If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
What is fenugreek?
The word fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is derived from the Latin faenugraecum, meaning “Greek hay.” It’s an herb that’s been grown for thousands of years both for food and for medicinal purposes. Fenugreek is native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean but is now grown in many regions worldwide, including Asia, North Africa, and Europe. This maple syrup-smelling plant belongs to the Fabaceae family of plants and is related to soybeans, chickpeas, and licorice, among others. In cooking, it’s commonly used in Indian, Turkish, Iranian, and Egyptian cuisines. It might also be found on store shelves as methi, the Hindi, Oriya, Bengali, Punjabi, and Urdu name for the same plant, or hu lu ba, the Chinese name.
- Fenugreek is an herb that’s commonly used in traditional and alternative medicine.
- Fenugreek may have a positive impact on testosterone production in the body, but more research needs to be done to prove its effects.
- Results from clinical trials are mixed for the use of fenugreek in diabetes and lactation.
- Fenugreek is generally safe and well-tolerated in adults, but it can sometimes lead to side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and gas.
What are the health benefits of fenugreek?
As a food, fenugreek is a good source of protein and calcium. Fenugreek seeds, in particular, are rich in dietary fiber, B vitamins, and dietary minerals. But what about using fenugreek for medicinal purposes?
Fenugreek has been used in traditional medicine for over a millennium. It’s been purported to treat a wide variety of health conditions, ranging from diabetes to low testosterone. Some alternative medicine practitioners say that it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects and that it can lower cholesterol levels and cause weight loss. Fenugreek seeds, fenugreek leaves, and fenugreek extracts have all been used. It can be prepared into herbal tea, powders, pills, poultice, and other formulations. Let’s go through the scientific evidence behind some of these claims to see if they hold up.
Fenugreek and testosterone
Testosterone is a male sex hormone that has a wide range of effects on the human body. It’s important in supporting your sex drive, bone mass, muscle mass, and the production of red blood cells and sperm. Learn more about testosterone here.
As men age, testosterone levels naturally drop. One large study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that low testosterone (also called “low T”) affected 20% of men in their 60s, 30% of men in their 70s, and 50% of men over 80 (Harman, 2001). It’s understandable that many men are looking for ways to increase their testosterone levels, especially when they get older.
Fenugreek may have a positive impact on testosterone production in the body. Fenugreek contains furostanolic saponins, which are believed to increase testosterone levels by blocking aromatase and 5-alpha-reductase, two enzymes that consume testosterone to produce other hormones (Wankhede, 2016). In a study of 88 men by researchers in Korea, volunteers were given a supplement with extracts of both fenugreek and Lespedeza cuneata, an herb also known as Chinese bush clover (Park, 2018). When compared with placebo, the men that received the herbal supplement had significant increases in their testosterone levels and their overall symptoms of low T. In another small study of 30 men in Texas, men were given either a fenugreek supplement or placebo (Wilborn, 2010). Men who were given the fenugreek supplement increased their blood levels of testosterone when compared with the men given a placebo.
However, other studies have shown no effect on testosterone with fenugreek supplementation (Bushey, 2009). A review of the research published on fenugreek and other herbal supplements found that out of seven total studies on fenugreek in humans, four showed improvements in testosterone while the results of the other three were indeterminate (Balasubramanian, 2019).
The studies thus far on testosterone have been small, and many of them have been supported by the manufacturers of fenugreek supplements. More research needs to be done in this area to determine the effects of fenugreek on testosterone conclusively. If you are worried about low T, talk to your healthcare provider to test your levels of testosterone, and determine the right treatment for you.
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Fenugreek and diabetes
Fenugreek is widely used in the Middle East and Asia as a traditional medicine to treat diabetes. In Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Oman, and Jordan, it’s one of the three most common herbal remedies for diabetes (Alsanad, 2018). Globally, diabetes is a huge problem—the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in 2014, around 1 in 12 adults worldwide had diabetes (WHO, n.d.) (Get Roman, n.d.). Fenugreek believed to lower blood sugar levels in diabetics by encouraging insulin secretion and improving the use of glucose (sugar) throughout the rest of the body.
There have been several studies that have examined whether or not fenugreek is useful in diabetes. The effects in clinical trials have been mixed thus far. In some studies, there is a benefit seen in decreasing blood glucose levels in patients with type 2 diabetes (Madar, 1988) (Kassaian, 2009). In others, there was no effect (Florentin, 2019). The trials that have been done with fenugreek thus far have been small, and many of them were designed poorly.
Overall, there isn’t enough conclusive evidence that supports using fenugreek as an antidiabetic. The Food and Drug Administration has determined that fenugreek is ‘generally recognized as safe,’ but has not approved it for any medicinal use (FDA, 2019). If you do decide to use fenugreek to help with your diabetes, please let your healthcare provider know.
Fenugreek and lactation
As more and more research comes out to support the health benefits of breastfeeding over artificial milk, there has been a lot of interest in new mothers to breastfeed their infants. In fact, both the WHO and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life. (WHO, n.d.) (Eidelman, 2012). However, 10-15% of all breastfeeding mothers are unable to produce enough milk for their child (Lee, 2016). To solve this problem, many women have been turning to fenugreek. Fenugreek is popular on many wellness blogs all over the internet as a way to increase milk production (also known as a galactagogue) without the use of medications. But is there scientific evidence to support using fenugreek for lactation?
Two reviews of the research into using fenugreek to increase milk supply have been published. The first, by Tulane University, found that out of two randomized trials that used fenugreek and tested it against placebo, only one showed that it had a positive effect (Bazzano, 2016). The second, by researchers in Malaysia, used a technique (also known as a meta-analysis) to analyze the results of four studies on fenugreek together (Khan, 2018). It did show positive results, but the effects were smaller than those for two other herbal supplements.
Overall, there isn’t enough conclusive evidence that supports using fenugreek to increase lactation. And because the research into fenugreek is limited, there isn’t very much known about how fenugreek gets passed into breast milk and whether it affects a baby while breastfeeding. Again, the Food and Drug Administration has determined that fenugreek is ‘generally recognized as safe’ and has low risks of toxicity but has not approved it for any medicinal use (FDA, n.d.). If you do decide to use fenugreek to help with your breast milk production, please let your healthcare provider know.
Potential side effects of using fenugreek
Fenugreek is generally safe and well-tolerated in adults. However, using fenugreek can sometimes lead to side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, digestive problems, upset stomach, and gas (Bethesda, 2019). Other, more serious side effects have been seen, such as asthma exacerbations, liver damage, and in one case, a life-threatening drug reaction of the skin called toxic epidermal necrolysis (Bentele-Jaberg, 2015). There’s also a risk of drug reactions with diabetes medications and warfarin or other blood thinners. If you’re allergic to peanuts or other legumes, please be aware that there’s a risk of an allergic reaction to fenugreek. Pregnant women should not take fenugreek as it might affect uterine contractions (Abdo, 1969). There may also be a risk that it encourages the growth of hormone-sensitive cancer in women (Sreeja, 2010). It’s also unclear whether very high doses of fenugreek are toxic—one source suggests taking less than 350 mg per kg of body weight per day (Drugs.com, 2018).
One note about all the FDA rules on all dietary supplements: unlike drugs, manufacturers don’t need to prove the safety or effectiveness of their products before they hit the market. As with any supplement, fenugreek should not take the place of medications that your healthcare provider has prescribed you.
Talk to your healthcare provider about every health supplement you use. They can provide you with medical advice, help you weigh the risks and benefits, and make sure you stay safe as you manage your health.