Fenugreek has a long history of use as a food staple and was prized by the Romans, who used it to flavour wine. The first recorded use of fenugreek dates back over 6,000 years, making it one of the oldest spices still in use today.
The fenugreek plant produces seeds and leaves that infuse foods and beverages with a strong and distinctive flavour. It’s in the same family of plants as peas and chickpeas, as well as the medicinal root liquorice, and in addition to being a useful spice to have in your pantry, it could also provide a number of health benefits when used medicinally.
Health Benefits of Fenugreek
Fenugreek’s benefits apply whether you’re consuming it in the form of a herbal tea (such as a spiced masala chai) or a meal. These benefits refer to fenugreek seeds, which contain a number of healthy compounds.
1. It is Very Nutritious
Most herbs and spices contain an abundance of antioxidants that can help to heal the body in many ways. However, only a small number of these (including the uniquely scented rose hip and the hugely popular moringa, which is also known as horseradish tree leaf) can actually be considered nutritious.
Fenugreek is another plant we can add to that class, as it has a very attractive micronutrient profile and even has a decent amount of macronutrients.
A 30g serving of fenugreek seeds will give you roughly 30% of your recommended daily fibre intake, as well as around 7g of protein. It will also supply you with around half of your daily need for iron, as well around 1/6th of copper, manganese, and magnesium. It also contains smaller amounts of several B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.
2. It Contains a Number of Antioxidants
Fenugreek contains a number of flavonoids and saponins that support bodily functions and prevent oxidative stress. These antioxidant compounds can reduce your chances of developing many chronic diseases, including cancer, and they can also promote overall health.
One of these compounds, scopoletin, is actually found in the common stinging nettle as well as the natural antidepressant remedy passionflower, and it could be responsible for many of the more promising health benefits of these herbs.
3. It Could Help Regulate Blood Sugar
One of the ways that the many antioxidant compounds in fenugreek could help is in the regulation of blood sugar, making it a potential remedy for the treatment of diabetes, pre-diabetes, and hyperglycaemia.
A number of studies have looked at these effects, and a dozen of the best ones were compiled as part of a 2016 meta-analysis. It found that fenugreek could help reduce some of the markers associated with these conditions, although it also noted that the results were not hugely significant, suggesting that it’s not the best first-course treatment and that these effects are more of a welcome aside. (1)
4. It Can Soothe Digestive Issues
Many studies concern fenugreek’s ability to improve digestive health, including a 2011 study in which patients with chronic heartburn received it and reported a reduction in the severity of reflux in line with an OTC antacid. It also possesses many anti-inflammatory effects, which could help with inflammatory bowel disorders and may also reduce bloating and other gut issues. However, everyone is different, and one of the side effects of fenugreek is bloating and abdominal discomfort, so some users will note the exact opposite.
These anti-inflammatory effects could also alleviate pain associated with joint disorders like arthritis, although, based on current research, it seems there are many more effective and equally safe alternatives out there, including the root and leaves of the dandelion weed.
Other Health Benefits of Fenugreek
Some suggest that fenugreek can help relieve muscle cramps and aid in muscle recovery. However, the research surrounding this apparent benefit is very weak, and we’re a long way from knowing if this is true. If you’re looking for a herb that has more proven benefits in treating muscle soreness and aiding in recovery, try lemon verbena.
As with most herbs, it has also been suggested that fenugreek can help burn fat. But again, little evidence supports this. It is true that a diet rich in plant-based foods and natural antioxidants can lead to gradual fat loss, as you would expect when you swap saturated fat and refined sugar for natural fibres and enzymes, but a little fenugreek here and there will not lead to weight loss when no other dietary changes have been implemented.
Some studies have suggested that the improved weight loss is a result of fenugreek increasing testosterone levels, but a number of natural substances can increase testosterone levels and very few—if any—increase them long enough or significantly enough to impact weight loss, performance, or pretty much anything else.
We have seen research that suggests fenugreek can be an effective appetite suppressant, but we’ve also seen research that suggests it works as an appetite stimulant.
There are also some anecdotal reports suggesting several other benefits of fenugreek. These may be true, they may be linked to the placebo effect, or it may be a result of other dietary or lifestyle choices. It may provide you with some of the same effects, it may not. In the end, it doesn’t really matter—if it works for you in a positive way then that’s all you need to know.
Dangers and Risks
Fenugreek should not be consumed by pregnant women. It should be safe in very small amounts, and there’s no need to avoid it like you would a food allergen, but to be on the safe side, you should avoid consuming it in medicinal quantities as provided by fenugreek tea or tablets.
Most herbs and spices are not recommended in medicinal quantities for pregnant women because no one can be 100% sure that they don’t cause problems, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry. However, there’s more of an issue with fenugreek, as it has been linked to everything from early interactions to deformations. It is even said to cause the newborn baby’s skin to have a “foul odour” if consumed prior to delivery.
It’s a different story with breastfeeding, and there are actually studies that suggest it can help to stimulate breast milk and make it more nourishing, but we recommend discussing this with your doctor before taking a course of treatment. It should also be avoided by young children and anyone allergic to plants in the Fabaceae family.