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Fenugreek: The Medicinally Mysterious Seed

The history of fenugreek seeds as a medicine and spice dates back to ancient civilizations. Yet it’s use is often enshrouded in mystery. And why shouldn’t it be? People are uncertain of what to do with this seemingly impenetrable triangular seed.  In this article, we’ll talk about how to soften and make available this compact medicine, as well as become versed in some handy applications.

Namesake

Fenugreek is in the Fabaceae Family, also known as the Legume family. According to Maude Grieve, Trigonella foenum-greacum (fenugreek) was used by the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans for culinary and medicinal purposes. It’s species name, foenum-greacum, means Greek hay, and denotes the whole flowering plants use to scent poor quality hay.  Trigonella comes from the Greek ‘three-angled’ or ‘little triangle’, which is what you see when you look at the seed. The leaves also reflect the tri, as they are oval and clustered in threes. While the leaves are eaten and considered a nutritious tonic, the dried hard little seeds are the part most used in medicine and curry mixes.

Taste, Energetics and Organ System Affinity

Fenugreek smells noticeably sweet, like maple syrup. It’s taste is diverse, as it is slightly sweet, pungent, aromatic, and bitter, with a hint of celery. It’s nature is to warm, and moisten, for fenugreek is high in mucilage, just as it’s cooling mucilaginous counterparts, marshmallow and slippery elm bark.  Imagine a plant with the energetic capacity of a warm, pungent, aromatic bitter, combined with the moistening and demulcent benefits of marshmallow root, and you have fenugreek! Only garlic comes close to fenugreeks ability here, for it, too, is warm and moistening. It is not, however, mucilaginous.

Fenugreek’s energetics are a reflection of its taste. It is carminative, demulcent and emollient, diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory, and an emmenagogue. While others don’t recognize its ability as an expectorant or anti-spasmodic, I do. Those are two qualities synonymous with mucilaginous herbs, and I have witnessed fenugreek to have those actions as well.

Organ systems it has an affinity for are the whole digestive tract (from mouth to colon/large intestine), immune system, tissue, mucous membranes, lungs, the uterus, liver, and skin.

Note About Contraindications: Due to the emmenagogue effects, this plant should not be used in pregnancy. Also, it’s high mucilage content gives it the ability to coat mucous membranes slightly prohibiting the absorption of other herbs or medications. Just as with marshmallow and slippery elm, I recommend that folks don’t take fenugreek with medications or other plants to avoid this effect. Stagger when you take your medicines, waiting an hour after taking fenugreek to use the others. In cooking, there is no issue. And when there is excess dryness, which prohibits absorption of other plants or nutrients, it is not as big an issue. But I still recommend you avoid taking fenugreek with prescription medications.

Uses

Fenugreek has been used in many ways throughout history. The Ancient Greek’s viewed it as a panacea that helped maintain health and wellness, probably due to its tissue moistening and warming abilities. In Egypt it was used for digestive disorders, and as a topical paste to help soften wounds and speed healing.

The Eclectic physicians of America weren’t always impressed by fenugreek. They rarely referenced it, and most of them didn’t include it in their Materia medica’s. Dr. John King, an Eclectic doctor of Kentucky in practice in the late 1800’s, states that while the Ancient Greeks used it prolifically, he felt the plants only quality worth mentioning was its ability as an emollient (to soften skin).

It is Dr. John Milton Scudder, who practiced in the mid- 1800’s and is considered one of the most prominent doctors of his time, who speaks of it more favorably, and found it a worthy addition to his medicine chest. He used fenugreek for “chronic affections of the stomach, bowels, and liver”. It should be known that he was one of the few to use the plant, and write about its absolute efficacy.

Today, we use fenugreek for many conditions and disorders besides the gastrointestinal tract. It is an excellent fit for several tissue states- Cold/Wind/Constricted, Cold/Depression, and, in some cases, Damp/Torpor/Stagnation and Dry/Atrophy. But lets begin with afflictions of the gastrointestinal tract.

Gastrointestinal

Conditions of the stomach and intestines where there is inflammation and damage to the lining of the these organs with or without ulcers calls for demulcent herbs that are mucilaginous. These conditions are painful, with spasms and poor digestion that cause and perpetuate gas and bloating. Plants that are mucilaginous are a perfect fit here. The ones we hear about are typically marshmallow and slippery elm, which can make an excellent fit. But there are times when something warming and soothing is an even better fit, especially when that warming plant improves digestion, and has positive effects on the liver, as fenugreek does.

Let’s talk a bit about mucilaginous plants.   These plants that turn dry tissue lively and moist are fascinating. Their goal is to restore the water balance of a cell or tissue. They coat in order to protect, thereby calming irritation from dryness, calming the muscle to stop spasms from tension created by dryness, increase the flow of fluid, and improve how lymph and blood interface with cells. In doing so, they speed wound healing.

Fenugreek does all of these things, including being an antispasmodic, which it doesn’t get a lot of press for, and assisting the speeding repair and healing of mucous membranes. But it also has other positive effects on the gut. Fenugreek binds to endotoxins in the gut, ushering them out, and prohibiting them from wrecking havoc on the immune system. This helps with leaky gut syndrome, bacterial infections where there will be bacterial die off.

While fenugreek hasn’t been recognized as an infection fighter, it does warm the tissue and body, enabling its ability to maintain better health.

Knowing what we now know, some specific gut afflictions fenugreek is great for are: stomach ulcers, dyspepsia or gastritis, (not GERD), Leaky Gut Syndrome, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, colon ulcers, inflammation in the small intestine, and Candida infections, to name a few.

Acute infections

We can apply our knowledge of fenugreek for the gastrointestinal tract to the respiratory tract.  Pernicious dry irritated lower as well as upper respiratory infections respond beautifully to fenugreek. It sooths and warms, making it an excellent ally with acute infections, where the root of illness is usually cold.

Fenugreek may be used for dry sore throats and laryngitis that is the result of a winter infection. I recommend it as a supportive tea, or gargle with salt and echinacea for strep throat instead of marshmallow root, where irritation and inflammation causes great discomfort. Marshmallow root is a cooling mucilage. While the red and inflammation of strep may look hot, it is the result of false heat (the description of which is most appropriate for another article).

Topically for Wounds

As Dr. King recognized, the emollient quality of fenugreek is a valuable asset. He speaks of its use in veterinary medicine, and recommends it be used to dress wounds on animals, from boils, general cuts and inflammations, to abscesses. As for its use on humans, it may be employed the same way, including on burns.

Liver and Diabetes

Studies have shown that fenugreek may reduce serum cholesterol levels and blood glucose levels. And the French have used it for carbohydrate induced hyperglycemia in dogs, noting that a tea of fenugreek reduced the amount of insulin needed to maintain blood sugar.

Prevent or Lessen a Healing Crisis

Fighting a bacterial infection causes, in some cases, an inordinate amount of endotoxins released as bacteria die off. These endotoxins can often complicate the process of getting well, creating an environment perfect for a healing crisis as the already war torn body deals with eliminating die off waste. If the person is naturally Cold/Depressed as a tissue state (one who has a low metabolic rate, with a deficient immune system), or has difficulty eliminating regularly, the body will have trouble dealing with its normal waste load. Add endotoxins to that, and a healing crisis is what we see.

As mentioned in the Gastrointestinal section, fenugreek binds to endotoxins in the gut, ushering them out, prohibiting them from wrecking havoc on tissue and the immune system, and, in most cases, preventing a healing crisis. With these benefits, add the anti-inflammatory and mucous membrane healing effects, and you have a great balm.

While fenugreek has proven itself to be effective for those suffering from bacterial infections of the gastrointestinal tract, and its effects on blood in the realm of other bacterial infections is virtually unspoken of, it would still be an excellent experiment to use fenugreek on those suffering from Lyme disease, strep throat, or other infections where die off may negatively impact the healing process.

Lymphatic System

While there is not much to say about fenugreeks lymphatic system benefits, it is still notable. Fenugreek has been used as a tea to reduce breast swelling and tenderness when employed with other lymphatics and liver tonics that have a more specific affinity for such hormonal conditions, such as cleavers, dandelion root, burdock root, and poke root, to name a few. Its affinity for tissue, blood and lymph are evident here, as it has the ability to soften and reduce inflammation, as well as improve fluid flow into and out of tissue.

Medicine Making

Because this is a plant high in mucilage, your best menstruum for extraction will be water, for mucilage is only water (or honey) soluble. For a single serving, add ¼ teaspoon of fenugreek seeds to 6-8 oz. of hot water. Let this sit overnight, or until soft and pasty. The timing for this to occur depends on how fresh your seeds are. You can reheat the mixture, paste and all, and add honey to taste. Drink 1-3 cups daily, between meals if specific effects on digestive tract irritation and ulceration are needed.

A tincture is beneficial for all energetics other than demulcent/emollient, and reducing serum cholesterol or sugars in the blood. If making a tincture, use a 1:5 dilution (1 part plant to 5 parts menstruum). Allow this to macerate 8 weeks. Your menstruum should be about 50% alcohol, and 50% water. If use the tincture with the fenugreek paste in, it will maintain some mucilaginous qualities, but will not be as strong or effective as the tea. Tincture dose: 5-10 drops 3-4 times daily.

Fenugreek was one of the first plants I used as an herbalist, but as a tincture. It was a pleasure to dig for more information on it those many years ago and discover it’s mucilaginous quality, too. In the mainstream, it may have had a nice long nap, but with the increase of Lyme disease and gastrointestinal infections, perhaps it will get noticed again.

If you find yourself moved to, try the plant in your  practice or on yourself, and leave a comment about what you discovered and your experience with fenugreek. Thank you!

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