Although fenugreek seeds are used extensively in the recipes of countries in the Middle and Far East, in the West it is not as well known as many other spices. Not only does fenugreek impart a characteristic flavour and tang to food but it also has several very important disease preventing characteristics.
In traditional medicine, fenugreek has been used to treat a number of conditions including diabetes, sore throats, and in poultices used to treat sores and abscesses. Recent investigations into the medicinal properties of this spice suggest it is important not only as a preventive for chronic diseases such as diabetes, but also for enhancing normal physiological processes, especially with respect to athletic performance.
As with most spices it contains many antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds such as apigenin, genistein, kaempferol, quercetin, rutin, selenium and superoxide-dismutase. It also contains compounds such as trigonelline that has shown to prevent the degeneration of nerve cells in neuro-degenerative diseases.
Medicinal properties of fenugreek
Cardiovascular disease and blood lipids: Fenugreek has a strong modulating effect on blood lipid levels and can substantially reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. In diabetics, who usually suffer lipid imbalances, it has demonstrated a remarkable ability to lower cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL levels while raising HDL levels.
Another property of fenugreek is the reduction of platelet aggregation which, in turn, dramatically reduces the risk of abnormal blood clotting associated with heart attacks and strokes. Like most spices, fenugreek also contains many important antioxidants and has the added benefit of protecting other dietary and internally produced antioxidants from free-radical damage. This has important cardioprotective benefits, as well as helping to fortify the body against a range of other chronic conditions.
Diabetes: Fenugreek, which has comparable antidiabetic potency to cinnamon, is one of the most valuable spices for the control of glucose metabolism and thus the prevention and treatment of Type II diabetes. Owing to its many properties it helps in the prevention and treatment of diabetes in several ways.
Working in a similar way to the common antidiabetic drug glibenclamide, fenugreek lowers cellular insulin resistance and controls blood glucose homeostasis. It has been shown to lower blood glucose levels of Type II diabetics by as much as 46 percent.
It also increases the levels of several important antioxidants and reduces the damaging oxidation of lipids associated with diabetes.
As an added bonus, fenugreek seeds are a very rich in a type of dietary fibre that modulates post-prandial blood glucose levels by delaying the absorption of sugar in the intestines. This mucilaginous fiber also reduces the absorption of fat and cholesterol from the intestines thus providing additional protection against heart disease and obesity.
Cataracts: Fenugreek is also effective against diabetes-related cataracts which occur commonly in diabetics. The enzymes that control glucose uptake into the lens of the eye do not function normally in diabetics and, as a result, glucose and its metabolites, fructose and sorbitol, accumulate in the lens tissues. The lenses of diabetic patients are also prone damage by enzymes that would normally protect against destructive free radicals, and a combination of these factors leads to the gradual opacification of the lens known as a cataract. As fenugreek has been shown to partially reverse both the metabolic changes in the lens and to reduce the density of the cataract, it is likely to be even more effective as a prophylactic agent against cataract formation in diabetics.
Alzheimer’s and other neuro-degenerative diseases: Fenugreek contains the compound trigonellene that has shown to stimulate the regeneration of brain cells. This property has stimulated further research to see whether it can help in the prevention of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Sport: One of the greatest difficulties facing athletes who compete in endurance events is maintaining a readily available supply of energy in the body. In order to achieve this, muscle carbohydrate stores, in the form of glycogen, must be continuously replenished. In an event lasting more than one-and-a-half hours, glycogen stores become depleted, and for the remainder of the event the athlete has to rely on external sources of energy, such as high carbohydrate drinks, which are inferior to glycogen as an energy source. Post event re-synthesis of glycogen is also very important, and the two hours immediately following prolonged exercise is the crucial time for this process to occur.
Fenugreek has been shown to have a strong effect on glycogen replenishment; increasing post-event re-synthesis by over 60 percent in some endurance athletes. While its effects on glycogen re-synthesis during an event have yet to be tested, fenugreek is likely to exhibit a similarly beneficial effect during, as well as after, exercise.
Hormones: Fenugreek is one of the richest sources of phytoestrogens and is thus a very useful spice for women who have low oestrogen levels. Phytoestrogens are also thought to help protect against certain types of cancer, and fenugreek may well be proven to have anti-tumourigenic effects should this property be investigated in the future.
Selenium: Fenugreek is one of the richest sources of selenium, which is among the most important antioxidant micronutrients. When consumed regularly, selenium appears to have a protective effect against a range of cancers, including those of the colon, lung and prostate. Recent evidence also shows that selenium helps to prevent the progression of HIV and other chronic viral illnesses.
While other spices like chilies and cinnamon hold the culinary and medicinal headlines, the research into fenugreek is showing us that this spice has health benefits on a par with, or even superior to, those of the better known spices.
However it is important to appreciate that synergism between different spices enhances the bioavailability and efficacy of their respective bioactive compounds. Therefore, to obtain optimum benefit from fenugreek, it is important to use it with other common spices in both the prevention and treatment of disease.