Imagine a nutrient that could protect against some of the most prevalent diseases in the world today. No doubt that if such an ingredient existed, everyone would be trying to get their hands on it and it would be the talk of the day, month or even year. What if I told you that there might be one ingredient which could potentially offer such protection? Pretty exciting right? Let me introduce you then to Fenugreek.
What is Fenugreek?
Fenugreek, Greek Hay or Trigonella foesnum-graecum is a plant which has been around for millennia and has been used as both a herb and as a spice. Grown and cultivated mostly in India, the medicinal effects of Fenugreek has been known for centuries and over the past decade or so has had increasing interests in its ability to cure a range of modern day ailments. Traditionally in regions where it is grown, it is often used in cuisine in the production of pickles, curries as well as different cooking pastes. However, Fenugreek has also had a historical use as being able to help with diabetes, high cholesterol levels, arthritis and even with libido. While Fenugreek has been used in the natural dietary supplement industry for years for exactly these reasons, recently, studies have come out showing Fenugreek’s ergogenic effects in the exercising world.
Latest Research in Fenugreek
While research into beneficial properties of Fenugreek has been occurring since the early 60s, it has only been recently that human studies have been conducted with Fenugreek. That being said, let’s examine the available evidence thus far behind Fenugreek and its many beneficial effects and how you can make the most of it in everyday life as well as in training.
Fenugreek & Diabetes
Diabetes is one of the most common diseases in the world and as it is a chronic condition, once you get it, it’ll be with you for the rest of your life. In Australia alone, 1 person is diagnosed with diabetes every 5 minutes with over 1.7 million people affected1. This figure is however believed to be a gross underestimation though, as many cases go undiagnosed. With that in mind, having poor blood glucose control and insulin resistance can affect your training and your health. Long term high blood sugars puts strain on your blood vessels which is important for the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to your muscles. Long term high insulin levels can result in increased fat storage and thus weight gain. Fenugreek has long been known in countless animal studies to be effective as having hypoglycaemic effects2,3,4,5. Only fairly recently has this effect also been significantly displayed in human trials.
- Sharma (1986)6 was able to show a reduction of 42% in the blood glucose response with a preparation containing 25g whole fenugreek seeds and 150g of fenugreek leaves.
- Gupta et al (2001)7 showed improved blood glucose control, improved insulin sensitivity and decreased insulin resistance with 1g/day of fenugreek seed extract.
- Kassaian et al (2009)8 demonstrated that consumption of powdered fenugreek seeds soaked in hot water was able to reduce fasting blood sugar levels by up to 25% in type 2 diabetics.
- Losso et al (2009)9 showed that subjects who consumed bread made from 5% fenugreek flour managed better the rises in blood glucose and insulin.
The mechanism by which fenugreek is able to exert its hypoglycaemic effects have been proposed to be due to the presence of the free amino acid, 4-hydroxyisoleucine10, which has been shown in the lab to stimulate insulin production. Indeed there are some promising aspects with the use of Fenugreek as an adjunct therapy for insulin resistance and progression to diabetes as well as for diabetics themselves.
Fenugreek & Cholesterol
Raised cholesterol and blood lipid levels puts you at greater risk of developing cardiovascular diseases as they can easily progress to diabetes and atherosclerosis. While exercise can raise your good “HDL” cholesterol levels to shift the ratio of the good to bad “LDL” cholesterol, only diet will really significantly affect cholesterol levels. Progression of atherosclerosis can affect the flow of blood and slow it down which can wreak havoc on the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to your muscles. The chance of suffering adverse cardiac events during exercise can be increased with chronically raised cholesterol and blood lipid levels. As such it is a good idea to attempt to reduce those levels of which the use of Fenugreek can offer some positive results.
- Mitra et al (2006)11 conducted a study on 80 subjects with type 2 diabetes and dyslipidaemia (high lipid levels) and found that there was a beneficial dose dependent effect of Fenugreek supplementation on lipid fractions. In this case, the more you took, the better your lipid and cholesterol profiles were, up to 100g/day of Fenugreek seeds. Fasting blood sugars were also positively affected and was also dose dependent.
- Moosa et al (2009)12 was able to show that 25g of Fenugreek seed powder consumed twice a day was able to significantly reduce total cholesterol, triglycerides and the bad “LDL” cholesterol moreso than those who didn’t consume the Fenugreek seed supplement.
It has been proposed that the high fibre content of Fenugreek as well as important substances and compounds within Fenugreek such as mucilage and saponins10 are responsible for its cholesterol lowering abilities. An increased conversion of liver cholesterol into bile so that it can be removed from the body is also another proposed way in which Fenugreek is able to reduce cholesterol levels10. Either way, there is some hopeful evidence for Fenugreek’s ability to affect cholesterol and lipid levels and thus have a positive effect on the progression of cardiovascular disease.
Fenugreek & Weight Control
We’ve all heard the stories and the reports, that obesity levels are going up and how almost every single chronic disease under the sun is somehow related to obesity and increased fat levels. So it comes as no surprise that fat and weight loss is often on everybody’s mind. Maintaining a healthy weight however is hard work even without supplements, so having a nutrient that could give you a nudge in the right direction is definitely encouraging and helpful. From the lengthy article published earlier on fat and weight loss ingredients, one particularly interesting nutrient was not mentioned; Fenugreek. While animal studies have been able to show fenugreek as a successful appetite suppressant and hunger controller13,14,15, few human studies have been done.
- Chevassus et al (2009)16 was able to show that consumption of approximately 1g of Fenugreek extract was able to decrease fat intake in overweight subjects. While the decrease in fat intake was small, the result was significant.
- Mathern et al (2009)17 tested different amounts of Fenugreek fibre on 18 obese subjects and found that higher amounts corresponded to greater feelings of fullness and decreases in hunger. There was also a trend for decreased food consumption in the next meal.
As fat and weight loss supplements go, Fenugreek doesn’t appear to have such strong effects as other nutrients in the previous series of articles. However, sometimes, even a minor edge can help you lose those stubborn kilos.
Fenugreek as an Ergogenic Supplement
Fenugreek has also been implicated recently for its ability to offer ergogenic effects.
- Poole et al (2010)18 concluded in their study that a 500mg capsule of Fenugreek extract taken by resistance trained men was able to statistically increase upper and lower body strength as well improve body composition over those who didn’t consume the supplement under the same experimental conditions. However it is still unsure why this was so, as no changes in anabolic hormones and other hormones were seen between the two groups.
- Taylor et al (2011)19 recently examined Fenugreek and creatine. Creatine is one of the most well known and most effective ergogenic supplements out in the market20. As you may or may not be aware, creatine is absorbed into muscles similar to how glucose is absorbed. Therefore if Fenugreek has hypoglycaemic properties due to influences on insulin or its ability to mimic effects of insulin, then this could translate to greater absorption of creatine. Indeed, Taylor et al found that consumption of Fenugreek with creatine was similar to consumption of creatine with dextrose in terms of creatine uptake by muscles and follow on effects on strength and body composition.
While the research on the ergogenic properties of Fenugreek is still evolving, there is some great potential for improvements in strength and body composition with consumption of Fenugreek. In addition, by substituting Fenugreek with simple carbohydrates, those looking to lose weight can decrease their calorie consumption without affecting their creatine absorption abilities.
Fenugreek for Fat Loss
The supplement world is continually changing and it pays to keep abreast of new scientific information coming out on ingredients in order to stay ahead of the game. So far, we have seen the amazing potential of Fenugreek for issues such as diabetes, high cholesterol and lipid levels, obesity and weight loss as well as a possible ergogenic supplement for sports and exercise performance. On top of that, there are several other studies looking at Fenugreek and its ability to help with sexual libido and arthritis. There’s even an animal study looking at Fenugreek’s ability to protect against liver damage from excessive alcohol consumption.21 While it is still too early to conclusively prescribe dosages of Fenugreek in order to gain the beneficial effects, 1mg per day of Fenugreek seed extract seems to be enough to offer some positive effects. As with all supplements, remember that it is supplementing everyday good nutrition and should never be relied on as a fix to all your problems.
1 Diabetes Australia – www.diabetesaustralia.com.au – Last accessed 15th July 2011
2 Raju J, Gupta D, Rao AR, Yadava PK, Baquer NZ. ‘Trigonellafoenum graecum (fenugreek) seed powder improves glucose homeostasis in alloxan diabetic rat tissues by reversing the altered glycolytic, gluconeogenic and lipogenic enzymes.’ Mol Cell Biochem. 2001 Aug;224(1-2):45-51.
3 Ribes G, Sauvaire Y, Da Costa C, Baccou JC, Loubatieres-Mariani MM. ‘Antidiabetic effects of subfractions from fenugreek seeds in diabetic dogs.’ Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 1986 Jun;182(2):159-66.
4 Hannan JM, Ali L, Rokeya B, Khaleque J, Akhter M, Flatt PR, Abdel-Wahab YH. ‘Soluble dietary fibre fraction of Trigonella foenum-graecum (fenugreek) seed improves glucose homeostasis in animal models of type 1 and type 2 diabetes by delaying carbohydrate digestion and absorption, and enhancing insulin action.’ Br J Nutr. 2007 Mar;97(3):514-21.
5 Xue WL, Li XS, Zhang J, Liu YH, Wang ZL, Zhang RJ. ‘Effect of Trigonella foenum-graecum (fenugreek) extract on blood glucose, blood lipid and hemorheological properties in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats.’ Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2007;16 Suppl 1:422-6.
6 Sharma RD. ‘Effects of fenugreek seeds and leaves on blood glucose and serum insulin responses in human subjects.’ Nutr Res. 1986; 6: 1353-64.
7 Gupta 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.
8 Kassaian N, Azadbakht L, Forghani B, Amini M. ‘Effect of fenugreek seeds on blood glucose and lipid profiles in type 2 diabetic patients.’ Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2009 Jan;79(1):34-9.
9 Jack N. Losso, Darryl L. Holliday, John W. Finley, Roy J. Martin, Jennifer C. Rood, Ying Yu and Frank L. Greenway. Journal of Medicinal Food. October 2009, 12(5): 1046-1049. doi:10.1089/jmf.2008.0199.
10 Al-Habori M & Raman A. ‘Antidiabetic and hypocholesterolaemic effects of fenugreek.’ Phytother Res 1998; 12: 233-242
11 Mitra A et al. ‘Dose-dependent effects of Fenugreek composite in Diabetes with dislipidaemia.’ Internet Journal of Food Safety. 2006: 8: 49-55
12 Moosa ASM et al. ‘Hypolipidemic effects of fenugreek seed powder.’ Bangladesh J Pharmacol 2006; 1: 64-67
13 Petit P, Sauvaire Y, Ponsin G, Manteghetti M, Fave A, Ribes G. 'Effects of a fenugreek seed extract on feeding behaviour in the rat: metabolic-endocrine correlates.' Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1993 Jun;45(2):369-74.
14 Petit PR, Sauvaire YD, Hillaire-Buys DM, Leconte OM, Baissac YG, Ponsin GR, Ribes GR. 'Steroid saponins from fenugreek seeds: extraction, purification, and pharmacological investigation on feeding behavior and plasma cholesterol.' Steroids. 1995 Oct;60(10):674-80.
15 Chevassus H, Gaillard JB, Farret A, Costa F, Gabillaud I, Mas E, Dupuy AM, Michel F, Cantié C, Renard E, Galtier F, Petit P. 'A fenugreek seed extract selectively reduces spontaneous fat intake in overweight subjects.' Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 2010 May;66(5):449-55. Epub 2009 Dec 18.
16 Mathern JR, Raatz SK, Thomas W, Slavin JL. 'Effect of fenugreek fiber on satiety, blood glucose and insulin response and energy intake in obese subjects.' Phytother Res. 2009 Nov;23(11):1543-8.
17 Poole C, Bushey B, Foster C, Campbell B, Willoughby D, Kreider R, Taylor L, Wilborn C. 'The effects of a commercially available botanical supplement on strength, body composition, power output, and hormonal profiles in resistance-trained males.' J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010 Oct 27;7:34.
18 Taylor L et al. 'Effects of combined creatine plus fenugreek extract vs. creatine plus carbohydrate supplementation on resistance training adaptations.' Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2011) 10, 254-260
19 Kreider RB et al. 'ISSN exercise & sport nutrition review: research & recommendations.' J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010; 7: 7.
20 Ruby BC, Gaskill SE, Slivka D, Harger SG. 'The addition of fenugreek extract (Trigonella foenum-graecum) to glucose feeding increases muscle glycogen resynthesis after exercise.' Amino Acids. 2005 Feb;28(1):71-6. Epub 2004 Dec 2.
21 Kaviarasan S, Sundarapandiyan R, Anuradha CV. 'Protective action of fenugreek (Trigonella foenum graecum) seed polyphenols against alcohol-induced protein and lipid damage in rat liver.' Cell Biol Toxicol. 2008 Oct;24(5):391-400. Epub 2008 Feb