Among the symphony of exotic spices that constitute a good, authentic Indian curry, you will find subtle, bittersweet maple syrup notes of fenugreek seed. Though Americans’ exposure to this spice is likely limited to those who favor Indian food, fenugreek is far more influential in the eastern part of the globe. By virtue of its role in curry dishes, fenugreek is an integral part of pan-Asian cuisine.
But fenugreek’s true significance lies in its long history of medicinal use, spanning Ayurvedic, Traditional Chinese Medicine and folk medicine t practices in cultures all over the ‘ world. With its traditional usages almost too numerous to count, modern science has zoomed in on two critical fenugreek functions: its ability to reduce both blood sugar and cholesterol. While these properties may appeal to anyone, they hold special promise for diabetes sufferers. (Visit Dean Coleman’s Herbal Information Page)
One of the oldest cultivated plants, fenugreek can be traced back to 1000 B.C., when Egyptian texts detailed its use as an embalming agent in the mummification process. Throughout history, fenugreek has proven itself as a multi-purpose herb; it has been prized as an aphrodisiac, used to enhance the appeal of stale fodder for livestock, roasted and brewed like coffee and even employed as a yellow dye for clothing. ^ Not lost upon the ancient cultures that first cultivated fenugreek were its healing properties. In Northern Africa, the Middle East and Far East, fenugreek has been used medicinally for thousands of years. A tonic herb, fenugreek’s myriad therapeutic usages include use as a treatment for arthritis and hair loss, male reproductive support, kidney health, wound healing and more. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, fenugreek is valued as a “warming” herb that stimulates digestion. And fenugreek has long been used to increase milk production in nursing mothers—for which it is still widely used today.
What is it? A member of the pea family, fenugreek (Trigonella foenumgmecuni) is a slender, flowering plant consumed as both an herb (leaves) and spice (seeds).
What does it do? The seeds have been used medicinally for thousands of years; modern research focuses on its ability to regulate blood sugar and reduce cholesterol.
How does fenugreek do it? The seeds are up to 25% galactomannan, a type of natural soluble fiber that can impart many health benefits— including a reduced risk of heart disease. Galactomannan also slows digestion, thereby slowing glucose absorption and stabilizing blood sugar levels. As an added benefit for dieters, fenugreek’s soluble fiber can impart a sensation of fullness.
Of all fenugreek’s amino acids, the most prevalent is 4-hydroxyiso/eucine (4-HI), which has been shown to stimulate insulin release (Diabetes 1998). That causes blood sugar levels to drop—an especially exciting boon for diabetes sufferers. Fenugreek also appears to regulate blood sugar by inhibiting the enzymes sucrase and alpha-amylase, which help break down carbohydrates.
In people with type 2 diabetes, fenugreek supplementation has been shown to significantly lower overall cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (known as LDL or “bad cholesterol,” associated with cardiovascular disease), and triglycerides (blood fats)— all while easing diabetic symptoms (Alternative Medicine Review 2003). In another study of non-diabetics suffering from high cholesterol, fenugreek was found to significantly lower trigylceride and LDL levels (Phytotherapy Research 1991).
Next time you’re mopping your brow while chowing down on a spicy curry, try to identify the unique taste of fenugreek. To best utilize fenugreek’s healthy compounds, however, drop the fork and head for your health food store—a standardized supplement is your best bet for blood sugar stability, cholesterol reduction and overall health.