FWD 2 Expanded Commission E: Fenugreek seed

Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E

Fenugreek seed

Latin Name: Trigonella foenum-graecum
Pharmacopeial Name: Foenugraeci semen
Other Names: Greek hay, trigonella


Fenugreekis an annual herb native tothe Mediterranean region, the Ukraine, India, and China, now widely cultivated in these areas. The material of commerce comes exclusively from cultivated plants mainly from Morocco, Turkey, India, and China (BHP, 1996; Bruneton, 1995; Budavari, 1996; Leung and Foster, 1996; Wichtl and Bisset, 1994).It was brought under cultivation in ancient Assyria during the seventh century B.C.E. (Bown, 1995). Its present genus name, Trigonella, comes from Greek, meaning 'three-angled,' from the form of its corolla.Its species name foenum-graecum means 'Greek hay.' Fenugreek was once used to scent inferior hay (Grieve, 1979).

Its recorded use dates back to ancient Egyptian medicine, first mentioned in the Ebers papyri (ca. 1500 B.C.E.) as an herb to induce childbirth. It has been used therapeutically for millennia in traditional Arabian, Greek, and Indian (Ayurvedic, Siddha, and Unani) medicines. Its use eventually spread eastwardto China,where it was introduced into Chinese medicine during the Sung Dynasty in the eleventh century (Bown, 1995; Grieve, 1979; Leung and Foster, 1996; Nadkarni, 1976).It is official in the present-day Chinese pharmacopeiafor pain and 'coldness' in the lower abdomen, hernia, and weakness and edema of the legs caused by 'cold-damp' (Tu, 1992). In the United States, it was a key ingredient in Lydia Pinkham's famous 'Vegetable Compound,' a popular nineteenth century patent medicine for menstrual pain and postmenopausal vaginal dryness (Duke, 1997).

Modern clinical studies have investigated its hypocholesterolemic and hypoglycemic actions in normal and diabetic humans (Bruneton, 1995; Newall et al., 1996). One study reported hypoglycemic activity in healthy individuals who ingested whole seed extracts. Improved plasma glucose and insulin responses and reduced 24-hour urinary glucose concentrations were reported after chronic ingestion for 21 days. In two diabetic insulin-dependent subjects, daily administration of 25 g fenugreek seed powder reduced fasting plasma-glucose profile, glycosuria, and daily insulin requirements (56 to 20 units) after eight weeks. Significant reductions in serum-cholesterol concentrations were also reported (Sharma, 1986). A subsequent study investigated the lipid-lowering activity of fenugreek seeds in 60 non-insulin dependent diabetic subjects. Isocaloric diets without and with fenugreek were given for seven days and 24 weeks, respectively. Ingestion of an experimental diet containing 25 g fenugreek seed powder daily resulted in a significant reduction of total cholesterol, low density and very low density lipoprotein cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. The effect on lipid levels was sustained and lasting. Because it also affects glucose and insulin levels, the authors concluded that it should be considered a useful dietary supplement for prevention of hyperlipidemia and atherosclerosis in diabetic subjects (Sharma et al., 1996).

In Germany,fenugreek seedis usually used externally, prepared as an aqueous paste for poultices to reduce inflammation. Occasionally it is used internally as a component of cholagogue and gastrointestinal remedy compounds (Leung and Foster, 1996;Wichtl and Bisset, 1994).In the United States, it is used similarly and also in traditional galactagogue preparations (Duke, 1997).

The approved modern therapeutic applications for fenugreek seed are supportable based on its long history of use in well established systems of traditional medicine, phytochemical investigations, in vitro and in vivo studies in animals, and some clinical studies.

Pharmacopeial grade fenugreek seed is not presently defined on the basis of a specific chemical composition quantitatively, but rather on a number of tests, including positive identification by thin-layer chromatography (TLC), organoleptic evaluations, macroscopical and microscopical authentication, and certain quantitative standards. For example, it should contain not less than 30% water-soluble extractive (BHP, 1996; DAB 10, 1994; Tu, 1992).


Fenugreek consists of the ripe, dried seed of Trigonella foenum-graecum L. [Fam. Fabaceae], as well as its preparations in effective dosage. The preparation contains mucilage and bitter principles.

Chemistry and Pharmacology

Fenugreek seed contains 4560% carbohydrates, mainly mucilaginous fiber (galactomannans); 2030% proteins high in lysine and tryptophan; 510% fixed oils (lipids); pyridine-type alkaloids, mainly trigonelline (0.20.36%), choline (0.5%), gentianine, and carpaine; the flavonoids apigenin, luteolin, orientin, quercetin, vitexin, and isovitexin; free amino acids, such as 4-hydroxyisoleucine (0.09%), arginine, histidine, and lysine; calcium and iron; saponins (0.61.7%); glycosides yielding steroidal sapogenins on hydrolysis (diosgenin, yamogenin, tigogenin, neotigogenin); cholesterol and sitosterol; vitamins A, B1, C, and nicotinic acid; and 0.015% volatile oils (n-alkanes and sesquiterpenes) (Bruneton, 1995; Budavari, 1996; Leung and Foster, 1996; Newall et al., 1996; Wichtl and Bisset, 1994).

The Commission E reported secretolytic, hyperemic, and mild antiseptic activity.

The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia reported its actions as demulcent and hypoglycemic (BHP, 1996). Fenugreek seeds are reported to have antidiabetic, blood cholesterol-lowering, and blood lipid-lowering actions as demonstrated experimentally by decreased post-prandial glycemia in the diabetic rat and dog (Bruneton, 1995). Hypoglycemic activity in healthy individuals has been reported for whole seed extracts. A significant reduction in serum-cholesterol concentrations in diabetic patients was also reported (Sharma, 1986). Fenugreek infusion has hypoglycemic effects in animals (Leung and Foster, 1996). The Merck Index reported its veterinary medicine therapeutic category as emollient (Budavari, 1996).


The Commission E approved internal use of fenugreek seed for loss of appetite and external use as a poultice for local inflammation. Traditionally, fenugreek is used internally to treat anorexia, dyspepsia, gastritis, and convalescence, and topically for furunculosis, myalgia, lymphadenitis, gout, wounds, and leg ulcers. It is indicated for use externally as an emollient for treating furuncles, boils, inflamed indurations, and eczema, applied as a poultice (Duke, 1997; Newall et al., 1996; Wichtl and Bisset, 1994).


None known.

Side Effects

Repeated external applications can result in undesirable skin reactions.

Use During Pregnancy and Lactation

Not recommended during pregnancy (McGuffin et al., 1997).

Interactions with Other Drugs

None known.

Dosage and Administration


Cut or crushed seed: 6 g per day; equivalent preparations.

Infusion: Macerate 0.5 g cut seed in 150 ml cold water for 3 hours, strain, and add honey if desired. Drink several cups daily.

Fluidextract 1:1 (g/ml): 6 ml.

Tincture 1:5 (g/ml): 30 ml.

Native extract 3-4:1 (w/w): 1.5-2 g.


Bath additive: Mix 50 g powdered seed with 1/4 liter water. Add to hot bath.

Inhalant: Inhale deeply the steam vapor of the hot aqueous infusion.

Liniment: Liquid preparation containing infusion or tincture in vegetable oil emulsion or alcohol, applied locally by rubbing.

Ointment: Semi-solid preparation containing infusion or tincture in a base of petroleum jelly or anhydrous lanolin and vegetable oil, applied locally.

Oil infusion: Maceration of powdered seed in vegetable oil, grain alcohol, and ammonia water, applied locally.

Poultice: Semi-solid paste prepared from 50 g powdered seed per 1 liter hot water, applied locally.


Bown, D. 1995. Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses. New York: DK Publishing, Inc. 364.

British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (BHP). 1996. Exeter, U.K.: British Herbal Medicine Association.

Bruneton, J. 1995. Pharmacognosy, Phytochemistry, Medicinal Plants. Paris: Lavoisier Publishing.

Budavari, S. (ed.). 1996. The Merck Index: An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs, and Biologicals, 12th ed. Whitehouse Station, N.J.: Merck & Co, Inc.

Deutsches Arzneibuch, 10th ed. (DAB 10). 1991. (With subsequent supplements through 1996.) Stuttgart: Deutscher Apotheker Verlag.

Duke, J.A. 1997. The Green Pharmacy. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press. 8889.

Grieve, M. 1979. A Modern Herbal. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Leung, A.Y. and S. Foster. 1996. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

McGuffin, M., C. Hobbs, R. Upton, A. Goldberg. 1997. American Herbal Product Association's Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Nadkarni, K.M. 1976. Indian Materia Medica. Bombay: Popular Prakashan. 12401243.

Newall, C.A., L.A. Anderson, J.D. Phillipson. 1996. Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health-Care Professionals. London: The Pharmaceutical Press.

Sharma, R.D. 1986. Effect of fenugreek seeds and leaves on blood glucose and serum insulin responses in human subjects. Nutr Res 6:13531364.

Sharma, R.D. et al. 1996. Hypolipidaemic effect of fenugreek seeds: a chronic study in non-insulin dependent diabetic patients. Phytotherapy Res 10:332334.

Tu, G. (ed.). 1992. Pharmacopoeia of the People's Republic of China (English Edition 1992). Beijing: Guangdong Science and Technology Press. 236.

Wichtl, M. and N.G. Bisset (eds.). 1994. Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals. Stuttgart: Medpharm Scientific Publishers.

Additional Resources

Ali, L. et al. 1995. Characterization of the hypoglycemic effect of Trigonella foenum graecum seed [letter]. Planta Med 61(4):358360.

British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (BHP).1983. Keighley, U.K.: British Herbal Medicine Association.

British Pharmaceutical Codex (BPC). 1949. London: The Pharmaceutical Press.

Der Marderosian, A. (ed.). 1999. The Review of Natural Products. St. Louis: Facts and Comparisons.

Duke, J.A. 1985. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Gupta, R.K. et al. 1986. Minor steroidal sapogenins from fenugreek seeds, Trigonella foenum-graecum. J Nat Prod 49:1153.

Gupta, R.K., D.C. Thain, R.S. Thakur. 1986. Two furostanol saponins from Trigonella foenum-graecum. Phytochem 25:22052207.

Hnsel, R., K. Keller, H. Rimpler, G. Schneider (eds.). 19921994. Hagers Handbuch der Pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed. Vol. 46. Berlin-Heidelberg: Springer Verlag.

Hardman, R. and F.R. Fazli. 1972. Labelled steroidal sapogenins and hydrocarbons from Trigonella foenumgraecum by acetate, mevalonate and cholesterol feeds to seeds. Planta Med 21(2):188195.

. 1972. Methods of screening the genus Trigonella for steroidal sapogenins in genus Trigonella.Planta Med 21(2):131138.

. 1972. Studies in the steroidal sapogenin yield from Trigonella foenumgraecum seed. Planta Med 21(3):322328.

Hardman, R. and K.R. Brain. 1972. Variations in the yield of total and individual 25 - and 25 - sapogenins on storage of whole seed of Trigonella foenumgraecum L. Planta Med 21(4):426430.

Hoffmann, D.L. Health World OnlineHerbal Materia Medica. Available at: www.healthy.net/hwlibrarybooks/hoffman/materiamedica/fenugreek.htm

Iwu, M.M. 1990. Handbook of African Medicinal Plants. Boca Raton: CRC Press. 253254.

Kapoor, L.D. 1990. Handbook of Ayurvedic Medicinal Plants. Boca Raton: CRC Press. 327.

List, P.H. and L. Hrhammer (eds.). 19731979. Hagers Handbuch der Pharmazeutischen Praxis, Vols. 17. New York: Springer Verlag.

Madaus, G. 1979. Lehrbuch der biologischen Heilmittel. Bde 13, Nachdruck. Hildesheim: Georg Olms.

Marsh, A.C. et al. 1977. Composition of Foods, Spices, and Herbs: Raw, Processed, Prepared. Agriculture Handbook No. 82. Washington, D.C.: Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Opdyke, D.L.J. 1978. Fenugreek absolute. Food Cosmet Toxicol 16(suppl.1):755756.

Reynolds, J.E.F. (ed.). 1989. Martindale: The Extra Pharmacopoeia, 29th ed. London: The Pharmaceutical Press.

Rosengarten, F., Jr. 1969. The Book of Spices. Wynnewood, PA: Livingston.

Sharma, R.D. 1986. An evaluation of hypocholesterolemic factor of fenugreek seeds (T. foenum graecum) in rats. Nutr Rep Int 33:669677.

Sharma, R.D., T.C. Raghuram, N.S. Rao. 1990. Effect of fenugreek seeds on blood glucose and serum lipids in type I diabetes. Eur J Clin Nutr 44(4):301306.

Stark, A. and Z. Madar. 1993. The effect of an ethanol extract derived from fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) on bile acid absorption and cholesterol levels in rats. Br J Nutr 69(1):277287.

Steinegger, E. and R. Hnsel. 1992. Pharmakognosie, 5th ed. Berlin-Heidelberg: Springer Verlag.

Yeung, H. 1985. Handbook of Chinese Herbs and Formulas, Vol. 1. Los Angeles: Institute of Chinese Medicine.

This material was adapted from The Complete German Commission E MonographsTherapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. M. Blumenthal, W.R. Busse, A. Goldberg, J. Gruenwald, T. Hall, C.W. Riggins, R.S. Rister (eds.) S. Klein and R.S. Rister (trans.). 1998. Austin: American Botanical Council; Boston: Integrative Medicine Communications.

1) The Overview section is new information.

2) Description, Chemistry and Pharmacology, Uses, Contraindications, Side Effects, Interactions with Other Drugs, and Dosage sections have been drawn from the original work. Additional information has been added in some or all of these sections, as noted with references.

3) The dosage for equivalent preparations (tea infusion, fluidextract, and tincture) have been provided based on the following example:

  • Unless otherwise prescribed: 2 g per day of [powdered, crushed, cut or whole] [plant part]
  • Infusion: 2 g in 150 ml of water
  • Fluidextract 1:1 (g/ml): 2 ml
  • Tincture 1:5 (g/ml): 10 ml

4) The References and Additional Resources sections are new sections. Additional Resources are not cited in the monograph but are included for research purposes.

This monograph, published by the Commission E in 1994, was modified based on new scientific research. It contains more extensive pharmacological and therapeutic information taken directly from the Commission E.

Excerpt from Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs
Copyright 2000 American Botanical Council
Published by Integrative Medicine Communications
Available from the American Botanical Council.