Recently, there has been an increasing tendency toward traditional medicine due to the occurrence of harmful side effects of chemical drugs on human health, as well as the various deficits of modern medicine in treating some diseases. Several factors have led to growing interest in Ayurveda.
Herbal supplement sales are growing on average around 20%, with products like turmeric, moringa and ashwagandha seeing 40-50% growth. Brahmi (bacopa), ashwagandha, turmeric and tulsi are the forerunners of the single component products, which dominated the global market. I strongly believe Fenugreek will be the next blockbuster Indian herb due to its substantial and convincing scientific and clinical support.
Fenugreek belongs to the Fabaceae family of plants; it was named Trigonella, from the Latin for “little triangle” due to its yellowish-white triangular flowers. It is also called Methi (Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi and Marathi), Hulba (Arabic), Moshoseitaro (Greek), Uluva (Malayalam), Shoot (Hebrew), Dari (Persian) and Hayseed in English.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum L.) is one of the oldest medicinal plants from the Fabaceae family, originating in central Asia 4,000 BC. Its description and benefits have been reported in the Ebers Papyrus (one of the oldest maintained medicinal documents) in 1,500 BC in Egypt. Today, it is being commercially grown in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Nepal, Egypt, France, Spain, Turkey, Morocco, North Africa, Middle East and Argentina.
Due to the presence of a substantial amount of fiber, phospholipids, glycolipids, oleic acid, linolenic acid, linoleic acid, choline, vitamins A, B1, B2, C, nicotinic acid, niacin and many other functional elements, Fenugreek seed is one of the hottest ingredients in health and wellness.
The main components of the seed include steroidal saponins, alkaloids, mucilage, and fibers (50%). The most important steroidal saponins are diosgenin and yamogenin. Other sapogenins include tigogenin, gitogenin, sarsasapogenin, yuccagenin and smilagenin. The seeds also contain a sapogenin peptide ester named fenugreekine. Trigonelline is a major alkaloid of the plant that has been isolated up to a concentration of 36%.
Other alkaloids of the seed include gentanin and carpaine choline. 4-hydroxyisoleucine (4-HI) constitutes about 80% of the total content of free amino acids in Fenugreek seeds and are found exclusively in this plant. Fenugreek also contains galactomannan, a highly bioactive molecule.
The medicinal value of Fenugreek seeds is mentioned in Ayurvedic texts as well as in Greek and Latin pharmacopoeia. Fenugreek has played an extensive role since ancient times in treating and preventing diseases. The Ayurvedic texts praised this herb for its power as an aphrodisiac, however, modern vaidyas seem to be using it more for digestive and respiratory problems stemming from an excess of kaph (phlegm) and vat (wind).
In ancient Egypt, methi was used to ease childbirth and to increase milk flow, and modern Egyptian women are still using it today to relieve menstrual cramps, as well as making hilba tea out of it to ease other kinds of abdominal pain. The Chinese call it hu lu ba, and also use it for treating abdominal pain. Fenugreek has been used to relieve colds, bronchial complaints, influenza, asthma, catarrh, constipation, sinusitis, pleurisy, pneumonia, sore throat, laryngitis, hay fever, tuberculosis and emphysema.
Numerous studies conducted so far have confirmed many of these traditional applications and have clearly shown therapeutic value of this plant. Due to the presence of high levels of antioxidant compounds, bioactive compounds, phenols, flavonoids and anthocyanins, various experimental and clinical trials have shown that Fenugreek has the ability to combat pathologic conditions, especially for the treatment and prevention of life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, some cancers, infections and gastrointestinal disorders.
Based on evidence of increased serotonin turnover in the brain, several studies demonstrated the anti-anxiety and anti-depressant-like effects of 4-HI. Fenugreek also has a considerable anti-diabetic effect. Due to the galactomannan component, it can slow down the absorption of sugar in the gastrointestinal tract whereas the 4-HI component stimulates insulin release, resulting in lowering blood sugar in diabetic patients. Low molecular weight galactomannan-based fenugreek seed extract has been reported to prevent fat accumulation.
Several well designed animal studies have demonstrated that a combined therapy of 4-HI and pioglitazone was more beneficial than pioglitazone alone and also more beneficial than the combination of 4-HI and glyburide in the treatment of diabetes. HerbalGram (2014) also reported that IBHB, a standardized fenugreek seed extract, slowed the progression of Parkinson’s disease when taken as an adjunct to L-Dopa therapy and had a good safety profile. A glycoside-based fenugreek seed extract was reported to have beneficial effects on pulmonary fibrosis in an animal model.
A few recent randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials demonstrated that standardized extracts of T. foenum-graecum seed (Libifem and Testofen) may be a useful treatment for increasing sexual arousal and desire in women and middle-aged and older men by increasing serum testosterone levels.
Many Indian Ayurvedic plants have previously been used for preparation of new drugs or have shown promising results. The list of potential health benefits of Fenugreek is continuing to grow with new clinical reports. Therefore, Fenugreek, which possesses phenolic compounds, bioactive amino acids, glycosides and antioxidant activity, might be a good candidate for an herbal drug.
I designate this “an herb to watch” as more qualified research data is published and more and more products with this extract are being introduced in the market soon. Despite impressive scientific and clinical profiles of Fenugreek, consumer understanding is still in its infancy and promoters of this herb need to focus on this important commercial hurdle.
Dilip Ghosh, PhD, FACN
Dilip Ghosh, PhD, FACN, is director of nutriConnect, based in Sydney, Australia. He is also professionally involved with Soho Flordis International, the University of Western Sydney, Australia, and is an Honorary Ambassador with the Global Harmonization Initiative (GHI). Dr. Ghosh received his PhD in biomedical science from University of Calcutta, India. He has been involved in drug-development (both synthetic and natural) and functional food research and development both in academic and industry domains. Dr. Ghosh has published more than 70 papers in peer-reviewed journals, and he has authored three recent books: “Biotechnology in Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals,” “Innovation in Healthy and Functional Foods,” and “Clinical Perspective of Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals” under CRC Press. His next book, “Pharmaceuticals to Nutraceuticals: A Shift in Disease Prevention,” is in press. He can be reached at email@example.com; www.nutriconnect.com.au.