What Is Fenugreek?
Fenugreek is a leafy green legume native to Eurasia and Africa that is widely used for its nutritional and aromatic value .
For almost six thousand years, traditional healers in Africa and Asia have claimed that it eases labor, alleviates digestive problems, and improves skin conditions such as boils, eczema, and inflammation [1, 2, 3].
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 .
Today, it is most often taken by athletes, diabetics, and people who struggle to maintain normal levels of fat in their blood .
- Possible benefit to male & female reproductive health
- Potential to help with heart health, obesity, and blood sugar
- May improve hair & skin
- 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
- There isn’t enough scientific evidence to support the use of fenugreek for any health condition
Potential Health Benefits of Fenugreek
Fenugreek supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use. Supplements generally lack solid clinical research. Regulations set manufacturing standards for them but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective. Speak with your doctor before supplementing.
Insufficient Evidence For
1) Male Reproductive Health
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 may support these claims. In a study of 60 healthy men, those who took two Testofen tablets daily reported an increase in sexual arousal, orgasm, energy, and strength .
One study found that free testosterone and total testosterone was higher 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. This is a significant conflict of interest [5, 6].
One other study has found that a different fenugreek extract called Furosap was associated with increased free testosterone, but not increased total testosterone. This distinction may account for the apparent conflict in the research on Testofen .
One in five men with type 1 diabetes suffer from erectile dysfunction, and the condition worsens with age. In diabetic rats, fenugreek seed extract was associated with improved sexual function. This result suggests a potential role for fenugreek in improving erectile dysfunction, but no human research has yet been conducted .
2) Female Reproductive Health
According to its proponents, the reproductive health benefits of fenugreek are not limited to men. Some claim that it soothes PCOS and menstrual complaints in women and boosts their sexual function. It is also traditionally used to promote milk production by breastfeeding mothers.
Newborns get everything they need 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 of low milk production is often hard to pinpoint, and conventional treatments are limited .
Some believe that herbal galactogogues can help: substances purported to promote the production of breast milk in women. Traditional practitioners consider fenugreek to be one such galactagogue.
In a single study, women who drank fenugreek tea experienced double the milk production and infant weight gain of those who didn’t. However, a meta-analysis of galactagogues produced mixed and contradictory results. Although promising, much more research is required to confirm this benefit [10, 11].
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 .
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 .
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, those who received a standardized fenugreek extract called Furocyst had increased luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone and smaller ovarian cysts .
Fenugreek has also been linked to improved sexual function and desire in women. In one study of 80 healthy women of reproductive age, those who received fenugreek seed extract had increased free testosterone, estradiol, and sexual desire compared to the placebo .
3) Heart Health
In another study, rabbits that ate fenugreek seeds had 50% lower cholesterol levels than those that did not. Fenugreek leaves were also linked to reduced total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides and increased HDL (good) cholesterol in the same rabbit study.
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 complementary antioxidant therapies to protect the heart. In rats, fenugreek seed was associated with increased antioxidants in the heart and improved heart tissue health [17, 18].
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 .
Fenugreek seed increased the time required for normal human blood samples to clot, prompting the authors to suggest that supplements might act in a similar way to warfarin. Note that this effect was only tested in cells, while animal and clinical studies are lacking .
However, warfarin can interact with many drugs and supplements. Always consult your doctor before adding a supplement to your regimen.
According to one study, women who drank boiled fenugreek seed tea were less hungry and felt more full after a meal. If these properties are borne out in future research, they could make fenugreek a useful tool for people who are trying to lose weight .
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 [22, 23].
5) Blood Sugar
In both humans and rats, fenugreek seed has been associated with improved insulin sensitivity. Insulin is the body’s tool for lowering blood sugar, and this mechanism is damaged in people with type 2 diabetes [25, 22].
6) Hair & Skin Health
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 .
Use caution when applying fenugreek to the skin for the first time. Some cases studied have identified people with serious fenugreek allergy .
In a clinical study, people who used a skin cream containing fenugreek seed extract had increased skin moisture and fewer spots and bumps .
Cell studies support these results and suggest that fenugreek may also be associated with reduced skin damage. In one study, human cells exposed to three types of fenugreek saponins experienced less damage and inflammation after sun exposure .
In another study, rats experienced faster wound healing when fenugreek seed oil was applied directly to the skin. Similar to grape seed and sesame oil, fenugreek seed oil was associated with reduced inflammation and improved growth of new skin .
As mentioned above, some people may have a skin allergy to fenugreek, so be careful the first time you try it. Ask your doctor to conduct or supervise 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 .
Animal & Cell Research (Lacking Evidence)
No clinical evidence supports the use of fenugreek for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
7) Brain Health
Rats that received fenugreek in their feed had lower activity of an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, which breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine supports cognitive function, memory, and learning. In the same study, rats that ate fenugreek had less amyloid beta buildup in their brains, implying a slower progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Thus, the authors concluded that fenugreek might help delay Alzheimer’s, but much more research is needed .
Fenugreek seed powder was also linked to reduced oxidative stress, inflammation, memory impairments, and plaques in rats with Alzheimer’s disease . Remember, these are animal studies and no clinical studies have corroborated these findings.
8) Digestive Health
According to multiple rat studies, fenugreek seed extract and oil were associated with a reduced overall incidence of ulcers and acid reflux .
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 .
9) Kidney Function
In one study, rats that received fenugreek seeds in their feed had higher red blood cell count and hemoglobin and lower calcium salts in the kidneys. These markers are in turn linked to improvements in kidney health and a lower risk of kidney stones .
Aluminum hydroxide is sometimes 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 .
In one study, rats receiving fenugreek seed powder had improved kidney function and reduced damage to the brain and bones after aluminum treatment. Fenugreek was also linked to increased antioxidant levels, decreased oxidative stress, improved overall quality of kidney tissue, and normalized kidney weight .
10) Inflammation & Oxidative Stress
Fenugreek has long been touted as a liver support remedy. In rats whose livers were damaged by alcohol, fenugreek seed extract was associated with reduced free radicals, increased antioxidants, and reduced enzymes used to measure liver damage .
In another study, arthritic rats given fenugreek seed mucilage had less fluid build-up in the joints and a more robust antioxidant defense, with increased vitamin C and glutathione. Fenugreek mucilage was also associated with higher levels of important antioxidant enzymes such as catalase and glutathione peroxidase .
Some researchers have suggested that fenugreek could reduce inflammation by decreasing the production of inflammatory molecules called interleukins and by preventing white blood cells from overcrowding one spot. Additional studies will be required to confirm this hypothesis .
11) Antimicrobial Activity
When exposed directly to fenugreek seed extract, bacteria such as E. coli and M. furfur grow much less quickly. Some researchers say that sprouted fenugreek seeds may have promising antimicrobial activity, especially against the H. pylori bacteria that commonly cause ulcers .
Defensin, a protein extracted from fenugreek leaves, inhibited the spread and reproduction of two fungal species .
In a cell study, diosgenin from fenugreek was associated with reduced development of osteoclasts. 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 [44, 45].
Fenugreek seeds might, therefore, support bone health in people with osteoporosis; however, clinical studies are needed to determine the actual benefit.
In one study, rats who ate fenugreek seeds developed colon cancer less frequently. Fenugreek seeds were also associated with slower growth of breast cancer .
Multiple cell studies also imply a potential anti-cancer effect. When exposed to the saponins from fenugreek, cancer cells divided less often and became more sensitive to cell death signals .
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 result implies that fenugreek’s components may help prevent cells from becoming cancerous, but much more research is required .
Fenugreek seed extract was also linked to reduced growth and increased rate of death of human colon, leukemia, breast, prostate, and bone cancer cells in test tubes .
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.
Many of the studies on fenugreek have been conducted on animals or cells. More human trials will be required to confirm any health benefits. According to the National Institutes of Health, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of fenugreek as a treatment for any medical condition .
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.
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. This foodstuff’s purported benefits are on the reproductive system: early results suggest that it may increase free testosterone in men and help women with PCOS and milk production. Other early clinical research suggests that fenugreek may have benefits for the heart, metabolism, blood sugar, skin, and hair.