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Fenugreek

Latin Names: Trigonella foenum-graecum

Other Names: Hulbah (Arabic); Shanbalilah (Persian); Telis (Greek); Methika Sanskrit); Methi (Hindi / Urdu); Hu Lu Ba (Chinese); Greek Hay Seed (English); Fenogriego (Spanish); Schinduf (Romanian)

Taxonomy: Vegetable Kingdom; Fabaceae / Leguminosae (Bean) family

Part Used: Seeds; herb and leaf; flour; oil

Basic Qualities: Avicenna considers Fenugreek to be Hot in the last phase of the first degree, and Dry in the first degree, being not free from foreign humors. Perhaps the “foreign humors” that Avicenna is referring to are the mucilaginous constituents of Fenugreek.

Other Qualities: Avicenna states that Fenugreek has a gluey, sticky adhesive or agglutinative property, borne of the combination of its basic drying quality with moist mucilaginous constituents. Its drying constituents are very light, aromatic and dispersing, whereas its mucilaginous constituents are moistening, unctuous and agglutinative. In the balance, however, Fenugreek is more drying than moistening.

Taste: Pungent, aromatic and bitter; slightly sweet.

Humoral Dynamics: Sanguine – Both the seed and the herb are valuable blood purifiers; Avicenna says that Fenugreek discharges and resolves pus.  The Coumarin content has a beneficial effect on blood consistency and circulation.  In stimulating the metabolic fire of the liver, Fenugreek aids in the breeding and generation of blood.  Phlegmatic – Fenugreek is well known as an expectorant or phlegm resolving herb, which is due to the synergy of its dispersing pungent and aromatic constituents with its moistening, mucilaginous constituents – the former dries up and disperses phlegm, while the latter liquefy it for easy expulsion.  Fenugreek is also a mild, warming diuretic that improves urinary function and fluid metabolism.  In stimulating the metabolic fire of the liver, Fenugreek not only stimulates the formation of healthy blood, but reduces the generation of excess phlegm.  Choleric – Fenugreek is a bitter tonic that mildly stimulates the flow of bile; the herb / leaves are stronger in this respect.  Melancholic – Fenugreek seeds are a carminative and mild aperient laxative that eliminates wind in the GI tract, reducing gas and bloating, and improves intestinal function and elimination.

Tropism: The head and sinuses; the lungs and respiratory tract; the stomach, liver and digestive organs; blood, lymph and phlegm; the colon and anus; the male and female reproductive systems; the female breasts and glands.

Constituents and Pharmacology: The phytochemistry of Fenugreek is quite complex, and its nutritional value is high. The seeds contain Diosgenin, a saponin that is a precursor to many female hormones. Being a relative of the clovers, it also contains Coumarins. Fenugreek also contains the flavonoids Quercetin, Lilyn and Kaempferol, as well as the alkaloid Trigonelline. Fenugreek seeds also contain nutritive constituents like Lecithin and Mucilage.

Medicinal Properties: Alterative, antidiabetic, antilipidaemic, aphrodisiac, bitter tonic, carminative, diuretic, expectorant, galactagogue, mucolytic, nutritive tonic, pectoral, stomachic.

Cautions and Contraindications: Because Fenugreek is moderately heating or warming in nature, there is some risk that it may aggravate latent heat, choler and inflammation in the body, but this risk is quite low. Overall, Fenugreek is a very mild, gentle and innocuous herb that may even be used in large doses as an herbal superfood.

Medicinal Uses: An infusion of the seeds is used mainly as an expectorant to loosen and expel excess phlegm in the head, sinuses, lungs and respiratory tract. A decoction of the seeds is used more as a tonic, digestive herb, nutritive tonic and genitourinary tonic / aphrodisiac, as well as a galactogogue for nursing mothers. The powdered seeds and herb are used mainly as a nutritive tonic, as a galactogogue, and to lower blood sugar and blood lipids in diabetes and high cholesterol. Fenugreek, in either powder or decoction form, can be used as a nutritive tonic and restorative for recovery from chronic respiratory illness. Avicenna recommends the topical application of a paste made from Fenugreek seeds and water for the ripening and maturation of abscesses, as well as tough, hardened phlegmatic swellings. Avicenna also considers Fenugreek to be a useful herb in treating intestinal ulcers, and for anal swellings and abdominal pain. Its pungency, he says, stimulates intestinal excretion and peristalsis. Avicenna recommends using Fenugreek tea as a hair rinse for treating dandruff and chronic skin diseases of the scalp. The thick, boiled down form of the decoction, says Avicenna, has many uses: it is a remedy for diarrhea; taken with honey, it expels thick fluids from the intestines; taken with vinegar, it is useful in treating weakness of the stomach and gastric and intestinal ulcers.

Other Uses: Fenugreek is an important culinary spice. One of its major uses is as an ingredient in Indian curry powder; one of its main functions is to strengthen the flavor and pungency of the curry the longer it is cooked. Fenugreek seeds are used in other Indian spice mixtures as well, and the herb or leaves, known as Kasoori Methi, can be cooked into stews, curries or with lentils, potatoes or vegetable dishes. In cosmetics, Avicenna says that Fenugreek oil improves the complexion, and can even be used under the arms as a deodorant. Because of its moistening mucilage, he recommends a paste of it for chapped skin. The oil of Fenugreek, when mixed with that of Myrtle, says Avicenna, beautifies the hair. I am not sure exactly how the oil is prepared, but it could be obtained by pressing the seeds.

Preparation and Dosage: Fenugreek, whether the seed or the herb, is very gentle and mild in nature, and high in nutritive value; therefore, there is virtually no possibility of an overdose. When making a tea of Fenugreek, use standard proportions of a heaping tablespoon per cup of water, whether it be an infusion or a decoction. The powder may even be taken in doses of one tablespoon or more, two to three times per day, even as a nutritive tonic or superfood; teaspoonful doses are also effective.

Herbal Formulation: As an expectorant, Fenugreek seeds are often combined with other expectorant and pectoral herbs in an infusion. As a nutritive tonic, genitourinary tonic, stomachic, aphrodisiac and galactogogue, Fenugreek seeds are boiled up in a decoction with other tonic herbs. As an herbal superfood, powdered Fenugreek seeds and/or herb are a versatile ingredient, along with other green herbs and herbal superfoods. Powdered Fenugreek seeds can also be incorporated into plasters and cataplasms for their ability to resolve phlegmatic swellings and draw out pus and toxins; this powder can also be used to cut or dilute vesicant herbs like powdered Mustard seeds, which would otherwise be too irritating or burning, while still exerting a drawing and detoxifying action itself.

Classic Combinations: With Fresh Ginger as a decoction for chronic gastritis, indigestion and chronic gastroduodenal ulcers; with Dried Ginger as a digestive and metabolic stimulant, and to calm and harmonize the stomach and digestion, and subdue gastritis and inflammation. Fenugreek seeds and/or herb with Parsley leaves, Nettle Leaves and other herbal green foods and herbal superfoods in an herbal green mix. With Elder berries to soothe gastrointestinal irritation and inflammation, with a mild aperient laxative effect; the heaviness or unctuousness of this combination can be complemented and “lightened” by the addition of Ginger and/or Fennel. With Elecampane and/or Marshmallow root for coughs and phlegm congestion in the lungs, and to open the lungs and respiratory tract as a pectoral. With Slippery Elm Bark as a mild aperient laxative, and to detoxify the GI tract. With Milk Thistle to improve liver metabolism, and to lower blood sugar and cholesterol.

Description:

Fenugreek holds a special place in my heart, since it was the first herb that got me into herbs. My voice teacher in college told me that, as a singer, my body was my instrument, and that I had to keep it clean and healthy; and so, he was big on nutrition and herbal remedies. He would have us sip our Fenugreek tea as we vocalized and practiced our scales, and he would keep a large box of Kleenex on the piano. Then, as we hit the high notes, the sinus vibrations combined with the expectorant action of the Fenugreek tea would dislodge the phlegm and send it flowing downwards for discharge. The Fenugreek tea we drank way back then was made as an infusion by merely steeping the seeds in boiling water for a few minutes; this method of preparation would extract the lighter, more aromatic and volatile constituents of the Fenugreek seed, which would then rise up to the head and sinuses to dislodge the phlegm up there. It was a great tea to drink, especially for those voice students who suffered from hay fever, allergies or chronic sinus congestion.

The expectorant action of Fenugreek that loosens and dissolves phlegm so effectively is borne of the combination of both warming pungent and aromatic constituents that dry up and disperse the phlegm as well as moistening mucilaginous constituents that liquefy and dissolve phlegm for easier expulsion. Avicenna tells us that Fenugreek can soften and dissolve tough phlegmatic nodules and swellings, whether used internally or externally. Its topical use as a plaster can ripen and draw out pus. Internally, Fenugreek seeds, whether taken as a tea, decoction or powder, can also detoxify, dis-inflame and expel excess phlegm from the stomach, intestines and GI tract as well; they also expel wind and flatulence. Fenugreek’s versatility as a digestive herb is amply demonstrated in the Classic Combinations section above. Since Fenugreek seeds are not only pungent and aromatic but also bitter, they also act as a bitter tonic to stimulate the digestion and appetite. Fenugreek herb, or Kasoori Methi, is even better as an aperitif or bitter tonic to stimulate digestion and appetite, and to cleanse and stimulate the liver and bile flow.

A decoction of Fenugreek seeds will extract the thicker, heavier constituents from the seeds than an infusion, drawing more of the nutritive constituents out of the seeds. But of course, if you want to get the full nutritional value of the whole seed, taking the powdered seeds is the way to go. Fenugreek seed powder has been used in herbal protein and nutrition powders, as well as herbal superfood mixes; the herb, or Kasoori Methi, can also be used for this purpose, either by itself, or in combination with the powdered seeds. The various tonic applications of Fenugreek are many. It is one of the best galactogogues to increase milk secretion in nursing mothers; it is also said that it is beneficial for breast development in women. Chinese herbal medicine classifies Fenugreek, or Hu Lu Ba, as a Kidney Yang tonic, to stimulate virility and genitourinary function in men. These aphrodisiac properties of Fenugreek were not lost on Western herbalists, where it was said to increase sexual desire in both sexes. Hippocrates utilized not only Fenugreek’s nutritive properties, but also its expectorant and pectoral properties by giving the powder or meal as a restorative for those who were convalescing from chronic respiratory conditions.

No question about it, the Fenugreek seed constitutes a veritable powerhouse of vital nutrients like protein, lecithin, phosphorus, calcium, iron, and mucilage. But we must not forget that Fenugreek is also a very valuable metabolic stimulant as well. Fenugreek stimulates liver metabolism, so that excess phlegm is reduced, while boosting the generation of healthy blood. And so, Fenugreek’s anti-phlegm action works not only directly on the respiratory and digestive tracts, where excess phlegm collects, but also way down, at its very source. Stimulating liver metabolism, Fenugreek is also useful in reducing blood sugar and cholesterol in type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. The great benefit of using Fenugreek as an antidiabetic herb is that its action is gentle and balanced, yet effective, even in large doses, and there is little need to fear an overdose, since it is also a nutritive tonic and superfood. This is in stark contrast to more potent herbs and pharmaceutical drugs to reduce blood sugar, like Gymnemma or Metformin; take an overdose of these, and the blood sugar level may be driven too low. Fenugreek also contains Diosgenin, which is a valuable precursor to the female hormones – and so, Fenugreek can also be used as a female tonic and hormonal balancer.



Related Species:

In reading about Fenugreek in Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, I was surprised to learn that, in addition to regular Fenugreek, there was another closely related species of Fenugreek that is commonly called Blue Fenugreek (Trigonella caerulea). The seeds of Blue Fenugreek have a darker, bluish grey color to them, and the plant has blue flowers. The flavor and aroma of Blue Fenugreek is similar to that of regular Fenugreek, but less intense.  Like regular Fenugreek, Blue Fenugreek is also used as a cooking spice, especially in Georgian cuisine, where it is known as Utskho Suneli, or “foreign spice”, and is the key ingredient to the national spice mixture, Khmeli Suneli, with the other ingredients being Savory, Dill weed and Basil, with a little Black Pepper and a touch of Safflower. The spice mixture is used in various soups and stews, and, like regular Fenugreek, intensifies its flavor and aroma the longer it is simmered or cooked. In Switzerland, Blue Fenugreek is used to flavor Schabziger cheese.

As for the medicinal and other uses of Blue Fenugreek, Avicenna tells us that its oil is used cosmetically to remove freckles, and medicinally to treat arthritis due to the presence of gas. He also recommends Blue Fenugreek in treating colds and gaseous stomach pain. Avicenna also tells us that Blue Fenugreek is a diuretic and an emmenagogue to stimulate the menstrual flow.

Sources:

The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, translated and compiled by Laleh Bakhtiar, pp. 435 - 440. @2012 by Laleh Bakhtiar, Published by Great Books of the Islamic World, Inc., Distributed by Kazi Publications.

Ayurvedic Medicine: The Principles of Traditional Practice by Sebastian Pole, pp. 177 - 178. @2006 by Elsevier / Churchill Livingstone


Blue Fenugreek

DISCLAIMER:  The information contained on this page is intended for educational purposes only, to inform the reader as to the traditional uses of the herb or medicinal substance, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or medical condition.  The author advises the reader to consult with his or her physician before use.