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There are many plants not native to the western world that, if used properly, can greatly enhance our diets. For centuries, fenugreek has been used by people in other parts of the world, and regrettably, they have only been recently introduced to the West.
Plants like fenugreek are not only nutritious but can provide us with numerous health benefits. Read more to learn about 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. For centuries, it has been used in traditional medicinal remedies in Africa and Asia to ease labor, alleviate digestive problems, and treat skin conditions such as boils, eczema, and inflammation [R].
Known as methi in Hindi, fenugreek is a common condiment and ingredient in spice powders in Indian cuisine. It is used fresh in salads, as well as cooked or dried in other dishes. This has also made it a common feature in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, which is still practiced today [R].
Today, it is most often taken by diabetics and by people who struggle to maintain normal levels of fat in their blood [R].
As a dietary supplement, fenugreek is often taken in capsules containing the seed powder, but ground up seeds can also be mixed in foods and liquids [R].
Fenugreek leaves can also be soaked in hot water to make a tea.
Active Compounds in Fenugreek
Many of the health benefits of fenugreek are due to its saponins, compounds that help protect against cancers and lower cholesterol, sugar, and fat in the blood. Saponins can also reduce the risk of blood clots and kidney stones [R, R].
Trigonelline, another compound of fenugreek, has many health benefits. It has antibacterial, antiviral, fat-lowering, sugar-lowering, anti-tumor, and brain-protecting effects [R].
Fenugreek oil contains a high concentration of polyunsaturated fats (approximately 84%). This helps increase cell and blood vessel formation after injury [R].
Health Benefits of Fenugreek
1) Fenugreek May Improve Brain Function
It reduced the activity of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine), reduced the production of proteins that lead to plaque formation in the nervous system, and improved learning and memory in rats [R].
2) Fenugreek May Benefit the Heart
Heart attacks lead to tissue death and oxidative stress in the heart muscle.
In rats, fenugreek increased the activity of various antioxidants in the heart and improved the health of heart tissue [R].
In a clinical trial of 24 type II diabetes patients, powdered fenugreek seeds were either soaked in hot water or consumed with yogurt for 8 weeks. The 11 participants who consumed fenugreek in hot water had significantly reduced blood sugar, triglycerides, and LDL (bad) cholesterol than the participants who ate fenugreek with yogurt [R].
Another clinical trial showed similar results. Type I diabetics who consumed fenugreek in their diets had lower total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol [R].
Fenugreek seeds reduced cholesterol levels in rabbits by approximately 50% in both rabbits with and without high cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia). Its leaves reduced total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides and increased HDL (good) cholesterol in rabbits as well [R].
3) Fenugreek May Help Prevent Obesity
Obese female rats fed fenugreek gained less weight and had lower BMI. Their blood also contained fewer fats than the blood of rats on a control treatment [R].
4) Fenugreek Reduces Blood Sugar
In a clinical trial of 24 type II diabetic patients, the patients either consumed powdered fenugreek seeds soaked in hot water or with yogurt for 8 weeks. The participants who consumed fenugreek in hot water had significantly reduced blood sugar than the participants who ate fenugreek with yogurt [R].
In rats, fenugreek improved insulin sensitivity, which helps reduce blood sugar and the risk of developing type II diabetes [R].
In obese rats, fenugreek reduced blood sugar, fats, and certain enzymes indicative of poor liver function significantly more compared to the control [R].
The hypoglycemic (sugar-lowering) effects of fenugreek are partially attributable to 4-hydroxyisoleucine, an amino acid present in fenugreek that stimulates the production of insulin by pancreatic cells [R].
5) Fenugreek Might Help Improve Skin Health
Fenugreek contains mucilage, a gooey substance that can soothe and moisturize dry skin without irritating it when applied to the surface of skin [R].
A skin cream containing fenugreek seed extract was applied to the faces of 11 people. After six weeks, skin moisture increased, and the melanin (pigment that causes dark spots) content and the number of bumps on the skin decreased [R].
After saponin exposure, the skin cells had lower levels of certain inflammatory cytokines (transmission molecules). They also produced less melanin, a pigment protein that is produced when skin is exposed to ultraviolet light [R].
Fenugreek contains a lot of carotenoids, which are antioxidant molecules that are converted to vitamin A in the body. Fenugreek oil applied to the skin of rats sped up wound healing over control rats by reducing inflammation and promoting new skin growth [R].
6) Fenugreek Stops Cancer Cell Growth
The saponins in fenugreek prevent cell division in cancer cells and also induce programmed cell death (apoptosis) [R].
Blood cells from 15 healthy adults were treated with fenugreek extract and exposed to radiation therapy for cancer. Fenugreek increased the sensitivity of T-cells ( a type of white blood cells) to the effects of radiation and spurred apoptosis (programmed cell death) [R].
Diosgenin, a saponin found in fenugreek, suppresses bone and tumor cell formation by inhibiting tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-induced NF-κB activation (which produces proteins that increase cell growth and reduce apoptosis) [R].
Diosgenin also stopped IKK and p65 activity. IKK and p65 both contribute to the cellular response to inflammation. By stopping IKK and p65, diosgenin prevents NF-kB activity [R].
7) Fenugreek Has Antioxidant Properties
In rats with induced arthritis, fenugreek increased antioxidants, vitamin C, and glutathione. It also reduced the concentrations of enzymes, such as catalase and glutathione peroxidase, which produce reactive oxygen species [R].
8) Fenugreek Has Anti-inflammatory Properties
In rats with arthritis, fenugreek reduced fluid build-up in the joints and inflammatory enzyme activity [R].
Fenugreek reduces inflammation by inhibiting production of interleukins 4, 5, 13, and 1β and infiltration by white blood cells. This prevented the transformation of cells into helper T cells and reduced inflammatory responses [R].
9) Fenugreek Has Anti-Microbial Activity
Fenugreek seed extract was tested on dishes of bacterial species and inhibited the growth of E. coli and M. furfur. Sprouted fenugreek seeds may have increased antimicrobial activity, especially against H. pylori, than non-germinated seeds [R].
Defensin, a protein extracted from fenugreek leaves, inhibited the spread and reproduction of two fungal species [R].
The antimicrobial effects of fenugreek also help accelerate wound healing [R].
Both the seeds and leaves of fenugreek reduce microbial growth in similar ways [R].
10) Fenugreek Reduces Blood Clots
Anticoagulants, such as warfarin (Coumadin), are frequently prescribed to individuals at high risk for heart attacks and strokes because they help prevent the formation of blood clots that cut off blood supply to vital organs.
Fenugreek extract increased the time required for normal human blood samples to clot, so fenugreek could supplement preventive treatments for heart attacks and strokes [R].
11) Fenugreek May Help Protect the Digestive Tract
In rats under stress, fenugreek seed oil reduced the overall incidence of ulcers [R].
Fenugreek extract reduced acid reflux in another rat study [R].
12) Fenugreek May Improve Kidney Health
In one study, male rats were given ethylene glycol, which led to the formation of kidney stones and resulted in low red blood cell count and anemia. Rats given fenugreek seeds had increased red blood cell count and hemoglobin and fewer calcium salts in the kidneys. This reduced the risk of developing kidney stones [R].
Aluminum salts are often used to treat patients with kidney failure, but they can harm the body. Treating rats exposed to aluminum with fenugreek seed powder rebalanced urea, creatinine, and blood sugar levels[R].
Fenugreek also increased antioxidant concentrations, lowered reactive oxygen species, improved the overall quality of kidney tissue, and increased kidney weight back to normal [R].
13) Fenugreek Can Alleviate Dysmenorrhea (Menstrual Cramps)
Although all of the women had similar levels of pain before the study, the 51 women who received fenugreek reported much less pain at the end of the treatment than the 50 who received the placebo [R].
14) Fenugreek May Help Improve Lactation During Breastfeeding
Fenugreek is considered by traditional herbal doctors to be a galactagogue, a substance that promotes the production of breast milk (lactation) in women. Some studies report that drinking fenugreek tea increased milk production and infant weight gain compared to placebos [R].
However, other studies (meta-analyses) did not find fenugreek to significantly increase production of breast milk [R].
15) Fenugreek Benefit For Men
Diosgenin, found in fenugreek, is an important precursor for sex hormone formation. It can balance sex hormones to help support libido in healthy males [R].
Testofen, which contains fenugreek extract, improves male sex drive. In a study (DB-RCT) of 60 healthy males, daily supplementation with two tablets of 600 mg Testofen increased sexual arousal, orgasm, and self-reported energy and strength [R].
More human trials are needed before many of fenugreek’s health benefits are proven. Caution is warranted when using fenugreek for its purported health benefits.
The dosage of fenugreek varies based on the form it is taken in and what the user is trying to treat.
For treating type I diabetes, the recommended dose for powdered fenugreek seeds (from which fats have been removed) is 50 g taken twice daily [R].
For treating type II diabetes, seed powder in a capsule should be taken in two doses of 2.5 g each daily. Seed powder on its own has a recommended daily dose of 25 g, divided into two equal doses [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 spasms in the airways and wheezing [R].
Since fenugreek affects uterine contractions, it should not be taken during pregnancy, but it is safe afterward during breastfeeding.
Side Effects of Fenugreek
It has a distinctive and pungent odor, and many people have reported that their urine and sweat smelled like maple syrup [R].
Because of its blood-thinning properties, fenugreek can interact with warfarin, a commonly prescribed anticoagulant intended to reduce the risk of strokes and other conditions caused by blood clots [R].
Therefore, fenugreek can increase the time required for blood to clot, which can lead to significant blood loss, even from small cuts [R].
The sticky fiber in fenugreek that helps it moisturize dry skin also coat the lining of the digestive tract and inhibits absorption of drugs taken orally. Therefore, prescription drugs should be taken separately from fenugreek [R].
Since fenugreek works to lower blood sugar, hypoglycemia (abnormally low blood sugar) can occur if you are also taking prescription glucose-lowering drugs [R]. Therefore, it is important to monitor your blood sugar while taking fenugreek.
People who take fenugreek along with diuretics, laxatives, or other drugs that reduce electrolytes may be at risk for low potassium levels [R].
Synergism with Other Supplements
Combining fenugreek and creatine supplementation can help enhance exercise results. In a study (DB-RCT) of 47 resistance trained men, supplementation with 5 g creatine and 900 mg fenugreek extract increased their upper body strength and improved body composition [R].
Many female users 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 diabetics [R].
Some users reported increased hair growth and relief from mucus in the lungs, but only after taking fenugreek for several months. Using fenugreek in conjunction with a plant called Blessed Thistle worked well for many people.
However, some people who used fenugreek capsules complained that it caused them to smell. Other users also said that fenugreek had no beneficial effect on their health [R].
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