Psst...This Blood-Sugar-Balancing Ingredient Might Also Soothe Bloating & Painful Periods
Megan Fahey, MS, RD, CDN is a Registered Dietitian, Functional Medicine Nutritionist and Registered Yoga Teacher. She holds her Masters of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from Bastyr University, where she was trained to artfully blend eastern and western healing modalities.
Ever popped a turmeric supplement or maybe mixed some ashwagandha powder into your morning smoothie? Then you know the powerful healing role that herbs and spices can play in our lives. Whether it's fighting inflammation or easing stress and anxiety, these nutrient-packed remedies have offered relief to countless people for thousands of years—and now, studies are backing up their therapeutic properties.
Another potent oldie but goodie that fits the bill is fenugreek. "Fenugreek is an herb that's been used for thousands of years to treat a variety of conditions ranging from skin issues to pain, digestive ailments, and more," says Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, registered dietitian and health coach. "You'll often see it in seed or powder form."
These days, modern science is finding that fenugreek—a longtime staple in Indian, Egyptian, and Middle Eastern cooking as well as ayurvedic and Chinese medicine—may actually live up to many of its ancient health claims.
Here's an inside look at the herb's various health benefits, how to use it in your cooking, and what to look for in a quality fenugreek supplement.
OK, so what is fenugreek?
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), also known as methi and shambalileh, is a plant that's part of the Fabaceae (or pea) family. Native to Asia and the Mediterranean, the plant typically reaches about 2 to 3 feet tall and consists of green spear-shaped leaves and small white flowers with pods containing small, aromatic yellowish-brown seeds.
Both fenugreek leaves and seeds are edible and can be used in cooking too—their flavor is strong, a bit sweet, and a little bitter (sort of reminiscent of burnt sugar). For thousands of years, they've been ground up and incorporated into curries, chutneys, tea blends, and spice rubs. Today, they're even used to flavor imitation maple syrup.
Various cultures throughout history have also used fenugreek medicinally. In ayurvedic medicine, it's been praised as an aphrodisiac and digestive soother. Meanwhile, in Egypt, fenugreek seeds were used to promote milk production in lactating women and relieve menstrual cramps. Ground fenugreek has also been taken internally to induce childbirth and used externally as a poultice for soothing skin irritation and infections.
As you can see, there are about a million and one ways to use the plant medicine—but what makes it so effective?
Let's unpack the health benefits of fenugreek.
Fenugreek is jam-packed with nutrients. One tablespoon of the seeds contains 3 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber, 20 percent of your daily value of iron, and 5 percent of your daily value of magnesium—all for just 36 calories. Plus, fenugreek packs a variety of health-promoting phytochemicals. "Commonly used for gastrointestinal disorders, diabetes, and dysmenorrhea, the seed of fenugreek contains flavonoids, alkaloids, coumarins, and saponins," says Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., an integrative neurologist. "It's these constituents that seem to offer powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-platelet activity, among other benefits."
And while there isn't enough evidence to officially recommend fenugreek to treat any specific health condition (more comprehensive clinical trials are needed), preliminary research does suggest this seed packs a serious health punch, thanks to its impressive nutritional profile. Here are a few ways it may help you:
1. It balances blood sugar and lowers cholesterol.
A pre-meal swig of apple cider vinegar isn't the only thing that will help keep blood sugar levels in check. Fenugreek seems to slow the absorption of sugars in the stomach and stimulate insulin, both of which help lower blood sugar in people with (or at risk for) type 2 diabetes. "Fenugreek is high in fiber and protein, so some of its benefits, like blood sugar management and appetite control, are thought to come from that," says Cording.
Fenugreek's gel-like soluble fiber is also thought to combine with bile acid and lower triglycerides and LDL cholesterol levels. In a recent study, 140 subjects with prediabetes were given either a placebo or 5 grams of fenugreek seed powder twice a day before meals over the course of three years. The fenugreek group experienced a significant reduction in fasting blood glucose levels and post-meal blood glucose levels and a drop in LDL "bad" cholesterol. But most impressively, at the conclusion of the study, the placebo group had a 4.2 times greater chance of developing diabetes compared to the people taking fenugreek.
Fenugreek powder may also help prevent blood sugar spikes when incorporated into baked goods, with one small study finding that bread containing 5 percent fenugreek powder was more effective at reducing insulin resistance among people with diabetes than regular wheat bread. Additional research shows that drinking fenugreek tea (made by mixing fenugreek seed powder in hot water) may be even more effective at balancing blood sugar and lowering cholesterol than consuming the seeds incorporated into food.
2. It provides relief from painful periods.
Dysmenorrhea (the physical pain and cramping associated with periods) has plagued women since the beginning of time. Various cultures, like the ancient Egyptians, looked to natural remedies like fenugreek and even cannabis to alleviate symptoms. Now, researchers suspect that the anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties of fenugreek seeds may be one big reason they've stood the test of time as a natural remedy.
In one study, women were either given a placebo or 900 milligrams of fenugreek seed powder three times a day for the first three days of their period for two consecutive menstrual cycles. While the severity of pain was reduced in both groups, the duration of pain decreased significantly in the second cycle of the fenugreek group only. Symptoms of fatigue, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and lack of energy also decreased with fenugreek, and no side effects were reported. (Here's how to tell if your period is signaling a hormonal imbalance.)
3. It can soothe bloating, constipation, and GI distress.
Long used as a digestive aid in ayurvedic medicine, fenugreek works to keep our guts happy and bowels moving in a few different ways. The most obvious way fenugreek combats constipation is with its high content of soluble fiber (3 grams per tablespoon). Soluble fiber absorbs water and adds bulk to stools, helping things move along smoothly. Since constipation often causes bloating and cramping, fenugreek may help alleviate those symptoms as well. (Want more ways to beat bloat? Try these eight science-backed tips.)
Fenugreek may also have demulcent properties, relieving irritation of the mucus membranes in the digestive tract by forming a protective film or coating of mucus over them. "Some people find that fenugreek helps with acid reflux," says Amy Shah, M.D., an immunologist and mindbodygreen Collective member. "The exact mechanisms are still a question, but it may pull lubrication into the GI tract so that both acid reflux and other stomach ailments get better." These properties may also help to prevent or heal a leaky gut.
For similar reasons, fenugreek might have anti-ulcer potential. One study on animals found that a gel solution derived from fenugreek seeds had comparable anti-ulcer effects to omeprazole, a proton-pump inhibitor found in medications like Prilosec. The fenugreek solution protected the mucus membrane layer of the stomach from damage and reduced the secretion of stomach acid—a reaction that could be promising for those with recurring heartburn and indigestion.
4. It increases breast milk production.
Fenugreek supplements and teas are used frequently among nursing women around the world with low milk supply. While more research needs to be done to evaluate the safety of fenugreek in breastfeeding, there are many anecdotal accounts from patients and health care providers that it holds promise as a galactagogue (an herb or food that increases milk supply). "My female clients who are nursing love lactation cookies with fenugreek in them," says Cording. Of course, talk to your doctor or health care provider before adding fenugreek to your nursing routine to determine if it's right for you.
5. It provides relief for inflammatory skin conditions.
Throughout history, fenugreek has also been applied externally as a way to treat wounds and furunculosis (a deep infection of the hair follicle) and soothe inflammatory skin conditions like eczema. It can either be administered as a poultice on the skin or added to a warm bath. "The seeds can be soaked overnight and made into a paste to heal inflammation on the skin such as a sunburn," suggests Shah.
While more research should be done to confirm its effectiveness in humans, fenugreek has been shown to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which may support these uses. One animal study, for example, found that a fenugreek seed extract had significant anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving activity when applied to a paw edema in rats.
6. It increases sex drive for men and women.
Fenugreek has long been used as an aphrodisiac in ayurvedic medicine. And research now suggests that compounds from its seeds (called saponins) may stimulate production of sex hormones, including testosterone and a form of estrogen called estradiol.
In one small study, men who took 600 milligrams of fenugreek extract daily for six weeks experienced more orgasms and increased sexual arousal, energy, and stamina. They also maintained healthy testosterone levels. Another study found that the same dose of fenugreek extract had a positive effect on women with low sex drive. After eight weeks of supplementation, women experienced a significant increase in free testosterone and estradiol and had increased sexual desire and arousal. Estradiol is a hormone that aids in lubrication, helping combat vaginal dryness and irritation, which could make sex more enjoyable.
A few other potential health benefits of fenugreek.
Some very preliminary studies have also looked at fenugreek's potential to aid in weight loss, improve exercise performance, and alleviate arthritis symptoms. But these claims aren't yet well-established by research, nor do they have as much anecdotal evidence behind them as some of the benefits above.
What you should look for in a fenugreek supplement.
Fenugreek is available in a few different forms: as whole seeds, ground powder, supplement capsules, and in teas. "For medicinal purposes, capsule formulations are the best form," says Ruhoy. That's because most brands use a standardized 500 milligrams of fractionated tempered fenugreek seeds, which is the form typically used in most studies. Plus, taking a capsule makes it easier to study any benefits you may experience, since you can keep track of how many you take much more easily than remembering how much fenugreek you sprinkled into a recipe.
There's no single recommended or ideal dose for fenugreek, since it may vary depending on the condition you're treating. But with supplements, it's likely a good idea to start with 500 milligrams per day and work your way up to the recommended dose on the label (usually 1,000 milligrams) as long as you don't experience any adverse side effects. Of course, you should always talk with your health care provider about dosing and whether fenugreek might interact with any of your current medications.
Since the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate dietary supplements, it's smart to seek out a fenugreek supplement that's been tested by a credible third-party group like NSF, UL, or USP. These certifications verify that a supplement contains what the label says it contains and that it isn't contaminated with dangerous substances.
A few ways to use fenugreek seeds and powder.
If you don't go the supplement route, cooking with fenugreek seeds and seed powder is a simple, inexpensive way to boost your overall health and infuse some extra flavor into your meals. You can usually find them at specialty markets, and they're widely available online. Be sure to store whole and ground fenugreek in an airtight container in a cool, dry, and dark place like a pantry. Typically, this will keep them fresh for up to six months.
Here are a few recipes to start experimenting with:
Take a straight spoonful: "Overnight-soaked fenugreek seeds are my preference," says Shah. Just take a spoonful in the morning to set yourself up for optimal digestion and balanced blood sugar.
Make a soothing tea: Another simple fenugreek recipe that Shah endorses: "Mix a spoonful of the powder into warm water and drink it." Or, to up the complexity a bit, you can boil whole fenugreek seeds with a couple of cardamom pods and a chamomile tea bag for 20 minutes. Serve with honey for a little extra sweetness and to complement fenugreek's naturally maple-y taste.
Make a sprouted salad topper: You can actually sprout whole fenugreek seeds, just as you would other seeds and beans, says Shah. Simply leave them overnight in water and then change the water in the morning, repeat for 2 to 3 days until you see green sprouts, then toss them into a salad or a grain dish for added flavor and texture.
Use as a sweet or savory flavor booster: "Experiment with using fenugreek seeds and powder in spice blends, grain dishes, and other recipes," says Cording. Ground fenugreek seeds are often used in curries and can also be sprinkled into a variety of sauces, onto cooked greens or other vegetables, and into plain yogurt. For something savory and warm, try this inflammation-taming soup featuring fenugreek and turmeric. Or if you're craving something sweet, without the blood sugar spike, try out this fenugreek rice pudding.
Are there any side effects I should watch out for?
Fenugreek appears to be relatively safe in humans, and the most commonly reported side effects are minor, including gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea and dizziness if taken in high amounts, says Ruhoy. Keep in mind, though, that all children should also avoid fenugreek supplements, as there's not enough evidence to establish that it's safe for them. Some evidence suggests fenugreek may worsen asthma symptoms as well. Consuming it as a flavor-boosting ingredient in foods, however, is likely safe.
If you're on diabetes, blood-thinning, or anti-platelet medication, you should only use fenugreek under the care of a physician. Fenugreek may amplify the effects of these medications, potentially dropping your blood sugar levels too low or impairing your blood's ability to clot.
Additionally, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) suggests that pregnant women should avoid fenugreek since it may affect uterine contractions. Fenugreek also influences sex hormones, including estrogen, in the body and may be unsafe for women with hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, and endometrial cancer.
So there you have it! Enjoy exploring the seriously diverse benefits of this ancient plant medicine.
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