Introduction

Fenugreek is a short green herb which is native to the Mediterranean basin and Asia. The name ‘fenugreek’ is derived from the Latin for ‘Greek hay’ which is a very reasonable description of this plant.

The seeds are used in cooking, as medicines and cosmetics while the leaves are eaten as a type of vegetable (sometimes called methi).

Fenugreek can smell and taste like maple syrup and is often used as a substitute for maple syrup in cooking. The maple syrup connection becomes medically important as we will see.

From a health perspective, fenugreek is widely used in Traditional Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine. It has been promoted to settle gastrointestinal upset, promote breast milk, relieve menstrual discomfort and increase libido in men.

There are also some rumors that it increases breast size. Eating a maple syrup tasting plant to look like Nicki Minaj? True or false? Let’s see.

What Is Fenugreek?

Fenugreek (Trigonella arabica Delile) belongs to the pea family (Leguminosae). As mentioned, it is native to the Asia and also the Mediterranean region but is now grown worldwide.

The content of fenugreek (per 100 gms) is:

  • Water 8 gm
  • Energy 323 kcal
  • Protein 23 gm
  • Fat 6 gm
  • Carbohydrate 58 gm
  • Fiber 24 mg
  • Calcium 176 mg
  • Iron 33mg
  • Magnesium 191 mg
  • Phosphorus 296 mg
  • Potassium 770 mg
  • Sodium 67 mg
  • Zinc 2 mg
  • Vitamin A 60 IU
  • Folate 57 microgms (1).

Apart from the fact that fenugreek is a good source of fibre, the constituents of fenugreek are pretty unremarkable. It does also contain flavanoids, polyphenols, alkaloids, steroids and sapogenins.

There are over 1000 fenugreek products for sale on Amazon including seeds, powder, capsules, oil and tea. Fenugreek capsules are relatively inexpensive and cost approximately 15 cents per 610 mg capsule.

Is There Any Research?

There are 1067 studies and 32 clinical trials on fenugreek. To put this into context, cinnamon (which is also used for diabetes) has 2132 publications and 70 clinical trials.

Does It Reduce Cholesterol Levels?

Iranian investigators carried out a randomized study in 88 type 2 diabetic patients (2).

Study subjects received either fenugreek seeds or wheat starch placebo for 8 weeks. Fenugreek seeds statistically significantly decreased total cholesterol, triglycerides, fasting blood glucose and HbA1c compared with placebo.

This sounds very promising. My one reservation about this study is the fact that no significant changes were shown in serum low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol in both groups.

An older study looked at defatted fenugreek seed powder (100 g) incorporated into the diet and served during lunch and dinner in patients with type 1 diabetes (3).

The study showed significant reductions in serum total cholesterol, low density cholesterol, very low density cholesterol and triglycerides. Similar to the last study, the high density cholesterol fraction remained unchanged.

The fenugreek diet significantly reduced fasting blood sugar and improved the glucose tolerance test.

While reading these papers, I noticed some other very interesting papers that are of relevance here.

French investigators enrolled 39 healthy overweight male volunteers in a 6-week double-blind randomized placebo-controlled parallel trial of a fixed dose of a fenugreek seed extract  versus placebo (4). The aim of the study was to investigate the effects of repeated administration of a fenugreek seed extract on the eating behaviour of overweight subjects.

The inspiration for the study came from observations in animal studies that fenugreek modulates eating behaviour in animals. The study showed a statistically significant decrease in daily fat consumption. Unfortunately, there was no change in appetite or weight. Is fenugreek the reason that ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat?’

American investigators found that fenugreek fiber (8 g) significantly increased satiety and reduced energy intake at lunch in 18 obese subjects (5)

The 8 g dose of fenugreek fiber significantly increased mean ratings of satiety and fullness, and reduced ratings of hunger and prospective food consumption. Again, these are hardly conclusive results that would make me go out and put fenugreek in the water supply to reduce weight in the western world but it is interesting nonetheless.

Bottom Line

I am not sure how to assimilate all of this information into a type of traffic light system of thinking that doctors and patients like ( red versus green, go versus don’t go, take versus don’t take). Fenugreek does appear to affect serum lipids but it is unclear at this stage if this is clinically significant or beneficial.

Does It Help With Inflammation?

There are no human clinical studies looking at fenugreek and inflammation.

Indian investigators tested fenugreek on rats where carrageenan and formaldehyde was used to induce paw edema and Fruend’s adjuvant was used to induce arthritis (6).

Overall, extract of fenugreek seeds was found to have significant anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic activities which were due to the presence of linolenic and linoleic acids.

A similar study looked at Freund’s adjuvant induced arthritis in rats and found that fenugreek reduced inflammation in the blood and joints in a manner comparable or superior to the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, indomethacin (7).

Bottom Line

Very small, rat study models suggest that fenugreek may have anti-inflammatory properties. However, this has not been studied in humans which means that we have to say that there is no clinical evidence to support the claim that fenugreek is an anti-inflammatory.

Does it Increase Libido in Men?

An Australian study looked at the effect of six weeks of fenugreek on libido in 60 healthy males (8)

This was a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial. None of the men had erectile dysfunction.The study showed that fenugreek was associated with significant improvements in sexual arousal and orgasm.

The same Australian group then looked at the effect of fenugreek on hormones and sexual functioning in menstruating women. This short term, single site, double blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study was conducted in 80 women, aged 20 to 49 years (9).

Study participants received either fenugreek seed extract at a dose of 600 mg/day or placebo over two menstrual cycles. Blood hormone levels were measured and the women also filled out an in-depth questionnaire. There was a significant increase in free testosterone and estradiol as well as sexual desire and arousal in the fenugreek arm compared with the placebo group. This was a short-term study but certainly a encouraging study.

Bottom Line

A single study in men and women suggested that fenugreek may help libido.

Does It Increase a Woman’s Breast Milk Supply?

Fenugreek is used as a herbal galactogogue – galactogogues are agents used to promote breast milk production. It is not clear how fenugreek might act to promote breast milk production. Breast tissue is modified sweat gland tissue. It has been proposed that as fenugreek promotes the production of sweat, this may be how it increases breast milk production.

A systematic review of fenugreek and breast milk was published this year in the journal, Phytotherapy Research (10).

A total of 5 studies with 122 participants receiving treatment with fenugreek were evaluated.  The review found that  consumption of fenugreek significantly increased amount of the produced breast milk. However, fenugreek was substantially less effective when compared to other galactogogues such as substantially inferior to Coleus amboinicus Lour and palm date.

Promotion of breast milk production does equate to bigger breasts but only if you are breastfeeding. There is no evidence that fenugreek can increase the size of non-breast feeding breasts. Sorry.

Bottom Line

Fenugreek does promote breast milk but not breast size in non-lactating women.

Does It Help Improve Blood Sugar?

Defatted fenugreek seeds are used to help manage diabetes in both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine. We have already seen that studies looking at fenugreek and lipids found beneficial effects of fenugreek on blood sugar levels.

There are some additional studies which look specifically at fenugreek in diabetes.

Indian researchers randomized 25 patients who were newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes to either usual dietary advice or usual dietary advice plus fenugreek (11)

At the end of a two month trial, there was no difference in fasting blood sugar or post-eating blood sugar between the two groups. Statistically significant differences were noted in 24 hour blood glucose and insulin in favour of the fenugreek arm of the study.

Chinese investigators evaluated the effect of fenugreek on blood sugar in 69 patients with type 2 diabetes whose blood glucose levels were not well controlled by oral sulfonylureas hypoglycemic drug alone (12).

Study participants were randomly assigned to either fenugreek or placebo three times per day for 12 weeks (i addition to their usual sulfonylurea medication). There were statistically significantly decreases in fasting blood sugar, post-prandial blood glucose and HbA1C in the treatment group as compared to those in the control group. (HbA1C is a longer term assessment of glucose control as compared to a single measurement of glucose levels). No significant difference was found in body mass index, hepatic and renal functions between the two groups.

Food scientists in Louisiana applied their skills to develop a palatable fenugreek bread for diabetes (13).

They found a sweet spot which incorporated fenugreek with traditional wheat. In the clinical part of the study,  8  diet-controlled diabetic subjects were randomized to two slices (56 g) of 5% fenugreek bread or regular bread in a cross-over design. There was a trend towards a reduction in glucose and a statistically significant reduction in insulin in the fenugreek bread arm of the study.

In Ayurvedic medicine, food plays a key role in health and wellness. Even if fenugreek bread does not statistically reduce blood glucose, it contributes to the overall cause. In the world of culinary medicine, no individual ingredient or condiment needs to be the sole therapeutic agent. The aim is that a fusion of well chosen ingredients will guide us towards better health.

Bottom Line

Evidence suggests that fenugreek can help lower blood sugar. There are major caveats here. Firstly, most studies evaluated patients with type 2 diabetes where the fibre content of fenugreek helped reduce glucose absorption. Type1 diabetes is a very different disease.

Secondly, fenugreek should be seen as a lifestyle intervention or culinary medicine in diabetes where fenugreek helps but is not seen as the cure or a replacement for medication or a license to eat chocolate oreos.

Does It Improve Exercise Performance

Exercise PerformanceThere are two human clinical trials looking at fenugreek and exercise performance.

In the first human clinical study, investigators gave a 4-hydroxyisoleucine extract from fenugreek to trained male cyclists (14).

Technically, the study looked at recovery from exercise more than exercise endurance. The study design involved  overnight fast, a 90-minute ride (designed to use up glucose stores) after which a muscle biopsy was obtained from the thigh muscle. Study subjects then ingested either an oral dose of dextrose or dextrose plus fenugreek supplement. They then underwent a  second muscle biopsy four hours post exercise.The net rate of post-exercise glycogen recovery was better in the fenugreek plus dextrose arm of the study over and above the dextrose alone arm.

This is where things get interesting.

This study was published in 2005 and there was a follow up study in 2008. The second study involved using the same extract of fenugreek in male endurance athletes who cycled for 5 hours at 50% of peak cycling power (15). Study subjects ingested either an oral dose of dextrose or dextrose with fenugreek in a randomized, cross-over, double blind design immediately after and 2 hours after exercise.

Muscle biopsies were obtained immediately pre exercise, immediately post exercise and 4 hours and 15 hours post exercise  At 15 hours post-exercise subjects underwent a 40 km cycling time trial. There was no difference in muscle glycogen at any time between the two study groups. Additionally, there was no difference in exercise performance. The authors concluded that  ‘despite earlier data to the contrary, the present results do not support an effect of fenugreek supplementation on glycogen re-synthesis, even though this may have been the result of differences in experimental protocol’.

For the sake of completion, there is also a pre-clinical study of relevance.

Japanese investigators gave 4 week old mice either fenugreek of placebo for 4 weeks (16).

They found that fenugreek increased swimming time to exhaustion and decreased blood lactate. This suggested that fenugreek may be helpful in exercise performance.

Bottom Line

The available limited data are conflicting about the role of fenugreek in supporting exercise performance at this time. As such, fenugreek cannot be recommended for exercise performance.

Is Fenugreek Safe?

Fenugreek is considered to be ‘likely safe’ as a food and ‘possibly safe’ in medicinal quantities.

People who are allergic to soybeans, peanuts and green peas should avoid fenugreek as there is a possibility of cross -allergic reactions between these agents.

A 2018 study used a Delphi technique with breastfeeding women, gynecologists, pediatricians, family physicians, lactation consultants, and pharmacists to achieve a consensus on the advice to be given around using fenugreek in breast-feeding (17).

The Delphi method uses a panel of experts to develop a group consensus. The team advised that women who were considering taking fenugreek should be told that there is an increased risk of:

  • Abortion
  • Bleeding
  • Impaired Fetal Development
  • Worsening of asthma
  • Diarrhea
  • Low BP.

There is a rare but serious genetic disorder that can be detected at birth when the baby has a distinctive maple syrup odor. It is really important to let your doctor know if you are taking fenugreek prior to delivery as this can give the same maple syrup odor to the baby. Otherwise, your poor little baby will be subjected to a battery of unnecessary tests.

Conclusion

As the majority of claims about fenugreek have mixed or no support from human trials, I don’t think that fenugreek has the type of profile that warrants putting it into a pill to solve a myriad of lifestyle diseases.  I do think that fenugreek is perfect for the Ayurvedic way of living where food is medicine. By that, I mean that all food that we eat is medicine. Not just one food. And certainly not just one food in a pill.

Incorporating fenugreek into your diet as a source of fibre, flavonoids and polyphenols can make a contribution to your overall health and wellbeing.