Fenugreek is a popular spice in Indian cuisine and has a long use in both Ayervedic and Chinese traditional medicine, for uses including inducing lactation, inducing labor, aiding in digestion, and as a general health and wellness tonic (Basch et al., 2003; Gabay, 2002). Both animal and human clinical studies are finding that fenugreek shows promising therapeutic activity as a hypoglycemic and hypocholesterolaemic agent. The unique dietary fibers along with the high saponin content, and possibly an amino acid (4-Hydroxyisoleucine) in fenugreek is thought to be responsible for its activities (Madar, 2002; Sauvaire et al., 1998).
Vajifdar et al. (2000) included fenugreek dietary fiber in a dietary fiber mixture in a study which had favorable results on lowering LDL cholesterol, apolipoproteine A-1, body mass index and waist circumference. As the mechanisms of action of dietary fiber are assumed to be similar, this study shows promise for the use of fenugreek fiber for being helpful in ischemic heart disease. Likewise, fenugreek was found beneficial in the diabetic diet when combined with millet and legumes in another clinical study, and a combination of other herbs (Pathak et al., 2000; Bhardqaj et al., 1994).
Type I & II Diabetes
Madar et al. (2002) tested the dietary effect of fenugreek in type II diabetics (non-insulin dependent) following the meal tolerance test (MTT). Powdered fenugreek (15 g) was added to the diets of type II diabetics, and found to significantly reduce the postprandial glucose levels, and non-significantly lower the plasma insulin levels as well. There was no effect on the blood lipid levels after 3 hours following the MTT.
Gupta et al. (2001) performed a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study to determine the effect of fenugreek on glycemic control and insulin resistance in type II diabetics. The participants were given either fenugreek extract (hydroalcoholic; 1 g daily) or placebo for two months. Serum triglycerides were found to be reduced in the treatment group, as well as insulin control a a decrease in insulin resistance.
Sharma et al. (1990) tested the effect of fenugreek seeds on type I diabetic’s blood glucose levels and serum lipid profiles in a placebo-controlled clinical study. Fenugreek seed was administered in the treatment group diet (100 g daily), whereas isocaloric diets without fenugreek served as the control, and the diets were followed for 10 days. A 54% reduction in 24-hour urinary glucose excretion, along with significantly reduced serum total cholesterol, LDL, and VLDL cholesterol and triglycerides was found in the treatment group. The HDL levels remained unchanged between groups. The authors noted that fenugreek appeared useful in the diets of diabetics.
Sowmya and Rajyalakshmi (1999) tested the effect of dietary germinated fenugreek seed powder on blood lipid levels in hypocholesterolemic adults. Twenty participants were divided into two groups and asked to add the fenugreek powder to their meals for one month, the groups differed in the amount of fenugreek in the packet: either 12.5 g or 18 g daily. Both treatment levels resulted in a hypocholesterolemic effect, but the 18 g dosage resulted in significant reductions in total and LDL cholesterol levels. There were no changes found between the groups in HDL, VLDL and triglyceride levels. The authors claimed that the germination of the seeds was able to increase the solubility of the fiber content of fenugreek.
Safety / Dosage
Fenugreek seed powder has been found to be beneficial in the typical dosages of between 15-20 (and up) grams daily for reducing serum cholesterol levels and improving blood sugar control in diabetics. Fenugreek is considered quite safe, even at the higher doses needed for therapeutic use (Muralidhara et al., 1999). As is the case with other botanicals with high coumarin contents, there is concern with the potential adverse reaction of increasing bleeding, and an interaction with other blood-thinning drugs (Abebe, 2002).
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This monograph can be found in The Health Professional's Guide to Dietary Supplements (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins) by Shawn M. Talbott, PhD and Kerry Hughes, MS