Fenugreek: A Food And A Medicine

Fenugreek is a common spice, particularly in India and places that ingest curries. It was discovered to have medicinal qualities thousands of years ago by Ayuravedic practitioners.
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Wizard is a great cat. He's perfect in just about every way. If not for his troublesome difficulty with feline asthma and respiratory infections, he would hardly even need a veterinarian.

Since many cases of asthma are related to upsets and difficulties in the intestinal tract, we began his therapy by putting him on a special diet. After 60 days of eating only the prescription limited-antigen diet he was no better. We then began a process of detoxification and support of his body using homotoxicology medicines and he showed some improvement. He did develop a sinus infection, which we associated with his chronic herpes viral infection. Finally, after placing him on a customized program that included a supplement containing the spice fenugreek, his nose began to run clear fluid, his cough loosened up and then stopped. His guardian and I were very happy, but I warned that this might be coincidental and that his condition could return.

A month later the condition did recur, but the symptoms quickly reduced with a simple homotoxicology drug commonly used for asthma in children (Engystol). He continues to do well on a natural program.

The Spice of Life:
Fenugreek is a common spice, particularly in India and places that ingest curries. It was discovered to have medicinal qualities thousands of years ago by Ayuravedic practitioners who reported it to be useful for many things including management of metabolic and nutritive disorders such as diabetes. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the spice is known as a phlegm mover, and it is said to break up stuck energies and cool inflammation. In modern times, complementary and alternative physicians and veterinarians have long used this spice as a tool for a wide variety of human and veterinary conditions. Modern medical research is just beginning to explore this realm and has not developed sufficient studies to recommend its use.

Integrative veterinarians and physicians look for scientific support of agents that they choose to use in their practices. We want to know how an agent works, what toxicities may be present and if there are interactions which need to be considered. As pioneering alternative and traditional healers discover potential uses for things, integrative doctors seek out this ancient wisdom and work to better understand and use such materials safely and effectively. In this process we see true science at work as someone observes a phenomenon, uses it to help others, teaches others about their findings, and this activity attracts the interest of investigators who further delineate the proper uses for that agent.

It was for this purpose that the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association formed just 25 years ago. We have come far since that first group of holistically inclined veterinarians sat down in a smoky Las Vegas lounge and lamented that there was nothing at the present veterinary continuing education meeting on subjects near and dear to their hearts like acupuncture, herbal medicine and homeopathy. Now we have integrative veterinary programs in an ever increasing number of professional schools and major meetings in the U.S., and because of this work I can write a blog like this one.

The Science:
So what does medical scientific research tell us about fenugreek?

Fenugreek has antioxidative effects. This means that the spice helps prevent and reduce damage from oxidative processes that happen as we live. Our bodies depend upon oxidation to get the energy that powers our activities, but too much oxidation and we get disease and premature aging. Many toxins work by increasing oxidative damage in the body. Eating a proper diet helps reduce oxidation and inclusion of spices like fenugreek can help.

Runaway oxidation can lead to inflammation. Research shows that fenugreek decreases inflammation.

Inflammation is related to the development of chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer. Asthma is an inflammatory allergic condition of the airways and we saw a marked change in Wizard's condition after we added this to his program. Fenugreek is best researched for its usefulness in lowering blood sugar in diabetic humans and rats where it has been shown to perform nicely. In addition to lowering blood sugar, this handy little spice also reduces LDL and cholesterol levels in humans. That means that proper use of a normal food might even reduce the risk of heart disease. How neat is that?

Another study showed that fenugreek seeds protect against the development of cataracts. This study was done in a lab with test tubes (in vitro) and so we don't know if this applies in live animals (in vivo) at this time.

Fenugreek is useful in managing cancer patients. In our clinic we find it does what the Chinese said, and we use it as a phlegm mover. In chronic lung diseases we see the mucus thin, the cough become more productive and breathing improve. With the benefits of science we can see how that anti-inflammatory effect would assist, but if we understand Chinese medicine then we know that cancer is considered to be a phlegm condition as well. In fact we recently used this spice in a dog with advanced spread of cancer in his lungs. The dog felt better almost immediately. It reduces cumulative urotoxicity of some chemotherapy agents and protects the kidney. Research shows that it has liver protective effects similar to another well researched herbal agent (milk thistle). Much to researcher's surprise, an extract of fenugreek was found to be useful in both prevention and treatment of cancer. It may be beneficial in preventing human breast cancer, too.

Pain is a major interest to medicine and research demonstrates clear benefits to use of fenugreek. As an anti-inflammatory we would expect pain to reduce as healing reduces pain, but in addition to this science documents significant analgesic effects. In Chinese medicine, inflammation is known as Heat, and pain comes when Qi stagnates. The Chinese lacked our understanding of cellular events, but they clearly observed the use of this herbal many years before we even had microscopes. Since the analgesic effects were shown against thermal and chemical injuries, this gives us a nice supportive agent for use in such cases.

Rejuvenation medicine is a hot subject. It is exciting to have things that block aging, reverse disease conditions and make us feel better for longer periods of time. Fenugreek has been shown to assist with memory loss through its inhibition of acetyl cholinesterase. It also seems to increase endurance in athletes. Scientists were amazed to discover that ingestion of fenugreek seeds increased the release of growth hormone from research rats. This is perhaps yet another way these commonly ingested spice helps keep people and pets healthier.

Fenugreek extracts may also support patients with Helicobacter related gastric ulcers and chronic fungal issues. It also has been demonstrated to be of use in kidney stones in rats.

While this isn't a particularly common issue for dogs and cats in my practice, this herbal spice has also been demonstrated to increase libido and lower desire for fatty foods, a characteristic that makes it a highly interesting substance for aging human males.

Toxicology research indicates that fenugreek is a safe compound for ingestion except in patients allergic to the spice. Sensitive patients can get skin or mucosal irritation and other gastrointestinal signs. Toxic effects have been demonstrated on developing fetuses at high levels of exposure and because of this it is advisable to use it with caution in reproductively active females. At normal dietary levels it appears safe, but we lack species-specific research. In a genotoxicity study, there was no problem demonstrated. As with all forms of healing, please consult with your veterinarian or physician before starting any treatment.

Humankind has a rich history of living with our environment and learning by various means how to best use the riches that Nature gives us. Complementary and alternative medicine and Integrative medicine are now working with scientists to understand and speed the flow of medical knowledge. Veterinarians can benefit from obtaining information in the medical literature and at continuing education meetings. Informed clients can help us in that process. Now the challenge is for all of us to learn how best to exchange and use this knowledge to help our fellow Beings live better, healthier lives.

Selected References:
Steels E, Rao A, Vitetta L. Physiological Aspects of Male Libido Enhanced by Standardized Trigonella foenum-graecum Extract and Mineral Formulation. Phytother Res. 2011 Feb 10. doi: 10.1002/ptr.3360.

Tripathi UN, Chandra D. Anti-hyperglycemic and anti-oxidative effect of aqueous extract of Momordica charantia pulp and Trigonella foenum graecum seed in alloxan-induced diabetic rats. Indian J Biochem Biophys. 2010 Aug;47(4):227-33.

Moorthy R, Prabhu KM, Murthy PS. Anti-hyperglycemic compound (GII) from fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum Linn.) seeds, its purification and effect in diabetes mellitus. Indian J Exp Biol. 2010 Nov;48(11):1111-8.

Kawabata T, Cui MY, Hasegawa T, Takano F, Ohta T. Anti-Inflammatory and Anti-Melanogenic Steroidal Saponin Glycosides from Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum L.) Seeds. Planta Med. 2010 Oct 26.

Hasani-Ranjbar S, Nayebi N, Moradi L, Mehri A, Larijani B, Abdollahi M. The efficacy and safety of herbal medicines used in the treatment of hyperlipidemia; a systematic review. Curr Pharm Des. 2010;16(26):2935-47.

Khalki L, M'hamed SB, Bennis M, Chait A, Sokar Z. Evaluation of the developmental toxicity of the aqueous extract from Trigonella foenum-graecum (L.) in mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 2010 Sep 15;131(2):321-5.

Sushma N, Devasena T. Aqueous extract of Trigonella foenum graecum (fenugreek) prevents cypermethrin-induced hepatotoxicity and nephrotoxicity. Hum Exp Toxicol. 2010 Apr;29(4):311-9.

Belguith-Hadriche O, Bouaziz M, Jamoussi K, El Feki A, Sayadi S, Makni-Ayedi F. Lipid-lowering and antioxidant effects of an ethyl acetate extract of fenugreek seeds in high-cholesterol-fed rats. J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Feb 24;58(4):2116-22.

Chevassus H, Gaillard JB, Farret A, Costa F, Gabillaud I, Mas E, Dupuy AM, Michel F, Cantié C, Renard E, Galtier F, Petit P. A fenugreek seed extract selectively reduces spontaneous fat intake in overweight subjects. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 2010 May;66(5):449-55.

Yadav M, Lavania A, Tomar R, Prasad GB, Jain S, Yadav H. Complementary and comparative study on hypoglycemic and antihyperglycemic activity of various extracts of Eugenia jambolana seed, Momordica charantia fruits, Gymnema sylvestre, and Trigonella foenum graecum seeds in rats. Appl Biochem Biotechnol. 2010 Apr;160(8):2388-400.

Gupta SK, Kalaiselvan V, Srivastava S, Saxena R, Agrawal SS. Trigonella foenum-graecum (Fenugreek) protects against selenite-induced oxidative stress in experimental cataractogenesis. Biol Trace Elem Res. 2010 Sep;136(3):258-68.

Satheeshkumar N, Mukherjee PK, Bhadra S, Saha BP. Acetylcholinesterase enzyme inhibitory potential of standardized extract of Trigonella foenum graecum L and its constituents. Phytomedicine. 2010 Mar;17(3-4):292-5.

Haouala R, Hawala S, El-Ayeb A, Khanfir R, Boughanmi N. Aqueous and organic extracts of Trigonella foenum-graecum L. inhibit the mycelia growth of fungi. J Environ Sci (China). 2008;20(12):1453-7.

Vyas S, Agrawal RP, Solanki P, Trivedi P. Analgesic and anti-inflammatory activities of Trigonella foenum-graecum (seed) extract. Acta Pol Pharm. 2008 Jul-Aug;65(4):473-6.

Ulbricht C, Basch E, Burke D, Cheung L, Ernst E, Giese N, Foppa I, Hammerness P, Hashmi S, Kuo G, Miranda M, Mukherjee S, Smith M, Sollars D, Tanguay-Colucci S, Vijayan N, Weissner W. Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum L. Leguminosae): an evidence-based systematic review by the natural standard research collaboration. J Herb Pharmacother. 2007;7(3-4):143-77.

Laroubi A, Touhami M, Farouk L, Zrara I, Aboufatima R, Benharref A, Chait A. Prophylaxis effect of Trigonella foenum graecum L. seeds on renal stone formation in rats. Phytother Res. 2007 Oct;21(10):921-5.

Bhatia K, Kaur M, Atif F, Ali M, Rehman H, Rahman S, Raisuddin S. Aqueous extract of Trigonella foenum-graecum L. ameliorates additive urotoxicity of buthionine sulfoximine and cyclophosphamide in mice. Food Chem Toxicol. 2006 Oct;44(10):1744-50.

Amin A, Alkaabi A, Al-Falasi S, Daoud SA. Chemopreventive activities of Trigonella foenum graecum (Fenugreek) against breast cancer. Cell Biol Int. 2005 Aug;29(8):687-94.

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