele [R]
Researchers have identified a few genes that control a person’s insulin sensitivity. These include [R]:
- At rs1208, the A allele is associated with insulin resistance [R].
- At rs972283, the G allele is associated with insulin resistance [R].
- At rs2943641, the C allele is associated with insulin resistance [R].
- At rs2943650, the T allele is associated with insulin resistance [R].
Limitations and Caveats
Multiple studies demonstrating the effectiveness of Testofen were funded and supplied by Gencor Pacific, its manufacturer. Studies without Gencor funding suggest that Testofen benefits men’s health, but perhaps not to the degree that Gencor’s studies claim.
Likewise, studies on other testosterone boosters tend to be funded and supplied by their manufacturers. If you choose to use Testofen or another fenugreek extract to increase sexual function, keep this conflict of interest in mind.
More human trials are needed before many of fenugreek’s health benefits are proven.
People’s experience with fenugreek is mixed and varies widely across health status and supplement form.
Many women reported that fenugreek significantly increased their breast milk production, helping them better nurse their children. There were also several cases of fenugreek successfully lowering blood sugar in people with diabetes.
Some users reported increased hair growth and relief from mucus in the lungs, but only after taking fenugreek for several months. Using fenugreek along with blessed thistle worked well for many people.
However, some people complained that taking fenugreek capsules caused them to smell. Others said that fenugreek had no beneficial effect on their health.
Buy Fenugreek Supplements
Fenugreek is a leafy plant native to parts of Eurasia and Africa. It has been a part of traditional medicine for millennia, and many cultures cook with it to this day. Its saponins are responsible for most of its health benefits.
This amazing foodstuff’s most powerful and well-studied benefits are on the reproductive system: in men, it may increase free testosterone, and it may help women with PCOS and milk production.
Avoid fenugreek if you are allergic to chickpeas, if you have thyroid problems, of if you are pregnant. People who are genetically prone to low testosterone or insulin resistance are among the most likely to benefit from fenugreek supplements.
Fenugreek is available in capsules, as a seed powder, as whole seeds, or as a whole plant. The seeds and leaves are both healthy and safe to consume. Standardized supplements like Testofen, Furosap, or Furocyst (for women with PCOS) likely have higher concentrations of saponins than seed powder.