Interest in natural remedies has skyrocketed, with more people turning to food as medicine. That means functional foods-foods that have a positive impact on health beyond the nutrients they provide-are in demand. One functional food that’s currently buzzing is fenugreek (or halba in Malay), a clover-like herb with several research-backed health benefits. Here’s what to know about fenugreek, including what those key health benefits are and important safety precautions to keep in mind.
First, a bit about fenugreek
Fenugreek is native to southern Europe, western Asia, and the Mediterranean, where it has a long history of being used as a functional food, according to the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health (US), a section of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Its popularity as a functional food has since made its way to the US. There are a few ways to consume fenugreek. The herb is often included in ground spice blends as a flavouring agent. It’s also sold as a supplement, typically in capsule form. Fenugreek seeds, which smell and taste like maple syrup, have been traditionally used in both cooking and medicine.
A 2017 report published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research refers to fenugreek as a “small plant with big benefits” for disease prevention and health promotion. The researchers noted that the herb is one of the oldest medicinal plants used in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, with modern clinical studies to support its use for a variety of outcomes. The plant’s benefits are likely due to its numerous bioactive compounds, which include polyphenol and flavonoid antioxidants.
What are the health benefits of fenugreek?
Fenugreek actually only offers limited amounts of nutrients, especially considering the small amount of the herb you’d typically consume. But vitamins and minerals aren’t the main reason you might want to try fenugreek. Here are some health benefits that research suggests fenugreek may offer:
One recent meta-analysis looked at a dozen previously published studies related to fenugreek and blood sugar control. Researchers found that the herb significantly decreased levels of fasting blood glucose in people with diabetes or pre-diabetes. No reports of liver or kidney toxicity were found, and the main side effect of fenugreek use was digestive discomfort.
Another science-backed fenugreek benefit is its ability to positively impact blood cholesterol. A 2020 meta-analysis that pooled previously published data concluded that fenugreek supplementation significantly reduced total cholesterol, as well as “bad” LDL cholesterol, while increasing levels of “good” protective HDL cholesterol. The herb was particularly effective for people with diabetes who aim to improve heart disease risk factors. That’s key because individuals with diabetes are twice as likely to develop heart disease according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Another recent meta-analysis reviewed fenugreek’s impact on cardiac risk factors and found that the supplement was effective in reducing total cholesterol and LDL, as well as fasting blood sugar and HbA1c. (HbA1c is a measure of how well-controlled blood sugar has been over a period of about three months.) Scientists conclude that fenugreek may be useful as a complementary therapy to control cardiometabolic risk factors, but they caution that further research should be conducted to assess its effectiveness.
Menstrual cramp relief
Fenugreek is often cited as a remedy for menstrual cramps, and some research supports this. A study from the Journal of Reproduction & Fertility looked at the impact of 900 mg of fenugreek seed powder in capsule form vs. a placebo on menstrual pain in female study subjects. Scientists concluded that those who had received fenugreek experienced a significantly larger reduction in period pain. The fenugreek seed group also decreased other symptoms, including fatigue, headache, nausea, vomiting, lack of energy, and fainting. No side effects of its use were reported.
Increased milk supply when breastfeeding
This benefit is a tricky one. Fenugreek has long been recommended to increase milk supply in breastfeeding women, as the NIH points out. Some research does support the connection, but the results are mixed. One study pointed to limited research to support the effectiveness and safety of using herbs, including fenugreek, during breastfeeding.
A 2018 study published in Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine called for practitioners to discuss both the benefits and potential harms of using fenugreek to support breastfeeding. Possible risks cited include the herb’s blood-thinning effects, interactions with medications and pre-existing conditions, and impact on appetite and hydration status.
Fenugreek also plays a role in men’s health. A 2020 study states that clinical trials suggest fenugreek extract may increase total testosterone levels in males. An older study found no such increase in testosterone, but it did show that a fenugreek supplement had an overall positive effect on libido among 60 men between 25 and 52 years old. This included improvements in sexual arousal and orgasm, in addition to self-reported satisfaction with muscle strength, energy, and well-being.
Research from 2017, conducted in 50 men between 35 and 65, found that a patented fenugreek supplement increased testosterone in 90% of the study volunteers by up to 46%. Plus, 85% of the study participants had greater sperm counts. The men also experienced improvements in mental alertness, mood, and libido.
Side effects and precautions
If you’re interested in trying fenugreek for any therapeutic purpose, seek the guidance of your primary care physician or registered dietitian first. Theoretically, patients who are allergic to other foods in the same plant family could suffer an allergic reaction to fenugreek. This includes allergies to soybeans, peanuts, chickpeas, green peas, and other legumes. Fenugreek can also affect certain lab tests and is known to interact with other supplements and some medications, including blood thinners and medications for diabetes and lung conditions.
Other potential fenugreek side effects include gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhoea, bloating, nausea, and flatulence. The NIH cautions that cases of liver toxicity have been reported in people taking fenugreek alone or with other herbs. Also, fenugreek is not safe for use during pregnancy in any amount greater than what’s found in food and should not be used by children as a supplement.
Finally, there is no standardised formulation or dose for fenugreek supplements, so it’s important to be sure that the amount and length of use are appropriate for your needs. While fenugreek is all-natural and has some impressive research to back its benefits, there’s a lot to take into account in order to use it properly. Work with a health professional to help you navigate this or any other herb.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health‘s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
This story first appeared on www.health.com
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