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Fenugreek (trigonella foenum-graecum)
Fast facts: minimizes symptoms of menopause, relieves constipation, controls diabetes, reduces cholesterol, soothes sore throat pain and coughs, eases minor indigestion, relieves diarrhea
From ancient times through the late 19th century, fenugreek played a major role in herbal healing. Then it fell by the wayside. Now things are once again looking up for the herb whose taste is an odd combination of bitter celery and maple syrup. Modern scientific research has found that fenugreek can help reduce cholesterol levels, control diabetes and minimize the symptoms of menopause.
The ancient Greeks fed this herb to horses and cattle. The Romans then started using it, too, calling it "Greek hay." (In Latin, "Greek hay" is foenum-graecum, and that evolved into "fenugreek.") As fenugreek spread around the ancient Mediterranean, physicians learned that its seeds, like many seeds, contain a gummy substance called mucilage. Mixed with water, mucilage expands and becomes a gelatinous soother for irritated tissues.
In India, the herb was incorporated into curry blends. India's traditional Ayurvedic physicians prescribed it to nursing mothers to increase their milk. In American folk medicine, fenugreek was considered a potent menstruation promoter. It became a key ingredient in Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound -- one of 19th-century America's most popular patent medicines for "female weakness" (menstrual discomforts). Today, fenugreek is most widely used in the United States as a source of imitation maple flavor. But this may change as its medicinal value becomes better known.
Almost a century after Lydia Pinkham's death, scientists have confirmed that fenugreek seeds contain chemicals (diosgenin and estrogenic isoflavones) similar to the female sex hormone estrogen. Loss of estrogen causes menopausal symptoms, so adding fenugreek to the diet might help minimize them. Estrogen can also cause breast swelling. "One woman told me her breasts grew larger after she started eating fenugreek sprouts," says James A. Duke, Ph.D., a botanist retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and author of The CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs.
Cholesterol buster ... and more Several studies have shown that fenugreek reduces cholesterol in laboratory animals, and Indian researchers have shown the same effect in people with high cholesterol levels. The people in one Indian study added about four ounces a day of powdered fenugreek seeds to their diet for 20 days. During that time their total cholesterol levels and their levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol fell significantly. At the same time their high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or "good") cholesterol levels remained unaffected. "There's no question that fenugreek reduces cholesterol," says Daniel B. Mowrey, Ph.D., director of the American Phytotherapy Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah, and author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine. Fenugreek also "has great promise in alleviating Type II (non- insulin-dependent) diabetes," says Dr. Duke. And according to one study, it may also help people with Type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes. For ten days, Indian researchers added about four ounces of powdered fenugreek seeds a day to the diets of people with Type I diabetes, which requires daily insulin injections. The injections, however, did not entirely eliminate a key sign of the illness, sugar in their urine. With fenugreek added to their diet, their urinary sugar levels fell by 54 percent.
Fenugreek's soothing mucilage can also help relieve sore throat pain, cough and minor indigestion. "Because its mucilage expands in the gut, it also adds bulk to the stool," says Bernie Olin, Pharm.D., editor of The Lawrence Review of Natural Products, a St. Louis-based newsletter that summarizes scientific research on the medicinal value of herbs. "As a result, it can help treat constipation and diarrhea."
To make a medicinal tea, gently boil two teaspoons of mashed seeds per cup of water, then simmer for ten minutes. Drink up to three cups a day. To improve the flavor, you can add sugar, honey, lemon, anise or peppermint.
Fenugreek is considered safe. But several of the conditions it helps -- diabetes, elevated cholesterol and menopausal symptoms -- require professional care. If you'd like to use this herb in addition to standard therapies, consult your physician.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
Disclaimer: These pages are presented solely as a source of INFORMATION and ENTERTAINMENT and to provide stern warnings against use where appropriate. No claims are made for the efficacy of any herb nor for any historical herbal treatment. In no way can the information provided here take the place of the standard, legal, medical practice of any country. Additionally, some of these plants are extremely toxic and should be used only by licensed professionals who have the means to process them properly into appropriate pharmaceuticals. One final note: many plants were used for a wide range of illnesses in the past, but be aware that many of the historical uses have proven to be ineffective for the problems to which they were applied.