Rarely is a superfood suggested for gender-specific benefits in both genders. But that’s exactly what you are seeing with this ancient seed.
And guess what? The research might support both.
What is fenugreek?
The fenugreek plant is in the same family as beans, peas, and legumes (Fabaceae). Growing up to 2 feet in height, each of its pods produces 10 to 20 seeds. These have a mild nutty flavor which is a cross between celery and maple. They’re frequently used in the cuisine of India, North Africa, and Mediterranean countries.
Where is fenugreek from?
India is the largest exporter today. As to where the seeds come from originally, no one can say for sure but it’s believed to be the eastern Mediterranean, or possibly the Horn of Africa.
As a food, archeological evidence suggests the seeds were eaten as far back as 4,000 BC in what is present day Iraq. In ancient Rome, it was said to be as common as hay. They used the stalks and leaves for feeding livestock. Back when the Egyptian pyramids were built, these seeds were used as food and when embalming mummies, as an incense. Domestication of Plants in the Old World covers its history in greater detail.
As an herb, the fresh fenugreek leaves taste surprisingly similar to the seed, albeit milder. Much like fennel, but with the aromatic qualities of maple. The leaves are often used in curries with potatoes.
As a spice, these dried leaves retain their flavor. So much so that some describe the concentrated flavor as being like tangy green tea leaves with a maple aroma.
Its Latin scientific name is Trigonella foenum-graecum. Other names for fenugreek:
- Greek hay – literal translation of its Latin name
- Greek clover
- Bird’s foot
- Medhika/Methika – Sanskrit/Indian name
- Methi – Hindi
- Alholva – Spanish
- Hu lu ba – name in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Since the raw seeds can taste bad, they are normally cooked. Supplements make use of the raw seed extract.
There is also fenugreek essential oil but little research exists on it. Many of the advantages appear to be dependent on using the entire seed, either whole or ground.
To be clear, many of the following are not proven uses. They are what fenugreek is being used for in traditional medicine and as purported herbal remedies. However for many things on this list, there is noteworthy scientific evidence to suggest they might be possible benefits – more research is needed to confirm.
12 fenugreek benefits and uses
1. May increase testosterone in men
A total of five human clinical studies have evaluated the effects it has on free and total testosterone levels. One of the most recent was published in 2017 and evaluated fenugreek for men over a 12 week period. (1)
Out of the 50 men who participated, 90% of them experienced an increase in free testosterone of 46%.
|Free testosterone (pg/ml)||Baseline (day 0)||8.17|
|On completion (12 weeks)||11.97|
|Total testosterone (ng/dl)||Baseline (day 0)||405.19|
|On completion (12 weeks)||436.34|
This study used fenugreek extract capsules, at dosage of 500mg once per day, taken after breakfast.
How does fenugreek work? It has been theorized that the anabolic potential of the seed may be due to its ability to block enzymes which breakdown testosterone. Those enzymes are aromatase and 5-a reductase. If that is true, it would mean it’s not triggering more testosterone to be produced, but rather promoting preservation of that which your body is already making. (2)
2. May boost breast milk production
This is probably the most widely claimed use. Most purported breastfeeding supplements to increase milk supply are using it as a main ingredient and sometimes, the only ingredient.
When other herbs are used, fennel and blessed thistle often make the cut. Using fennel instead may increase cancer risk. More on that below in the side effects section.
The fenugreek dosage to increase milk supply might be sold in the form of a tea, not a capsule. At least that’s based on a study involving 66 nursing mothers. They were split into three groups:
- 22 women drank fenugreek tea
- 22 drank apple tea (as a placebo)
- 22 drank no tea (control group)
When compared to the placebo and control groups, there was more than a doubling of average milk production. The dosage used in this breastfeeding experiment was at least 3 cups per day of the tea. (3)
3. Rich source of iron, magnesium, and manganese
An indisputable advantage is its iron content. That same one tablespoon provides 20% of your daily value. It’s only 5% for magnesium and 7% for manganese but remember, if you’re using it as a food you’re probably eating more than a spoonful.
Other essential minerals like zinc, selenium, calcium, and phosphorus are present but in smaller quantities. (7)
4. Weight loss by appetite suppression
Four different studies have looked at body weight and other aspects related to dieting, like appetite and total calorie consumption. These were all small studies – ranging from 12 to 39 participants in each – so not much can be extrapolated from them.
Some interesting observations:
In the largest study, overweight men supplementing with 1,176 mg per day were found to eat less fat voluntarily. (4)
A similar study – albeit much smaller involving only 12 men – used the same dosage of fenugreek and also observed a voluntary reduction of 17% less fat consumed in their diet. (5)
Of course fat doesn’t make you fat, but because it’s over twice the caloric density of protein and carbs, it’s easy to eat too much fat and gain weight.
In a dose-dependent manner, 18 women and men who were given the isolated fiber in fenugreek experienced appetite reduction and were found to eat less before their meal when the fiber was taken ahead of time. (6)
If you look at the fenugreek nutrition facts you will see that just 1 tablespoon offers you 10% of your daily value for fiber. Adding this as a healthy filler to your food is worth trying for weight loss.
5. May help diabetics with glycemic control
Preliminary evidence suggests that eating 2 to 5 grams of fenugreek seeds per day may help diabetics lower their blood sugar. There are over a dozen clinical studies related to this topic.
Try adding fenugreek powder to your breads, pancakes, and other flour-based foods. When baked buns were made using a 10% concentration, there was a significant decrease in the glycemic index – dropping it from 82 to 51. Flatbreads had similar decrease. (8)
Another study from Louisiana State University goes so far as to claim that adding it to baked goods “will reduce insulin resistance and treat type 2 diabetes.” (9)
It seems to work so well for diabetics that a patent has been filed for its use in flour. (10)
That U.S. patent application cites a double-blind and placebo controlled study which can be found on PubMed.gov. A total of 25 type 2 diabetics participated.
Better insulin sensitivity and lower glycemic impact were observed. (11)
Type 1 diabetics are those who have the disease not from obesity or lifestyle, but rather permanent damage to their pancreas as a result of an autoimmune reaction.
In a study involving people with type 1 diabetes, 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of the defatted fenugreek seed powder was divided into two equal doses, taken at lunch and dinner. These people also experienced better glucose tolerance and a significant reduction in their fasting blood sugar levels. (12)
This plant is believed to benefit inflammation in multiple ways.
How does fenugreek work?
Research published in 2017 proposed that it does so by regulating the inflammasome adaptor protein known as ASC. It appears to do this by binding to the ASC in the body and therefore, reducing its inflammatory effect. (15)
Although humans haven’t been studied for joint pain or arthritis, rats have been. It was found to reduce edema (swelling) even more effectively than indomethacin, which is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). (18)
7. Moderate antioxidant activity
On an equal weight basis, fenugreek seeds actually have more antioxidant activity than kale, as their ORAC values are 2,090 and 1,770, respectively. When the seeds are sprouted, it’s even higher. (13)
That may sound impressive, but you have to consider portion size.
Since it’s primarily used as a spice or supplement, the weight you’re consuming per serving is quite small. Compare that to something like a kale salad, which may take up your entire plate and weigh far more than a couple of capsules.
That’s why we only classify it as a “moderate” antioxidant. There are many spices which are 10x or even 50x higher. Amla powder is a staggering 125x higher.
The primary antioxidants in fenugreek seeds are:
- Flavonoids: quercetin, rutin, isovitexin, vitexin
- Saponins: graecunins, fenugreekine, fenugrin B, trigofoenosides A–G
The seeds only have negligible amounts of the antioxidant vitamin C, but the leaves are loaded – 220.97 mg per 100g. That’s around 250% of your daily value. Unfortunately it’s only that high when the leaves are fresh. After they have been dried, the vitamin C content is over 80% lower. (14)
8. Supports good cholesterol
In the previously mentioned study about testosterone levels benefiting men, their HDL cholesterol (the good kind) went up but not in a statistically significant amount – from 40.69 to 43.38 after 12 weeks. (1)
Another study involving type 2 diabetics saw similar – higher HDL but not enough to be statistically significant. (19)
A study involving patients with coronary artery disease didn’t see an increase after 3 months of using a dose of 2.5g daily. (20)
Conclusion? The evidence is weak to back this as a real benefit, but at least the studies are not seeing a decrease in HDL, as that would be bad for you.
9. May reduce LDL cholesterol
This is the bad kind of cholesterol.
First and foremost, your only dietary sources of LDL will be animal-derived foods such as meats, dairy, and eggs. For that reason alone, a plant-based diet – which can include this seed – will reduce cholesterol levels over time if eaten in lieu of animal-based foods.
There is also evidence to suggest a dose of fenugreek for cholesterol might offer an additional lowering effect.
In that study with type 1 diabetics, their LDL and VLDL (very low density lipoprotein) were both significantly reduced even though the study was just 10 days long. How much of the seed used was quite high; 100g of defatted powder per day. (12)
In a type 2 diabetic study, a similar trend was observed in VLDL with a 30.6% reduction. (21)
The male testosterone study didn’t observe a decrease in LDL cholesterol, which might suggest that those who already have good cardiovascular markers won’t be affected.
10. Associated with higher libido
Although limited, there are studies that point to libido benefits for both men and women.
The first study involved 60 healthy men between 25 and 52 years old. They did not have erectile dysfunction.
In a randomized manner, each guy was given 600mg per day of a standardized fenugreek extract or a placebo.
Based on self-administered scoring (the DISF-SR test) the difference between the two groups were a stark contrast:
“In particular, there was a significant increase in the subdomains of sexual arousal and orgasm.”
An increase in energy, muscle strength, and well-being were also reported. (22)
In that testosterone study, they also had noted “physiological aspects of libido” being improved. (1)
There’s only one study about fenugreek for women’s libido. It was randomized, placebo-controlled, and involved 80 menstruating women ranging in age from 20 to 49. (23)
With the placebo group, there was no change observed in sexual frequency. Not so with the group using fenugreek supplements…
Here’s a breakdown of exactly how the sex life for these women improved…
|Baseline||Month 2||Baseline||Month 2|
11. May increase estrogen in women
Can fenugreek increase breast size?
As an herbal remedy, this is one of the most common uses and if true, it might be related to the seeds’ effect on estrogen and prolactin levels. There are many testimonials and positive reviews by women who claim it makes their breast larger, but there’s no scientific validation of these claims. Even if it works, how much fenugreek for breast enlargement and whether it leads to permanent changes are unknowns.
While there’s no proof of it working, if you look at many of the purported breast enlargement pills on the market, you will see fenugreek listed as a main ingredient. For example, it’s in Breast Max Plus and as part of a propriety blend, it’s in BustMaxx. Both of these are relatively popular supplements, but again their enlargement claims are not clinically validated.
There is evidence though to suggest the possibility that fenugreek increases estrogen and testosterone. The latter may sound detrimental to women, but both genders actually need these. It’s just about having them in the right ratios.
If both estrogen and free testosterone are increased in females at the same time, that’s might be good for you depending on where those levels were to begin with.
In the aforementioned libido study involving 80 menstruating women, here’s how their estradiol (estrogen) and free testosterone changed during the 2 month treatment period.
Prolactin and progesterone increased too, but not significantly. (24)
There is also research about menopause support and alleviating symptoms such as hot flashes. Based on those results of plasma estradiol increasing 120%, it further supports the idea that this plant might be a hormone booster for females. (25)
Is fenugreek high in estrogen?
It does contain diosgenin, which is a type of phytoestrogen, meaning it’s a plant estrogen that closely resembles the size and shape of actual estrogen. There’s not much research on diosgenin, but it’s not believed to be potent like genistein in soy or lignans in flax. (26)
Based on the science as of today, it doesn’t appear the compounds in fenugreek work by mimicking human estrogen. Rather, there is vitro (lab) research using cultured human cells which hints that the estrogenic activity may be due to increasing gene expression. Whatever the case, the cause of its purported mastogenic effect (breast enlargement) remains unknown and unproven. (27)
12. Herbal remedy for hair growth
Just like there isn’t clinical evidence for bolstering the bustline, you won’t find any about helping the hairline.
That doesn’t change the fact that uses for hair are among the most popular purported remedies, among both women and men.
How to make a fenugreek hair mask often involves recipes like this:
- Soak the seeds in a bowl of water for 24 hours.
- Using the strained water from that bowl, moisten the hair.
- Leave it on for 3 hours and then rinse.
- Repeat the hair mask daily for best results.
Another variation involves fenugreek powder mixed with coconut oil, which is left on for up to 30 minutes before washing.
Based on the science, should you expect hair growth results from recipes like these?
Being that the seeds are 23% protein, in theory the amino acids and moisturizing properties might help strengthen the follicles and improve their appearance, but only in a superficial sense. That would have no effect on hair loss from male pattern baldness or hormonal causes.
However there is one interesting possibility…
Benign ovarian cysts can cause a hormonal imbalance known as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Women with this condition often experience masculinizing side effects, like having facial hair, body hair, and hair loss on the scalp.
At a dosage of 1,000 mg daily for 90 days, fenugreek supplements were tested on women with PCOS. (28)
“Approximately 46% of study population showed reduction in cyst size, while 36% of subjects showed complete dissolution of cyst.”
But this is the only study that’s been done. If further research finds this to be a legit benefit, then that would mean it could help women experiencing hair loss due to polycystic ovary syndrome.
Fenugreek side effects
Most people experience no adverse reactions, but the following are possible:
- Upset stomach
- Urine smelling like maple syrup
- Lowering of blood sugar
- Reduced blood clotting
- Allergic reactions
- Unsafe during pregnancy
- Unknown breastfeeding safety
Although rare, you can have a fenugreek allergy. Symptoms may be as simple as a rash or as severe as anaphylactic shock. Since it’s in the legume family (Fabaceae), you should consult a doctor before eating it if you have allergies to related plants such as peanuts and chickpeas due to possible cross-reactivity.
It is gluten free, so it’s safe for Celiacs and those with gluten sensitivities to eat.
Based on animal studies, the saponin compounds may be dangerous to babies and therefore should be avoided during pregnancy. In mice, it was found that the seed “causes growth retardation and altered neurobehavioral performance in the post-weaning period in both male and female.” (29) (30)
In human research, it has been said that fenugreek consumption while pregnant was “significantly associated with neural tube defects.” It has also been called out as a possible spina bifida risk factor. (31) (32) (33)
Is fenugreek safe to take while breastfeeding?
Considering that using it for boosting milk production is one of the most common purported benefits, it’s ironic that the safety of using it during that time is totally unknown!
A multi-authored research paper out of a university in Italy reports:
“The potential for transfer to milk or side effects in the infant are unknown.”
Given the known dangers during pregnancy, it cannot be claimed that fenugreek is safe while breastfeeding until adequate research is done. (34)
Can I use fennel instead of fenugreek?
No that would be a terrible idea! While the risks of “Greek hay” are only theoretical, they are factual with fennel. You should not use it as a substitute for fenugreek because it contains the cancer-causing compound estragole, just like tarragon does.
Drug interactions may occur with blood clotting medications such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), heparin, aspirin, and similar prescriptions. Diabetes treatments may also be affected, since fenugreek in combination with them may lower blood sugar too much.
Does fenugreek cause weight gain?
No. Although the seeds are used by women to gain weight in certain countries, that regimen involves mixing the seeds with oil (pure fat) to make them even more calorically dense. The calories in fenugreek are comparable and often even lower than other common seeds. The calorie count in the healthiest nuts will be nearly twice the amount you will find in fenugreek.
Rather than weight gain, a rat study even pointed to the possibility of weight loss. Isolated fenugreek oil seemed to block some of their carbohydrate absorption, by altering the key enzymes responsible. (35)
A fenugreek overdose has not been documented in published literature. For those with motility issues of the GI tract, it might be bad to eat too much fenugreek because of the high fiber content. Aside from that risk, as a food there are no unique side effects of eating large portions. At least in healthy individuals.
With the exception of pregnant and nursing mothers, this food is very well tolerated. Allergies are rare and digestive discomfort isn’t any more or less likely versus similar foods.
Where to buy
Not at your local supermarket! At one of the largest Whole Foods in Los Angeles, we could only find a tiny 1/2 ounce box of the ground spice for sale (pictured up top). It was expensive for such a small amount and a larger, more economical bottle wasn’t offered.
Starwest Botanicals sells a huge 1 pound bag of organic fenugreek powder on Amazon for a bargain.
As a dietary supplement, you can buy fenugreek at Walmart and CVS as capsules or pills. Those will be brands like Nature’s Way and Nature’s Own. Neither is organic.
The following are among the best organic supplements sold on Amazon. All three of these are vegetarian fenugreek capsules (no gelatin used):
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.