Fenugreek has been in use as a food and flavouring since time immemorial. The specific name joenum-graecum means 'Greek hay', since it was used there at one time to improve the nutritional quality of low? grade fodder. The herb is still used in parts of Europe to improve the palatability of poor hay. Both the seeds and leaves are well regarded for their medicinal value and were held in high esteem in India, Egypt, Greece and Italy in the time of the Romans.
Indigenous to eastern Europe, the herb is now grown widely as a field crop for its leaves and seeds, and cultivated mainly in southern France, Turkey, northern Africa, India and China. It is naturalised throughout the Mediterranean region, India, China and Africa, as far south as Ethiopia.
A robust, erect, aromatic annual herb reaching up to 60 cm in height. The leaves are compound, up to 5 cm in length, with long pedicels. Leaflets are lanceolate or obovate, about 2.5 cm long, with slightly toothed margins. The flowers are axillary, occurring singly or in pairs, sessile, yellow in colour. The fruits are typically leguminous pods 5-8 cm long, narrow and with a persistent 'beak', enclosing 10-20 golden yellow seeds, which possess a characteristic savoury aroma.
Dried seeds, leaves.
Young plants and aromatic leaves are often eaten as a vegetable and the seeds are widely used as a condiment in curries. A poultice made of the herb can be applied locally to relieve swelling and the leaves are also made into paste and applied over burns or to the scalp to prevent premature greying of the hair. Internally, the leaves may be taken for indigestion and bilious disorders and a decoction of the whole herb is given for leucorrhoea. The seeds are given to breastfeeding mothers to increase the flow of milk. Various traditional Indian preparations are made from the seeds, together with other herbal ingredients, for example in the treatment of dyspepsia and to regulate blood sugar. After roasting, the seeds are powdered and given in dysentery and in the central Himalayas they are given to children with worm infestations.
The seeds are mixed with cottonseed and given to cattle to enhance milk production and utilised in the manufacture of nutritional supplements for horses and cattle. In rural areas of Bihar, they are applied over swellings and wounds in cattle. The seeds are also given to ruminants and poultry with diarrhoea and are considered useful in ruminants after calving.
The sapogenins diosgenin, hederagin, tigogenin, neotigogenin, yuccagenin, gitogenin, smilagenin, sarsasapogenin and yamogenin have been isolated from the seed, together with their glycosides such as foenugraecin, trigoneosides la, Ib, IIa, IIIa, IIIb, Na, Va, Vb, VI, VIlb and VIIIb, trigofoenosides A, B, C, and 0, and fenugrin B.
3,4,7, Trimethyl coumarin, 4, methyl coumarin and trigocoumarin.9,'0
Isoorientin, isovitexin, orientin, saponaretin, vicenin-l, kaempferol, quercetin, lilyn, vitexin, tricin, tricin-7 -0- 0?glucopyranoside, naringenin and luteolin have been reported in the stems and seeds.
Trigonelline, choline 4- hydroxyisoleucine, lysine, tryptophan, histidine, arginine, cystine and tyrosine are present.
Sucrose, glucose, fructose, myoinositol, galactose, raffinose, verbascose, digalactosylmyoinositol, galactomannan, xylose and arabinose.
Calcium, iron, potassium, ascorbic acid, nicotinic acid, thiamin, riboflavin, biotin, ?-carotene, fixed oil and traces of essential oi1.
Antidiabetic activity: The seeds of Trigonella foenum-graecum have been extensively studied for antidiabetic properties in animals as well as in human clinical studies.'3 Creatine kinase levels were decreased compared to control subjects in the tissues of rats induced with experimental diabetes after administration of fenugreek. The seeds alone, and in combination with vanadate, produced a normalisation of glucose-6-phosphatase and fructose-I, 6-bisphosphatase in the liver and kidney of diabetic rats, with a combination of both showing the most potent lowering effect. Fenugreek seeds have also been reported to normalise the activity of glyoxalase I in the diabetic liver of experimental rats. At a dose of2 and 8 g/kg in normal and alloxan-induced diabetic rats it produced a significant, dose?dependent fall in blood glucose levels and both doses showed marked hypoglycaemic effects in normal mice. The hypoglycaemic activity of the seeds and various extracts was studied in experimental rabbits and the glucose tolerance test showed a significant hypoglycaemic activity in the alkaloid-rich fraction. Antidiabetic properties have also been reported by various other workers. The traditional use has also been validated clinically. Studies on human volunteers support the use of fenugreek seeds in diabetes, especially in non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM).In a controlled clinical trial, the effect of three preparations of the seeds (raw, boiled and germinated) was seen in six healthy and six diabetic patients taking raw and germinated seeds. Raw and germinated seeds significantly reduced postprandial glucose levels in all subjects; however, boiled seeds did not produce any such effects. A trial conducted on 21 NIDDM patients showed that whole seeds of fenugreek lowered postprandial blood glucose levels. This effect was seen with a single dose (15 g) taken with the test meal, although no significant changes in insulin levels were noted. In another study, defatted seeds, when given to 15 NIDDM patients for 10 days, resulted in a significant decrease in fasting blood glucose levels and a reduction in urinary glucose excretion by 64%. This suggests an effect of dietary fibre in intestinal absorption and an improvement in peripheral insulin activity, as possible mechanisms of action for the improvements in diabetic parameters. As well as an improvement in biochemical parameters, fenugreek seeds suppressed some of the clinical symptoms of diabetes such as polyuria, polydypsia, weakness and weight loss.
Hypocholesterolaemic activity: A number of experimental studies have shown hypocholesterolaemic effect in rats. Fenugreek seeds have been shown to prevent the elevation of cholesterol in rats when given with a hypercholesterolaemic diet. Steroidal saponins isolated from fenugreek seeds administered to rats with food (at a daily dose of 12.5 g per 300 g body weight) significantly reduced plasma cholesterol in both normal and diabetic rats. One study suggests that the fraction producing the hypoglycaemic effect is also responsible for its hypocholesterolaemic effect.
Antiinflammatory activity: Fenugreek seeds were screened for antiinflammatory activity against experimentally induced inflammation in albino rats. Ether, alcohol and aqueous extracts were tested in acute, subacute and chronic models of inflammation and the activity compared with that of sodium salicylate. Antiinflammatory activity was exhibited by all three extracts but the ether extract was the most potent and comparable to sodium salicylate.
Antimicrobial activity: Trigonella foenum?graecum was screened against 26 common pathogens and demonstrated a broad?spectrum antibacterial activity. The fatty oil and unsaponifiable matter of fenugreek seeds were evaluated against six bacterial and six fungal strains and the study concluded that the unsaponifiable matter was more active than the oil.
Antioxidant activity: Several studies have suggested that the seeds may be useful as an antioxidant agent for preserving foods. In one study, the antioxidant potential was compared to the synthetic antioxidants butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene and antioxidant activity of seeds was reported in pork patties prepared from both fresh and previously frozen meat. A freeze-dried extract of fenugreek was reported to be antioxidant in a carotene and linoleic acid emulsion, with an activity comparable to standard commercial antioxidants.
Since fenugreek has been used in both human and animal nutrition for so long without any untoward effects, it is considered safe. Systematic studies of the toxicity of the seeds, given to rats for 90 days at an equivalent dose of 2-4 times the therapeutic dose recommended in humans, did not produce any toxic effects on normal liver function tests and no changes in haematological parameters. Furthermore, administration of seeds at 25 g/day in human diabetic subjects for 24 weeks produced no clinical changes in hepatic or renal function or haematological bnormalities.However,
it should be used with caution in individuals undergoing hypoglycaemic therapy as it may potentiate the action of other hypoglycaemic agents.