Like many herbal supplements, fenugreek’s use extends far back into history. Seeds of this Near Eastern plant were found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb and have been radiocarbon dated to 4000 BC.1 Fenugreek, or Trigonella foenum-graecum, is popular around the world for its flavor in foods and its use as a supplement.

Related to the pea family, fenugreek often is used as a dried herb or spice and is also eaten as a fresh vegetable.1 This annual plant is found around the Mediterranean and the Middle East, with more than 80% of the world’s crop produced in India.2

Background

The seeds of the fenugreek plant, which are used for medicinal purposes, are found in clusters of long, slender, sickle-shaped pods.3 Chemically, the seeds contain saponins and alkaloids, along with other antioxidants and a high percentage of soluble dietary fiber.3 Fenugreek contains a wealth of other nutrients, such as proteins, amino acids, and significant amounts of calcium, phosphorus, and iron.4

Science

One of the oldest medicinal uses for fenugreek is as a galactogogue. Galactogogues are herbal substances that promote the production of milk in humans. The proposed mechanism of action in these herbal compounds is through dopaminergic receptors in the brain, triggering increased prolactin release.5

A common concern for newborn infants is the weight loss that is often problematic in the first few days of life. In one small study, 66 immediate-postpartum mother-infant pairs were randomized to daily fenugreek tea, placebo or no treatment. By the end of the third day infant weight loss was significantly less in the active-treatment group than in the other two groups, which also correlated with the greater breast milk volume noted in the mothers given fenugreek.6

Many holistic lactation specialists recommend fenugreek, especially when the volume of milk produced by the mother is low. In anecdotal data from more than 1,200 women, one lactation consultant documented that milk production will increase 24 to 72 hours after taking fenugreek and continue at that level, even following cessation of the supplement.7

The second major action of fenugreek involves of glucose and lipid metabolism. A number of studies suggest that preprandial ingestion of fenugreek seed supplement flattens the postprandial glucose elevation and lipid spike.8 The hypothesized reason for this response is the density of soluble dietary fiber in the seeds.

In a basic-research trial scientists administered fenugreek seed supplement twice daily for 28 days to lab rats.8 At the study’s end, all atherogenic lipids (triglycerides and LDL cholesterol) were significantly decreased, and the favorable HDL cholesterol levels were increased.

In a clinical trial, 25 individuals newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes were randomized to either a daily dose of fenugreek seed supplement or standard diet and exercise for two months.9 At the end of the study, glycemic tests showed no difference from baseline levels. However, area under curve of glucose as well as insulin showed a marked reduction, with a statistical sensitivity of P<0.001. As with the rat model, serum triglycerides were also decreased, and HDL cholesterol levels increased.9

Obesity is the most talked about marker of metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance. Fenugreek not only slows gastric glucose absorption but improves cellular uptake of glucose as well.10 Because of its high fiber content, fenugreek consumption with meals increased satiety, causing participants to eat less.11

Canadian researchers randomized 24 adult obese subjects to either fenugreek-containing supplement daily or placebo.11 Study examiners monitored the participants’ weight and abdominal and hip circumference at baseline and at the end of the six-week trial. The subjects did not change their daily habits or diet. Compared with the placebo group, patients taking fenugreek lost 5 lb and more than 4 inches of abdominal and hip circumference, compared with 0 lb and 0.5 inches lost by the placebo group.11

Cost, how supplied, safety

Fenugreek is inexpensive and available in health-food stores. The most popular formulation is as a powder-filled capsule, but whole-grain seeds are also available. As with any other plant, allergic reactions are possible, so persons with atopic histories should use caution. Fenugreek is also contraindicated in pregnant women because of its potential for inducing labor.3

Summary

In a society in which obesity and type 2 diabetes are epidemic, finding safe and effective aids to combat these conditions is a daily challenge for health-care providers. Fenugreek has been shown to be effective in aiding weight loss and appears to perpetuate a healthy glucose and lipid status.
 

References

1. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Fenugreek. Avaialble at www.nccam.nih.gov
/health/fenugreek.
2. Parthasarathy VA, Kandinnan K, Srinivasan V, eds. Organic Spices. New Delhi, India: New India Publishing Agency; 2008:694.
3. Fetrow C, Avila J, eds. Professional’s Handbook of Complementary & Alternative Medicines. Springhouse Publishing; Springhouse, Pa.; 1999.  
4. National Nutrient Database. Fenugreek. Available at ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/239.  
5. Gabay MP. Galactogogues: medications that induce
lactation. J Hum Lact. 2002;18:274-279. Avialable at jhl
.sagepub.com/content/18/3/274.long.
6. Turkyilmaz C, Onal E, Hirfanoglu IM, et al. The effect of galactogogue herbal tea on breast milk production and short-term catch-up of birth weight in the first week of life. J Altern Complement Med. 2011;17:139-142.
7. Breastfeeding Online. Fenugreek: one remedy for low milk production. Available at www.breastfeedingonline
.com/fenuhugg-print.html.
8. Hannan JM, Roykeya B, Farugue O, et al. Effect of soluble dietary fibre fraction of Trigonella foenum graecum on glycemic, insulinemic, lipidemic and platelet aggregation status of Type 2 diabetic model rats. J Ethnopharmacol. 2003;88:73-77.
9. Gupta A, Gupta R, Lal B. Effect of Trigonella foenum-graecum (fenugreek) seeds on glycaemic control and insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes mellitus: a double blind placebo controlled study. J Assoc Physicians India. 2001;49:1057-1061.
10. Mathern JR, Raatz SK, Thomas W, Slavin JL. Effect of fenugreek fiber on satiety, blood glucose and insulin response and energy intake in obese subjects. Phytother Res. 2009;23:1543-1548.
11. Woodgate D, Conquer J. Effects of a stimulant-free dietary supplement on body weight and fat loss in obese adults: a six-week exploratory study. Curr Ther Research. 2003;64:248-262.

All electronic documents accessed February 15, 2013.