Diabetes is a disease of insulin resistance in which your body suffers from high blood sugar. The number of people suffering from diabetes has risen sharply since 1958 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 0.93% of the U.S. population had been diagnosed with diabetes, as compared to 7.4% in 2015.
The rise in absolute numbers was even greater since the population also increased during this time. In 1958, 1.6 million were diagnosed with diabetes and in 2015 the number rose to 23.4 million. One model used to predict future numbers finds that without some type of change, this will more than double to 54.9 million Americans by 2030.
The disease is expensive, estimating to cost more than $245 billion each year, which potentially could rise to $622 billion by 2030. The rising number of people with Type 2 diabetes also affects life expectancy since it is a modifiable leading or contributing factor to five of the 10 main causes of death in the U.S.1
Soaked Fenugreek Seeds Have an Effect on Blood Sugar
Diabetes is also prevalent in India, where 8.8% of the adult population, or 829,491,000 people are affected by the disease.2 The authors of one study3 evaluating the addition of fenugreek seeds to the diet of individuals found it had a synergistic effect with diet and exercise on fasting blood glucose and hemoglobin A1c.
The researchers were interested in evaluating those who had Type 2 diabetes and who used oral hypoglycemic agents or insulin along with diet and exercise to control their disease. They used a prospective, randomized controlled trial at a single center where they enrolled 60 patients who had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and had the condition for at least six months.
The group was randomly divided into two groups. Each day, the experimental group received 10 grams of fenugreek seeds that had been soaked in hot water; the control group received nothing. Each month, the participants had their blood drawn to test hemoglobin A1c and fasting blood sugar levels.
The analyses showed significant reductions in both, but the fasting blood sugar did not go down until the fifth month and the hemoglobin A1c did not go down until the sixth month, which was different from results of previous studies. In this study, the researchers found that higher dosages of the seed had a greater effect in lowering blood sugar.
In previous studies, authors concluded the effect was secondary to the fiber in fenugreek, yet the delay in hypoglycemia in the present study suggests there may be another mechanism at work.
In a second small study4 from the Infectious Disease Research Center at Isfahan University in Iran, researchers evaluated powdered fenugreek seeds which were either soaked in hot water or mixed in yogurt. Using the same dosage of 10 grams per day, the researchers ended the study with 11 who consumed the fenugreek in hot water and seven who ate the powdered fenugreek in yogurt.
While there was no significant change in those consuming powdered fenugreek, those taking the seeds soaked in hot water demonstrated a 25% reduction in fasting blood sugar, a 30% reduction in triglycerides and a 30.6% reduction in very-low-density lipoprotein C (LDL-C).
Maple Scented Seeds Reduce Diet-Induced Metabolic Disorders
While studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of fenugreek on reducing blood sugar levels, one team sought to answer the question of whether a formulation of fenugreek designed to be less bitter could have the same effect. In its natural form, fenugreek may be too bitter for some to consume enough to affect blood sugar levels.
In an animal study,5 researchers induced “mild glucose and lipid disorders” in 40 rats over a 12-week period. Experimental groups were fed diets containing fenugreek or reduced bitterness fenugreek for 12 weeks. Researchers found the fenugreek with reduced bitterness had a positive effect on reducing food intake, weight gain and the deposit of white adipose tissue.
The reduced bitterness fenugreek was also able to lower plasma and hepatic lipid levels. None of the animals that received reduced bitterness fenugreek experienced adverse effects in hematological, kidney or liver functions. The researchers concluded that using a reduced bitterness fenugreek option may potentially prevent diet-induced metabolic disorders, including insulin resistance and fatty liver disease.
Sotolon is the compound responsible for the spicy/bitter aroma of the seeds, which may be removed by dry-roasting them before using as food. Serious Eats notes:6
“When a New Jersey factory was processing fenugreek in 2005, lower Manhattan was overcome by the aroma of pancakes and syrup. It's a common ingredient in fake maple syrup and smelling the spice alone can be off-putting. Tasting it raw is even worse, as it's incredibly bitter.
But when combined with aromatics and spices, fenugreek contributes a complex sweetness and a subtle bitterness to saucy dishes. Its maple syrup flavor transforms into something more akin to dark caramel, and it makes a palette of more well-known spices feel complete. There's no substitute for it, but it's easy to use and increasingly easy to find.”
Effect of Fenugreek on Lactation
Fenugreek seeds are galactagogue, which means they stimulate lactation. While breast milk is the best nutrition for newborns, it is not always available when needed. One study involving 66 new mothers found the volume of pumped breast milk increased by 1.15 ounces in the placebo and control groups who received no fenugreek and by 2.47 ounces in those who used fenugreek.
In another study from Italy, researchers demonstrated that mothers using a combination of fennel, lemon balm and fenugreek extracts improved their infants’ symptoms of colic within one week. In some cases, it may be desirable to induce lactation, such as during an adoption. The first published prescribed protocol7 was by Dr. Jack Newman, a Canadian pediatrician, who used it for one of his patients.
The regular protocol is used for women who have six months’ notice before their adoptive baby comes home, and the accelerated protocol is used for women who have less time to prepare.
While both protocols are generally successful, milk production using the accelerated protocol may be lower. Both protocols use medications to induce lactation, in addition to which fenugreek is added to increase production.
Health Benefits Related to Fenugreek
Fenugreek is one of the oldest medicinal plants studied. It is a green, leafy legume native to Africa and India, widely used for its nutritional value and aromatic addition to dishes. In one study,8researchers suggest fenugreek can help reduce neurological and bone disease damage when used as phosphate binders in patients with renal failure.
One tablespoon of the whole seed has 2.73 grams of fiber, 19.5 mg of calcium, 85.5 mg of potassium and 35.9 calories.9 As I've written in the past, fenugreek comes in a variety of forms, including leaves, whole seed powder, seeds and extracts. It has been shown to be effective in treating respiratory ailments, speeding wound healing, reducing inflammation and helping with gastrointestinal ailments.
Some women have found it helps with menstrual and menopausal challenges and researchers have discovered it may reduce the risk of damage from cadmium on testicular health. Fenugreek is antibacterial and helps to protect your kidneys, stabilize your thyroid function and protect your stomach as it helps generate gastric mucus.
In addition to these benefits, other studies have found it helps reduce your appetite, has a positive effect on cholesterol and triglyceride levels, reduces heartburn and has a positive effect on testosterone levels and libido. In one six-week study involving fenugreek, researchers noted that participants increased their strength and experienced better sexual function.
Another group of scientists led a study involving 15 college-age men participating in an eight-week weightlifting program. They reported that those taking a fenugreek supplement had a slight increase in testosterone levels and enjoyed a 2% decrease in body fat relative to the control group.
Fenugreek may also be used topically to help fight acne.10 You can easily include this in your self-care routine by grinding leaves into a paste, applying it to the affected area at night and washing it off in the morning. The paste can also be used as a scalp cleanser. Apply it to the scalp and hair for 20 minutes and rinse it off with just water (no shampoo).
How to Use Fenugreek in Your Meals
Fenugreek is a legume, and therefore has a higher level of lectins than other foods. Lectins create a built-in defense mechanism used by plants to ensure survival as they trigger negative reactions in predators. Lectins attach to human cell membranes and may trigger inflammation, damaging nerves and killing cells while interfering with gene expression and disrupting the endocrine system.
Lectins do not digest well and so have a detrimental effect on the gut microbiome. Some may contribute to leaky gut by interfering with the absorption of nutrients across the intestinal cell walls. While there are lectins in countless foods, the most problematic are found in beans, grains, legumes and members of the nightshade family, such as eggplants, peppers and potatoes.
You may reduce the lectin levels through proper soaking and cooking, as well as fermenting and sprouting. If you struggle with inflammatory or autoimmune conditions, it may be wise to reduce your level of lectin-containing foods. However, it is important to realize not all lectins are bad for you.
Although fenugreek leaves have a bitter flavor, this may be reduced by salting them for 15 to 20 minutes, squeezing out the moisture and then using them in soups, stir-fries or wraps. Chef Chintan Pandya spoke to Food & Wine magazine11 about the different ways he’s experimented with fenugreek in the kitchen. He recommends soaking seeds overnight as they are bitter and rock hard.
Soaking helps reduce the bitterness while toasting gives the seeds a more subtle flavor with additional sweetness. Fenugreek leaves can be found frozen and used directly in curry dishes and soups. Once dried, the leaves can be used in a fatty base, such as yogurt or cream, or as a marinade for fish and chicken. Pandya recommends steering clear of using fenugreek in desserts.