Evidence of fenugreek health benefits has historically been anecdotal, rather than stringent scientific trials. What are the health benefits of fenugreek?
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Fenugreek is an herb that is native to southern Europe and Asia. Fenugreek seeds have been used in cooking for their maple syrup-like flavor and traditionally as naturopathic medicine. Fenugreek is not safe to use during pregnancy in high amounts but is considered safe for foods generally (1). High in fiber, phospholipids, glycolipids, and a host of vitamins (including A, B1, B2, and C), fenugreek is one of nature’s powerhouses of nutrition (2). For those seeking protein, fenugreek endosperm (the coating on the seed) also contains high amounts of protein (a surprising 43.8 grams per 100 grams of fenugreek seed) (2). Evidence of its medicinal and health benefits has historically been anecdotal (rather than stringent scientific trials, people had reported they found a difference in their health when they added it to their diet). So let’s take a look at the health benefits of fenugreek.
Muscle endurance and recovery are essential for maximizing benefits, payoff, and healing after resistance training (3). Fenugreek seeds in studies with mice enhanced their swimming endurance, and researchers suggested it might have helped the mice use fatty acids as an energy source during exercise (4). Fenugreek compounds have also been thought to affect cholesterol metabolism, boosting endurance, and reducing fat accumulation (2, 5). Fenugreek has been shown in several studies to positively affect serum testosterone levels, which is also beneficial for boosting endurance (3).
In another clinical trial involving participants performing resistance training, fenugreek was found to increase upper and lower body strength when taking the supplement than participants who did not. The researchers suggest that fenugreek extract may positively affect body strength for resistance exercises (6).
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Past studies with mice have shown that fenugreek seeds can improve glycemic control by stabilizing blood glucose levels. Sufficient doses are still unknown, but trials have shown more post-meal stabilization of blood glucose levels compared to those mice who did not receive fenugreek. A recent human clinical trial showed that this same effect of blood glucose stabilization holds true for people with diabetes (7). These exciting first steps are paving the way toward fenugreek as a potential therapeutic for diabetes, but this area requires more research (8).
Antioxidants are great for our health, getting rid of free oxygen radicals that are a by-product of our metabolism. Natural antioxidants turn these into harmless molecules that our body can either use or get rid of, instead of free oxygen radicals going on to cause damage to our DNA or cells. Fenugreek was found to scavenge free oxygen radicals in rats and mice with a variety of induced liver or pancreas problems, which suggests its strength as an antioxidant and disease fighter (9)
In addition to these exciting findings, fenugreek has been found to have an anti-inflammatory effect related to this antioxidant effect. By interacting with insulin resistance pathways and altering immune system pathways responsible for inflammation, this seed might have many effects on inflammation reduction and disease mediation (10). However, very little is still known about these interactions, and further studies are needed.
This fascinating herbal seed also has a unique ability to fight bacterial growth. Tested against six different pathological strains of bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (infections that cause skin and eye infections, blisters, and other unpleasant symptoms), fenugreek reduced bacterial growth in cell culture models (11). Other studies have also found fenugreek is a useful anti-bacterial against H. pylori, E. coli, and other bacteria (12). This suggests this compound may be used as a natural, alternative antibacterial against these bacteria. Particularly in hospitals and care homes, reducing these disease-causing bacteria using a naturally derived anti-bacterial is certainly a promising area of research. While more work is needed, these preliminary results are nothing short of exciting.
Honey is another food with anti-bacterial qualities. Check out “The Sweet Benefits of Raw Honey.”
In cell culture studies, fenugreek has been tested as a cancer preventative. In breast, pancreatic, and prostate cancer cell lines, fenugreek effectively reduces cancer development, making it a promising potential therapeutic against this devastating disease in the future. Animal and clinical studies are in progress but still incomplete (13).
In diabetic patients, fenugreek was tested to reduce periodontal disease (a disease of the gums). Periodontal disease is a chronic inflammatory disease marked by an increase in microorganisms in the mouth, causing disease. Diabetes can result in excess inflammation, which fenugreek can reduce. By reducing inflammation, fenugreek is thought to also reduce the prevalence of the periodontal disease. Its high fiber content is also thought to improve diabetes management, reducing inflammation, and the likely prevalence of periodontal disease (14). For many reasons, those at high risk of gum disease (particularly if they have diabetes or another condition with related inflammation) should consider adding fenugreek to their diet.
Levo-dopa, also called L-Dopa, is an anti-seizure medication used to treat Parkinson’s disease to reduce tremors. It is FDA-approved and widely used for treatment. However, like many disease treatments, an adjuvant may improve response. An adjuvant is a compound that increases inflammation or reaction to the treatment, making the body react better to it (stimulating the immune system improves uptake of the drug) (15). Fenugreek extract was found in human clinical studies to improve L-Dopa response and uptake, improving this drug’s effectiveness at reducing seizures and tremors in patients with Parkinson’s disease. In addition to improving L-Dopa’s effectiveness, fenugreek extract was well tolerated and had a good safety profile in the clinical studies performed (16).
This particular role of fenugreek overlaps with two we’ve already discussed – the effectiveness of this compound as an antioxidant and its role in improving Parkinson’s disease (a related disease to Alzheimer’s). A study performed recently in rats showed that fenugreek had a role in inhibiting acetylcholinesterase activity, which reduces Alzheimer’s disease progression. Alzheimer’s disease is caused by neurotransmitters within the brain, decreasing because of an acetylcholinesterase increase (17). In this way, fenugreek might prove to be a good preventative measure and perhaps therapeutic for Alzheimer’s disease, which continues to cause 500,000 new cases in the United States every year (18).
A high-fat diet can induce metabolic diseases, including diabetes, high cholesterol, and several other health consequences. However, in mice fed a high-fat diet, fenugreek supplemented in their diet improved their glucose tolerance and promoted metabolic health, reducing other organ problems and diseases that are typically the result of a high-fat diet (19). Fenugreek is thought to be a protective benefit against metabolic disease and might be a good dietary addition for those at high risk of developing this disease (20).
Fasting might have a role in preventing metabolic disease. Check out the “Health Benefits of Fasting.”
In a study performed in women, 900mg capsules of seed powder (given 2-3 per day for three days at the beginning of menstruation) alleviated some dysmenorrhea symptoms (menstrual cramping). Other dysmenorrhea symptoms reduced by the group receiving fenugreek included fatigue, headache, nausea, vomiting, lack of energy, and syncope (fainting or passing out) (21). These results suggest that fenugreek might be a good natural-source supplement for reducing unpleasant menstrual symptoms and a good alternative to traditional pharmaceuticals.
Oil extracted from fenugreek seeds decreased the number, severity, and size of gastric ulceration. While these studies were performed in mice, this preliminary result suggests that fenugreek might some protective function against stomach disease and ulceration (22). This would make it a great alternative to traditional pharmaceutical interventions currently available.
There are many reasons why fenugreek should be part of your diet. As a sweetener, the addition of maple-syrup flavor or other spice-like flavor fenugreek plants have an abundance of health benefits. Scientists are constantly on the lookout for natural substances that can perform as better therapeutics than synthetic pharmaceuticals. However, rigorous testing and an abundance of cell model, animal, and human clinical trials are needed before any substances are allowed to go ahead, even as a herbal supplement. Being natural does not necessarily mean that these substances are safe, which is why multiple rounds of testing are needed before they’re available for use. But, fenugreek is safe and effective in remedying several conditions in human and animal models. Fenugreek plants could be a healthful addition to your routine diet, lending a wealth of nutritional value and disease-fighting properties. You can find fenugreek at your local health food store and some grocery stores. Enjoy this maple-flavored seed in your next baking and cooking adventure.
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