Medically reviewed on June 7, 2018
What is Fenugreek?
A member of the bean family, fenugreek grows as an upright annual with long, slender stems reaching 30 to 60 cm tall. The plant bears grey-green, 3-toothed leaves, and white or pale yellow flowers appear in summer and develop into long, slender, sword-shaped seed pods with a curved, beaklike tip. Each pod contains about 10 to 20 small, yellowish-brown, angular seeds, which are dried to form the commercial spice. The plant thrives in full sun and in rich, well-drained soils, and has a spicy odor that remains on the hands after contact.
What is it used for?
Fenugreek herb has been used for centuries as a cooking spice in Europe and remains a popular ingredient in pickles, curry powders, and spice mixtures in India and other parts of Asia. In folk medicine, fenugreek has been used to treat boils, inflammation of the cells and connective tissue, and tuberculosis. It was a key ingredient in a 19th century patent medicine Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, which was used for painful menstruation and postmenopausal symptoms. It has also has been recommended to stimulate milk production. Fenugreek seeds have been used as an oral insulin substitute, and seed extracts have been reported to lower blood glucose levels. The maple smell and flavor of fenugreek has led to its use in imitation maple syrup. The seeds are rich in protein, and the plant is grown as animal forage. The remaining residue is rich in nitrogen and potassium, and is used as an agricultural fertilizer.
Limited clinical trial data suggest fenugreek extracts may have a role in the therapy of lipid disorders, diabetes, and Parkinson disease; however, studies were limited and provided inconsistent dosing information, making it difficult to provide recommendations.
What is the recommended dosage?
Wide-ranging dosages and differing preparations have been used in clinical studies. A standardized extract of fenugreek seeds is available, and a trial evaluated its use in patients with Parkinson disease at 300 mg twice daily for a period of 6 months. Studies in patients with type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol have used 5 g/day of seeds or 1 g/day of fenugreek extract.
Contraindications have not yet been identified. Avoid if an allergy to any member of the Fabaceae family exists. Cross-reactivity to chickpea, peanut, or coriander allergy is possible.
Avoid use in pregnancy. Fenugreek has documented uterine stimulant effects and has been used in traditional medicine to induce childbirth. Studies in pregnant mice have shown intrauterine growth retardation and fetal malformations related to fenugreek seed consumption. Fenugreek has been used to stimulate milk production in breast-feeding women; however, the extent of transmission of fenugreek-derived constituents into breast milk is unknown.
Interactions with blood-thinning and low blood sugar agents are possible; monitor therapy.
Stomach problems and mild abdominal distention have been reported in studies using large doses of the seeds. When ingested in culinary quantities, there are usually no side effects. Allergy to fenugreek is recognized.
Acute toxicity from large doses of fenugreek has not been described, although low blood sugar is possible.