Fenugreek is a plant that grows in parts of Europe and western Asia. The leaves are edible, but the small brown seeds are famous for their use in medicine.
The first recorded use of fenugreek was in Egypt, dating back to 1500 B.C. Across the Middle East and South Asia, the seeds were traditionally used as both a spice and a medicine.
You can buy fenugreek as:
- a spice (in whole or powdered form)
- supplement (in concentrated pill and liquid form)
- skin cream
Talk to your doctor if you’re thinking of taking fenugreek as a supplement.
Fenugreek seeds may be helpful for people with diabetes. The seeds contain fiber and other chemicals that may slow digestion and the body’s absorption of carbohydrates and sugar.
The seeds may also help improve how the body uses sugar and increases the amount of insulin released.
Few studies support fenugreek as an effective treatment for certain conditions. Many of these studies focus on the seed’s ability to lower blood sugar in people with diabetes.
One small 2009 study found that a daily dose of 10 grams of fenugreek seeds soaked in hot water may help control type 2 diabetes. Another very small 2009 study suggests that eating baked goods, such as bread, made with fenugreek flour may reduce insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetes.
Other studies noted a modest decrease in fasting glucose with fenugreek taken as a supplement.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that at this point the evidence is weak for fenugreek’s ability to lower blood sugar.
Potential risks of fenugreek
Pregnant women shouldn’t use fenugreek because it may induce uterine contractions. The NIH states that there isn’t enough information about the safety of fenugreek for women who are breastfeeding, and that women with hormone-sensitive cancers shouldn’t use fenugreek.
Some people report a maple syrup-like smell coming from their armpits after extended use. One 2011 study verified these claims by finding that certain chemicals in fenugreek, such as dimethylpyrazine, caused this smell.
This smell shouldn’t be confused with the smell caused by maple syrup urine disease (MUSD). This condition produces a smell that contains the same chemicals as the smells of fenugreek and maple syrup.
Fenugreek can also cause allergic reactions. Talk to your doctor about any food allergies you might have before adding fenugreek to your diet.
The fiber in fenugreek can also make your body less effective at absorbing medications taken by mouth. Don’t use fenugreek within a few hours of taking these types of medication.
Is it safe?
The amounts of fenugreek used in cooking are generally considered safe. However, the NIH cautions that if women have hormone-sensitive cancers, fenugreek can mimic estrogen.
When taken in large doses, side effects can include gas and bloating.
Fenugreek can also react with several medications, especially with those that treat blood clotting disorders and diabetes. Talk to your doctor before taking fenugreek if you’re on these types of medication. Your doctor may need to lower your diabetes medication doses to avoid low blood sugar.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t evaluated or approved fenugreek supplements. The manufacturing process isn’t regulated, so there may be undiscovered health risks.
Also, as with all unregulated supplements, you can’t be sure that the herb and amount listed on the label are what’s actually contained in the supplement.
How to add it into your diet
Fenugreek seeds have a bitter, nutty taste. They’re often used in spice blends. Indian recipes use them in curries, pickles, and other sauces. You can also drink fenugreek tea or sprinkle powdered fenugreek over yogurt.
If you’re not sure how to use fenugreek, ask your dietitian to help you add it to your current diabetes meal plan.
Other benefits of fenugreek
There haven’t been any serious or life threatening side effects or complications connected with fenugreek. A 2007 study even found that fenugreek can actually protect your liver from the effects of toxins.
A 2009 study suggests that fenugreek can stop the growth of cancer cells and act as an anticancer herb. Fenugreek can also help alleviate the symptoms of dysmenorrhea. This condition causes severe pain during menstrual cycles.
Traditional treatments for diabetes
Along with fenugreek, you have other options for treating your diabetes.
Keeping your blood sugar at normal levels is essential to maintaining a high quality of life with a diabetes diagnosis. You can help your body maintain healthy blood glucose levels by making lifestyle changes, including:
- sticking to a diet of minimally processed foods and high amounts of fiber, such as whole grains, vegetables, and fruits
- choosing lean protein sources and healthy fats and avoiding excessive processed meat
- avoiding excessive amounts of sweetened carbohydrate foods and sweetened beverages
- being active at least half an hour a day, at least 5 days a week
Taking medications can also help you keep your blood sugar at healthy levels by controlling your body’s creation and use of insulin. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about medications used to treat diabetes.
You should also talk to your doctor about which activities and treatments will work best for you before attempting to make any changes to your diet, lifestyle, or medications.
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