What is fenugreek? – Fenugreek is one of the world’s oldest medicinal herbs. It has a variety of uses, including increasing breastmilk production.
Fenugreek is the small stony seeds from the pod of a bean-like plant. The seeds are hard, yellowish brown and angular. Some are oblong, some rhombic, other virtually cubic, with a side of about 3mm (1/8″). A deep furrow all but splits them in two. They are available whole and dried , or as a dull yellow powder, ground from the roasted seeds.
Bouquet: Warm and penetrating, becoming more pronounced when the seeds are roasted. Ground, they give off a ‘spicy’ smell, pungent, like an inferior curry powder which would probably contain too much fenugreek.
Flavor: Powerful, aromatic and bittersweet, like burnt sugar. There is a bitter aftertaste, similar to celery or lovage.
Where does it grow? – Fenugreek is indigenous to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, but it is grown in India, Morocco, Egypt and England. The herb can grow to be about two feet tall. It blooms white flowers in the summer and has very aromatic seeds.
What is it used for ? – Fenugreek seeds are ground and roasted and used to flavor to curry. The seeds are also soaked and then powdered and used to make lip balm and tonic. The seeds can be used to make tea, which can reduce fever and menstrual pains, or they can be used in an ointment to treat skin infections. The seeds have also been used to increase libido in men and serve as an aphrodisiac. Ground seeds are often used to give a maple flavor to sweets and candies. Ground seeds are also used to flavor cattle food, including different vegetable meals and hays. Fenugreek’s leaves, which are high in iron, are used in salads. Taken internally, fenugreek is used to treat bronchitis, coughs, respiratory problems, sinus conditions and to increase milk supply (see more below).
Fenugreek in history – The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used Fenugreek for medicinal and culinary purposes. According to Kathleen E. Huggins, RN, MS, director of the Breastfeeding Clinic at San Luis Obispo General Hospital, fenugreek was one of the major ingredients of Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a popular 19th century cure-all for “female complaints.”
Fenugreek and breastfeeding – Fenugreek seeds contain hormone precursors that increase milk supply. Scientists do not know for sure how this happens. Some believe it is possible because breasts are modified sweat glands, and fenugreek stimulates sweat production. It has been found that fenugreek can increase a nursing mother’s milk supply within 24 to 72 hours after first taking the herb. Once an adequate level of milk production is reached, most women can discontinue the fenugreek and maintain the milk supply with adequate breast stimulation. Many women today take fenugreek in a pill form (ground seeds placed in capsules). The pills can be found at most vitamin and nutrition stores and at many supermarkets and natural foods stores. Fenugreek can also be taken in tea form, although tea is believed to be less potent than the pills and the tea comes with a bitter taste that can be hard to stomach.
Fenugreek is not right for everyone. The herb has caused aggravated asthma symptoms in some women and has lowered blood glucose levels in some women with diabetes. Please read Fenugreek Precautions and Dr. Ruth Lawrence’s article Herbs and Breastfeeding for more information on fenugreek.