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Fenugreek: Could This Ancient Plant Cure a Modern Disease?

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Posted Tuesday, Aug. 4th, 2015

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Could This Ancient Plant Cure a Modern Disease
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Imagine if Indiana Jones or Lara Croft went in search of Egyptian treasures – and returned bearing not a golden artifact but a simple dried plant seed…

It sounds like a comedy skit, but the truth is that this tiny treasure might be even more valuable than precious metals and jewels.

In fact, this little seed with roots in the ancient world claims to offer big benefits for a modern epidemic.

The disease I’m talking about is diabetes, a disorder that affects nearly 26 million Americans and growing.

The plant? Well, that’s called fenugreek.

And while more research is needed, a small body of evidence suggests that fenugreek seeds might help control blood sugar in people with diabetes.

But is this supplement really ready for prime time?

A Medicine for Millennia…

It’s no tall tale that fenugreek dates back to ancient Egypt. Indeed, the dried seeds of this plant were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen.

But the pharaoh didn’t keep fenugreek all to himself. The plant has been used for thousands of years, from ancient Greece and Rome to traditional Indian and Chinese medicine.

While fenugreek is used as a culinary spice today, it has a rich history of use as a medicine. Herbalists have long used the plant, its seeds, and its leaves as a remedy for a slew of ailments, including digestive problems, menopausal symptoms, and arthritis. It’s even said to help stimulate lactation (milk production) in nursing mothers.

So is this multi-tasking plant really the be all, end all of herbs?

In a word: no.

But fenugreek does show early promise for diabetes treatment. And that alone may make it worth its weight in gold—someday.

Sweet Relief?

There’s no doubt that diabetes is a big problem – and it’s only getting bigger: As I mentioned earlier, diabetes now affects nearly 26 million Americans.

Even more shocking, some 30 percent of American adults have pre-diabetes, which means they already have higher-than-normal levels of blood sugar and are at greater risk for type 2 diabetes.

Although proper diet and exercise can help normalize blood sugar, some people are still stuck taking medications and using insulin injections to treat diabetes.

So you can see why the promise of an herbal treatment is so exciting. And fenugreek contains amino acids and other compounds that may help improve blood sugar levels.

Intriguing, right? But let’s take a closer look at the research.

In one study of 25 people who were newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, those who took 1 gram of an extract of fenugreek seeds daily for two months had significantly lower levels of blood sugar and less insulin resistance compared to those who received usual care (diet and exercise recommendations).1

Plus, in a meta-analysis of nine randomized, controlled trials that looked at the effect of herbal supplements on glycemic (blood sugar) control, fenugreek was one of just a few that was found to be effective.2

A number of animal studies also suggest that fenugreek might help prevent or ease diabetes, but we’ll need to see their results replicated in humans to be sure.

Beyond Diabetes…

Fenugreek might have a long history of use as a medicinal remedy, but science is just starting to catch up with its claims. That means few studies so far have examined its value as a treatment for conditions other than diabetes.

For example, in the same study of 25 people with diabetes discussed earlier, those who supplemented with fenugreek also saw their levels of triglycerides (blood fats) decrease and their levels of HDL cholesterol rise.

Plus, a systematic review of herbal medicines named fenugreek as one of 22 natural products that appeared to help battle high cholesterol.3 Fenugreek is high in soluble fiber, which has been shown to lower cholesterol.

And what about fenugreek’s use in nursing women?

The herb has been used for centuries to help increase breast milk. In a study of 66 mother–infant pairs, moms who drank tea containing fenugreek every day produced more milk than those who didn’t drink it. But because researchers don’t yet know how fenugreek affects a woman’s breast milk, it’s too early to recommend it as safe.6

Promising But Possibly Problematic…

As the research stands right now, fenugreek seems like a promising potential remedy for diabetes and high blood sugar.

But that doesn’t mean you should run out, buy a bottle, and start supplementing just yet.

See, it’s just too soon to say for sure that it works. We’ll need many more studies before fenugreek truly proves itself as a viable addition to or replacement for conventional diabetes treatments.

Plus, most experts recommend taking between 1 and 6 grams of powdered fenugreek seed in capsule form a day to treat diabetes. That’s potentially a lot of capsules to add to your daily regimen ­– especially for a supplement that needs more research.

Fenugreek appears safe, but very high doses (more than 100 grams a day) may cause gastrointestinal side effects such as bloating, gas, nausea, and diarrhea, as well as nervousness, shaking, rapid heartbeat, and sweating. Fortunately, few of us would ever want – or be able – to consume that many capsules of fenugreek.

Because fenugreek can cause a serious allergic reaction, you should avoid it if you’re also allergic to related plants, including peanuts, peas, chickpeas, and soybeans. Also skip fenugreek if you take prescription diabetes medications, anticoagulants (blood thinners), and thyroid drugs, since the herb may interact with them.

That last piece of advice reveals another wrinkle with fenugreek. You shouldn’t use fenugreek as a replacement for diabetes drugs – but you shouldn’t take both, either, because they may interact with each other.

Don’t get me wrong. Fenugreek does show promise as a treatment for diabetes. But for now, the need for more research, plus the potential pill burden of multiple capsules per day, may make this ancient remedy a hope for the future – but not necessarily the present.

Instead, try supplementing with gymnema, cinnamon, and alpha lipoic acid, all of which we’ve written about, and all of which have much more extensive research on their proven abilities to help control blood sugar and insulin.

And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.

References

1Gupta A, Gupta R, Lal B. Effect of Trigonella foenum-graecum (fenugreek) seeds on glycaemic control and insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes mellitus: a double blind placebo controlled study. J Assoc Physicians India. 2001 Nov;49:1057-61.

2Chevassus H, Molinier N, Costa F, et al. A fenugreek seed extract selectively reduces spontaneous fat consumption in healthy volunteers. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 2009 Dec;65(12):1175-8.

3Chevassus H, Gaillard JB, Farret A, et al. A fenugreek seed extract selectively reduces spontaneous fat intake in overweight subjects. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 2010 May;66(5):449-55.

4Suksomboon N, Poolsup N, Boonkaew S, et al. Meta-analysis of the effect of herbal supplement on glycemic control in type 2 diabetes. J Ethnopharmacol. 2011 Oct 11;137(3):1328-33.

5Hasani-Ranjbar S, Nayebi N, Moradi L, et al. The efficacy and safety of herbal medicines used in the treatment of hyperlipidemia; a systematic review. Curr Pharm Des. 2010;16(26):2935-47.

6 Turkyılmaz C, Onal E, Hirfanoglu IM, et al. The effect of galactagogue herbal tea on breast milk production and short-term catch-up of birth weight in the first week of life. J Altern Complement Med. 2011 Feb;17(2):139-42.

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