Allah’s Medicine Chest: Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)
By Hwaa Irfan
With a strong aromatic taste and aroma liken to celery, the geometric rhomboid seeds of the Fenugreek are rich in dietary fibre, phosphates and absorbable iron. The fresh leaves are used by Indians as tasty spinach, which can also be dried to be used as a flavoring. On a therapeutic level the seeds have been traditionally used for a variety of uses including arthritis, lactation in nursing mothers, sinus problems, and excess mucus for example. Fenugreek seeds have a long medicinal and culinary history in the Middle East, amongst the Egyptians, and in Rome and Greece.
As a member of the plant family kingdom of Leguminosae, it’s Latin name, Foenum-graecum means “Greek Hay” as fenugreek was used to improve low grade hay. Known in English as fenugreek/Bird’s foot, and helbah in Arabic, methi in Urdu, abish in Aramaic, Allibre in Basque, Wuh louh ba/ hú lú bā in Chinese, and Semen Foenugraeci in pharmaceutics, Trigonella foenum-graecum is an annual plant native to the Mediterranean, and has become naturalized in Africa, India, and South Europe. Growing up to 2 feet, the simple stems bears trifoliate leaves, which are oblong in shape. The light yellow flowers are solitary. The rhomboid shaped seeds number up to 20 inside sickle shaped pods appearing brownish-yellow on the outside, but on the inside they are yellow. With a groove down the centre of each side, the seeds appear like two uneven lobes.
Commercial cultivation of the seeds today is prominent in Africa, Asia, France and Germany. One can find many product derivatives on the market today not least of all powdered fenugreek. However, the problem with powdered fenugreek in places like the U.S., for example is that it can be found to be adulterated with starchy material, probably to make the it look more bulky, but fenugreek itself has no starch!
- 4-hydroxyisoleucine (free amino acid)
- Apigenin (flavanoids)
- Arginine (free amino acid)
- Choline (alkaloid)
- Histidine (free amino acid)
- Isovitexin (flavanoid)
- Lecithin (phosphate)
- Luteolin (flavanoid)
- Lysine (free amino acid)
- Nucleoalbumin (phosphate)
- Orientin (flavanoid)
- Pyrazines (toasted seeds)
- Quercetin (flavanoid)
- Trigonelline (alkaloid)
- Vitexin (flavanoid)
Prophet Muhammed (SAW) is reported to have said that if people knew the benefits of fenugreek they would treat it like gold. Given the long list of identified bioactive compounds Prophet Muhammed (SAW) hit the nail on its head!
With the growing arena of patenting life forms in the pharmaceutical industry a 2002 claim (patent application # 20040009247) was made in the U.S. on bioactive compound 4-hydroxyisoleucine and others ability to “facilitating and supporting the metabolism and transport of glucose and carbohydrates into muscle cells” The claimant noted 4-hydroxyisoleucine’s ability to stimulate the production of insulin under specified conditions, useful in the treatment of hyperglycemia, glucosuria and hyperlipidemia.
The alkaloid, Trigonelline reduces inflammation in cases or urinary tract infection.
The many therapeutic qualities include:
For glossary see It All Makes Good Scents!
Rich in phytoestrogens, Fenugreek seeds have proven the test of time in both folk and traditional medicines as a galactogogue, i.e. increasing milk flow in nursing mothers. Science has identified the key bioactive compound as diosgenin given that there are some similarities between phytoestrogens and the female sex hormone estrogen.
A double-blind study gave either 500mg of fenugreek seed husk extract/placebo twice a day to 88 menopausal women. All of the women were suffering moderate to severe discomfort and were experiencing 3-5 hot flashes a day. The women who took the fenugreek had significantly greater improvement on the Greene Climacteric Scale. The women who got the placebo had little improvement: from 34.25 at the beginning of the study to 30.49 at the end; the women who got the fenugreek had significantly greater improvement: from 34.83 to 19.64. Hot flashes decreased by 47.8% on fenugreek, and 32% of the women who took fenugreek had no hot flashes at all. There was also significant improvement in night sweats (57.1%), insomnia (75%) and headaches (53.9%) compared to placebo. Vaginal dryness improved significantly more in the fenugreek group.
Fenugreek was also superior to placebo for psychological symptoms. Mood swings improved by a significant 68.2%. Depression, anxiety and loss of sexual desire all improved significantly more on fenugreek. Compared to placebo, there was also a significant improvement in quality of life in the fenugreek group. The women who took fenugreek experienced improvements in physical and mental fatigue, concentration and interest in daily work as well as overall health, mental health and well-being.
The fenugreek also reduced total cholesterol, the dangerous LDL cholesterol and triglycerides without lowering the heart healthy HDL cholesterol in women who had elevated cholesterol.
In the fenugreek group, estradiol increased by 120% versus less than 5% in the placebo group. The researchers say that the increase in estrogen and the improvement in menopause symptoms “point towards the establishment of a healthy hormonal balance.” There was no toxicity and no adverse events in the fenugreek group (Phytother Res 2016;doi:10.1002/ptr.5680).
Another hormonal problem fenugreek helps is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Women with PCOS suffer from 2 of elevated male hormones, infrequent or lack of periods and enlarged ovaries with lots of small cysts. 50 women with PCOS took 500mg of fenugreek seed extract twice a day for 3 months. The fenugreek seed extract significantly increased both luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone. At the end of the study, fenugreek had brought about a nonsignificant reduction in volume in the left ovary and a significant reduction in the right ovary. By the end of the study, 71% of women had regular menstrual cycles. 12% became pregnant during the study: an important improvement, since PCOS is the most common cause of ovulatory infertility. Fenugreek reduced cyst size in 46% of the women. 36% completely shrunk their cysts. Overall, 94% of women experienced improvement either from shrinking or eliminating their cysts, returning to regular menstrual cycle or becoming pregnant (Int J Med Sci 2015;12:825-31).
In Ayurvedic medicine, fenugreek is suggested for those living in cold climates, and for those whose extremities are always cold as fenugreek seeds are warming to the body. In this cases, it is recommended that the fenugreek should be fresh or dried. In Ayurvedic medicine , besides the promotion of milk, the seeds are also used to promote menses where there is delay, noting that diosgenin also helps to reduce menopausal symptoms, and to reduce the risk of colon cancer. It is also recommended for those who suffer general debility, or who suffer from tuberculosis.
As discovered by the claimants who aimed to patent a fraction of fenugreek, Ayurvedic medicine also applies fenugreek in the application of cholesterol reduction, i.e. the bad cholesterol, LDL = low level density lipoprotein, and the effect is significant.
Number of studies have proven the efficacy of fenugreek seeds in controlling Type I and Type II diabetes as the galactomannan content, slows down the rate at which sugar is absorbed into the blood, as well as reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease with the support of 4-hydroxyisoleucine’s which induces insulin production.
In Chinese Traditional Medicine, fenugreek is suggested for kidney patients, as a diuretic promoting the flow of urine, and in both Ayurvedic and Chinese Traditional Medicines, it is recommended to induce labour. The high fiber content helps the digestive tract to function properly adding bulk to the stool.
The German Commission have found fenugreek seeds to contain secretolytic properties, which demonstrates the ability to rid the body of excess mucus, an important tool in upper respiratory tract infections. The reputable British Pharmacopoeia notes the demulcent qualities, i.e. soothing, and its hypoglycemic action, which is important in the attempt to lower high blood pressure, but must be avoided by those who have hypoglycemia, i.e. low sugar in blood which is a result of too much insulin or low food intake.
Scholars of Hadith recommend a decoction of fenugreek seeds for sore throats which falls in line with the findings of the German Commission which recommend fenugreek seeds for infections of the upper respiratory tract. It eases sore throats as an antiseptic including tonsillitis, and severe coughs. In the Punjab a decoction of fenugreek seeds makes a good remedy for dandruff, adding tone to the hair.
The rich soluable iron content is what is relied on in rural communities where hard work is frequent for the relief of fatigue,. As the iron is easily digested and absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract, one would recommend it for pregnant women in replace of the less digestible iron supplement if it was not for the fact that fenugreek seeds can also induce labor being a spasmolytic!
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B₁
- Vitamin C
Nowadays, fenugreek seeds can be bought in multitudinous of forms, from capsules, to extracts, as well as powders. If choosing a supplement over the actual seeds, be mindful that the actual herb/spice, fenugreek seeds is more beneficial than the supplement, which like all supplements are reduced versions of the original, and thus carry with them a list of potential side effects! If one is pregnant, or has epilepsy, diabetes, high level of bad cholesterol one should first discuss it with one’s doctor, especially if one is on a medication for any of those conditions, and one is considering the supplement. The herb/spice itself once bought should be stored void of moisture and light.
Appetite – In the Punjaba decoction of 5g of seeds to 1 pint increases the appetite in cases of anorexia.
Ears – A cup of fenugreek seed tea taken 3 x daily provides a good relief from Tinnitus – hypersensitivity to noise, due to the saponin content. A tea can be made by soaking 500g of fenugreek seeds in five ounces of cold water. After three hours (nothing good comes easily) the infusion can be drunk hot or cold.
Fevers – To reduce/prevent fevers, soak the seeds in water until they swell to form a thick consistency then apply as a poultice.
Gastrointestinal – A decoction of 1 ounce of seeds to 1 pint of water drunken, reduces internal inflammation of the stomach and intestines.
Hair – Added to shampoo, fenugreek seeds keeps dark hair dark.
Skin – To improve the condition of brown skin, in Ayurvedic medicine a paste from the seeds are made including chick peas, mustard oil, and turmeric, as the paste smoothes the skin, and gives it a glow. A poultice of the powdered seeds reduces inflammation where applied and helps to relieve skin irritation. A decoction of 1 ounce of seeds to 1 pint of water used as a poultice reduces abscesses, and boils.
Menses – A decoction of 1 ounce of seeds to 1 pint of water acts as an emmenagogue restoring balance to the menstrual cycle, and eases menopausal symptoms.
Pregnancy – In the Punjab a decoction of 5g of seeds to 1 pint increases the milk flow in nursing mothers.
Respiratory – A decoction of the tea reduces inflammation of the throat, eases breathing, and used as a wash the rectum and vagina, also reduced inflammation. The decoction can be made by using 1 ounce of seeds to 1 pint of water. In the Punjab a fine powder of fenugreek seeds is mixed with honey bees wax and used as a poultice to relieve chest pains, but is not a solution for angina or cardiac problems.
Urinary – A lukewarm decoction of the seeds increases the flow of urine, and 5g of seed to 1 pint of water as a decoction stems diarrhea.
In balance He gave us everything we needed, but as for what we want!
Felter, H.W. and Lloyd, U. King’s American Dispensatory, 1898”
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