Fenugreek, a kitchen spice and primary ingredient in pickles, is an ancient herb. Egyptian texts attest to its use as early as 1500 B.C. Fenugreek seeds, sometimes taken in the form of a tea, have traditionally been used to treat digestive disorders and menstrual cramps. Herbalists today are likely to advise fenugreek to treat diabetes and high cholesterol. Although human clinical trials are limited, laboratory and animal research supports fenugreek's ability to lower blood sugar and cholesterol. Consult your doctor before using fenugreek.
Fenugreek, botanically known as Trigonella foenum-graecum and also called methi in Ayurveda, features grayish-green toothed leaves and pale yellow or whitish flowers that develop into seed pods. The yellow-brown seeds within are dried to produce the spice. Fenugreek has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat kidney problems, arthritis and digestive problems; it has also been employed in folk medicine as a diuretic and anti-inflammatory and in poultices to treat boils and swelling. Fenugreek seeds were one of the original ingredients in Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, a 19th century patent medicine marketed to treat menstrual cramps and menopause symptoms. The seeds, which have a rich, sweet taste, are also used in maple flavoring.
Constituents and Effects
Fenugreek seeds contain a group of glycoside steroidal saponins known as graecunins, as well as the compounds diosgenin and fenugrin B and an alkaloid known as trigonelline. The seeds are rich in protein and mucilagenous fiber. Also present in fenugreek seeds are coumarin compounds, galactomannans and the amino acids lysine and L-tryptophan.
Drugs.com, which provides peer-reviewed medical information to consumers, reports that fenugreek's high levels of polyphenolic flavonoids give it antioxidant properties in test tubes. Blue Shield Complementary and Alternative Health credits the steroidal saponins in fenugreek with the ability to inhibit both the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines and its production by the liver. The seeds' high levels of soluble fiber help to reduce blood sugar by slowing down carbohydrate digestion and absorption. Fenugreek may also have the ability to lower triglycerides.
Scientific research supports the protective and antioxidant effects of polyphenols in fenugreek seeds. In a laboratory study published in 2004 in "Plant Foods and Human Nutrition," researchers found that fenugreek seed extracts protected human red blood cells from oxidative damage, supporting the seeds' potent antioxidant properties. Researchers credited the gallic acid in the seed extract with the beneficial effect.
Usage and Considerations
You can brew fenugreek tea by adding 1 tbsp. of fenugreek seeds to 1 cup of boiling water. Fenugreektea.org advises letting the mixture steep for 45 minutes to unleash the full beneficial effect of the seeds, then straining, cooling and drinking it after meals to help with digestion. Fenugreek is generally recognized as safe when used as a food. Mild diarrhea and gas may accompany its use. BSCAH notes that this side effect almost invariably resolves after using fenugreek seeds or tea for a few days. Rare allergic reactions have been reported with fenugreek. Traditionally used to hasten delivery, fenugreek can cause uterine contractions; don't use it if you are pregnant. Fenugreek seeds and tea can interact with prescription drugs, and may increase the effects of anticoagulants such as warfarin. Consult your doctor before using fenugreek.