Fenugreek (trigonella foenum-graecum) is a popular herbal style supplement, although it’s actually not an herb at all. It’s a widely grown crop in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and the Mediterranean countries.
Over 80% of worldwide fenugreek production comes from India, and 80% of India’s production comes from the Rajasthan region. Other big exporters of fenugreek include France, Egypt, Argentina, Pakistan, turkey and Morocco.
The big focus of the acne community’s attention is the golden brown fenugreek seeds, which have a very interesting history. Traditionally, the seeds are ground down into powder and roasted to reduce bitterness and flavour and then added to fine Indian curries to add flavour. Fenugreek seeds are a very ancient food and are believed to have first been cultivated in Middle Eastern civilisations.
Charred fenugreek seeds were recently found in Tell Halal, Iraq, and carbon dated back to 4000BC. Seeds with a close rebalance to fenugreek were also discovered in the ancient tomb of Tutankhamun. Fenugreek seeds were fed to Roman livestock alongside clovers as far back as 200BC.
Nowadays, fenugreek is mostly eaten as a dietary staple across India and the Middle East. These seeds have a pungent aroma and a bitter taste described as tasting like burnt celery. Hence fenugreek is used by Yemenite Jews to make a sauce called Hilbeh, by the Turkish to make a paste called cemen, by Northern Egyptian Peasants to flavour pita bread and much more. It’s not used in the West much except for authentic Indian dishes, however fenugreek seed extract is used for marinades as well as butterscotch, imitation vanilla, rum, and maple syrup flavouring.
There aren’t any studies directly on acne and fenugreek, but the claim is that fenugreek extracts and powders can control two key hormones behind acne: DHT and insulin. They’re the two major hormones behind oily skin, so fenugreek sounds pretty promising for acne, right?
Evidence for fenugreek lowering insulin is not conclusive
As well as being a beloved ingredient in Asia, Fenugreek is also supposed to have powerful medicinal properties. For example, it features prominently in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine for treating metabolic disorders. Middle Easterners use it for both weight loss and for packing on the pounds in patients who find weight gain impossible.
Fenugreek also contains a compound called diosgenin which helps new mothers to lactate, and according to some stories I’ve read, produce gallons after gallons of breast milk…
…and there’s one other tale that’s of interest for acne patients. In Ethiopia, they use fenugreek in cuisine, especially for a delicious sounding spicy butter called nitter kibbeh. However, the fenugreek seeds are also used in Ethiopia as the number one herbal medicine for treating type 2 diabetes. The ancient Ayurvedic School of medicine also recommends fenugreek seeds for type 2 diabetic patients.
That would be great news for acne patients since diabetes is just hyper advanced insulin resistance. Insulin resistance (or impaired insulin sensitivity) leads to higher insulin levels overall and this stimulates oily skin…
…and there are lots of claims circulating acne forums and alternative health sites about how fenugreek can stabilise blood sugar after a meal, reduce serum insulin levels, and so on.
So naturally I decided to investigate the scientific evidence, but unfortunately the results for acne patients are less than promising.
Firstly, this double blind study from 2001 showed very positive results. 25 patients newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes were randomly divided into two groups; they were fed either one gram of fenugreek extract per day or a standard diet for diabetic care. After two months, there was a big increase in insulin sensitivity, a fall in insulin resistance, and a reduction in both blood glucose and insulin levels. There was also an increase in HDL, or “good” cholesterol and a fall in triglycerides. The scientists concluded that “adjunct use of fenugreek seeds improves glycaemic control and decreases insulin resistance in mild type-2 diabetic patients.”
That’s a good sign for acne patients since lower insulin resistance means that your body produces less insulin overall.
Then there’s this study from 2009 where scientists wanted to find an alternative way to eat fenugreek to get past the bitter flavour. Hence, they baked two loafs of bread: one with standard wheat based ingredients and one containing the same ingredients but with added fenugreek powder. 8 diabetic patients received two slices of the breads and their blood sugar and insulin levels were measured for 4 hours after consumption.
Both blood glucose and insulin were lower in patients consuming the 5% fenugreek bread. However, only insulin reached statistically significant levels. That’s our first indication that fenugreek is no miracle. The scientists concluded that “The bread maintained fenugreek’s functional property of reducing insulin resistance”.
This study was designed to analyse the effect of fenugreek seeds themselves, rather than fenugreek extract, on blood sugar and cholesterol levels in patients with type 2 diabetes. 24 diabetic people were fed 10 grams of fenugreek seeds daily, either mixed in with an unspecified type of yoghurt or boiled in hot water.
Blood glucose levels were analysed after 8 weeks of daily fenugreek consumption and the results were interesting again. The 11 patients in the fenugreek boiled in hot water group enjoyed a reduction in fasting glucose levels of 25%. In the yoghurt plus fenugreek group, however, there was no effect whatsoever. The scientists concluded that “this study shows that fenugreek seeds can be used as an adjuvant in the control of type 2 diabetes mellitus in the form of soaked in hot water”. Another positive result for acne patients and oily skin then.
Finally, we have a study with completely contradictory results. The study was well designed; it was a double blind, placebo controlled trial on humans, which is the gold standard of scientific research. 58 women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) were randomly allocated to receive either hydroalcoholic extract of fenugreek seeds in capsules with metformin (a blood sugar lowering drug), or metformin on its own. Blood insulin, insulin sensitivity, insulin resistance in cells, and blood glucose were all measured.
The fenugreek had almost no benefit. There was no difference in blood sugar or insulin, the vital parameters for acne and oily skin. There was no effect on the insulin sensitivity of cells, and hence that rules out a more subtle long term reduction in insulin levels. The scientists concluded that “our findings support the hypothesis that fenugreek seeds extract plus metformin, as compared with metformin plus placebo, didn’t have significant effect on insulin resistance”.
So do fenugreek seeds lower insulin levels and thus acne? I cannot say at all. Some studies show good results, and two cultures thousands of miles away from each other (India and Ethiopia) both concluded through sheer experience that it does work.
But the negative study was perfectly designed and furthermore, the positive results contradict each other. This study concluded that fenugreek lowered blood sugar by inhibiting enzymes required to digest carbohydrates like amylase, hence mellowing the release of glucose into the bloodstream. However, positive study number one only found a difference in long term fasting glucose levels, not short term blood glucose spikes.
Fenugreek probably has some effect but I cannot recommend its seeds or extracts for lowering insulin, blood sugar and acne, unless you like to add them to your curries and meals anyway.
Do fenugreek seeds lower DHT levels?
One of the groups on the internet who loves fenugreek seeds most is the hair loss prevention community. They widely share the strategy of taking fenugreek seeds on online hair loss forums, mainly because it’s supposed to inhibit the androgenic hormone DHT. Likewise, fenugreek pills have burst onto muscle store shelves featuring claims that they have an anabolic hormone optimising effect.
As with insulin, lowering DHT can reduce acne and oily skin since DHT binds to your skin’s sebaceous glands and stimulates them to produce more sebum (oil). Fenugreek seeds would be especially potent against female acne in that case, since women don’t need DHT for male sexual function and brain health and additionally, women’s acne is ten times more sensitive to the deleterious side effects of DHT.
But as with insulin, the evidence that fenugreek seeds, fenugreek powders or any form of fenugreek extract inhibits DHT is contradictory.
There’s one promising study from which all the hype originated. Scientists wanted to test all the anabolic, hormone boosting claims and hence they tested the effect of fenugreek on 45 resistance trained males. Blood levels of testosterone, cortisol, leptin and DHT were all measured 8 weeks after daily intake of 500mg of a fenugreek extract or a placebo.
While most hormones didn’t change at all (including testosterone, disproving the advertised benefits), DHT levels fell by 9.42% in the fenugreek group. In the placebo group, DHT levels increased by 5.98%. The scientists thus concluded that “supplementation of fenugreek extract resulted in a decrease in serum DHT levels in comparison to placebo”.
However, another study found no effect on DHT whatsoever. Again, scientists were testing the anabolic effects of fenugreek, and this time they did notice an increase in testosterone. 30 resistance trained men were fed 500mg of fenugreek extract for eight weeks. By the end their total and free testosterone levels had increased by 6.57% and 12.26% above baseline respectively.
However, there was no difference in DHT levels. The scientists commented that fenugreek could be a 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, which would help acne patients since 5-alpha-reductase is the enzyme that converts testosterone to DHT. However, that’s irrelevant because DHT didn’t actually fall.
This study examined the effect of fenugreek seeds on male sexual functioning. The scientists managed to calculate an exact 25% increase in male sex drive (who knows how). 60 men aged between 25 and 52 took a fenugreek extract twice daily for six weeks, and enjoyed an overall positive effect on physiological aspects of sexual drive or desire for sexual activity. Testosterone levels didn’t change. DHT wasn’t measured, but since DHT is the principle male hormone for sex drive and function, you would not expect these positive results if fenugreek was a DHT inhibitor.
Basically, the evidence for fenugreek lowering DHT is even worse for that of insulin.
Furthermore, many of the studies were funded by a biotech start up called Indus Biotech. If you visit their website you’ll observe that they sell a fenugreek supplement called “Torabolic”. Even if fenugreek did lower DHT levels in acne patients, I wouldn’t recommend it for men because DHT is so important for muscle mass, sex drive, and brain functioning.
It’s clear that taking a fenugreek supplement for acne is an unsound move. Unless perhaps you’re a new mother who wants to produce vast quantities of milk, or is having trouble with lactation.
Fenugreek has one other fascinating power: changing the odour of your perspiration. It’s well established by Ancient Egyptians in embalming ceremonies that prolonged ingestion of fenugreek makes your body odour smell like maple syrup, of all things. Hence, why fenugreek is often used to flavour maple syrup.
Always cover the hormone optimising basics
In the 1970s, anti-fat hysteria kicked off in full force; dairy products, eggs, and meats were blamed for high cholesterol and heart disease, and even cancer. Hence, the World Health Organisation, the USDA, the British NHS, and so on all adopted strict anti-saturated fat policies, and what was the inevitable consequence? Instead, people began to eat more carbohydrates like bread, cereal, pasta, rice, and once junk food took over, donuts and pizzas.
Eating more carbohydrates is a healthy diet according to the US government’s infamous food pyramid, which recommends 6-11 servings of whole grains per day. Since the 1970s, the average carbohydrate intake has risen by about 10-15% of our total dietary calories and dietary fat has fallen by a similar quantity (with protein remaining equal)…
…but the expected improvement in the western world’s health has not materialised. Instead, we’ve got fatter, sicker and weaker than ever. We live longer because we’re kept alive by highly advanced pharmaceutical drugs, but the quality of life is poor for many.
In particular, type 2 diabetes has become an epidemic, and that’s a direct consequence of the “healthy” high-carb diets we’ve all been sold. It basically works like this: any carbohydrates you eat get converted to glycogen and stored in your muscle energy stores. That glycogen is there to be used as hard fuel for exercise like rowing, weight lifting or skiing, but if you don’t expend it, the stores build up. They become resistant to the hormone insulin since they can’t accept much more glycogen.
Your pancreas pumps out more and more insulin to compensate. This state of insulin resistance, or a loss of insulin sensitivity, progresses further and further until one day WHAM; your pancreas conks out and you’re no longer producing any insulin.
You’ve now reached type 2 diabetes. This disease affects 30 million US citizens and roughly 86 million are estimated to be pre-diabetic, or in other words, their blood sugar is dangerously close to diabetic levels.
Why does this matter for acne? Because type 2 diabetes is simply a super-advanced form of insulin resistance. The fact that diabetes is an epidemic shows just how common insulin resistance and hence high insulin levels really are…
…and it’s mostly caused by the high carbohydrate intake outlined earlier.
What you have to do for acne then, before you consider fenugreek or any touted miracle pills for insulin and blood sugar, is fix your glycogen stores.
Simply, you need to eat less carbohydrates and get more exercise. At first, you can eat a very low carb diet to empty those glycogen stores and promote rapid recovery of your insulin sensitivity, accompanied by a rapid drop in insulin, much less oily skin, and less acne. Afterwards, you simply need to balance your carb intake with your exercise, but for now – eat less cereal, bread and pasta, don’t overdo the potatoes, and say no to giant helpings of rice with every meal.
The fear of saturated fat is completely overblown. Just last month (August 2015) a review of all the available literature on saturated fat and heart disease concluded that “Saturated fat intake was not associated with all-cause mortality, CVD mortality, total CHD, ischemic stroke or type 2 diabetes”. Earlier in 2015, a review concluded that the original introduction of low fat, high carb guidelines was not supported by evidence in the first place.
The surge of heart disease at the beginning of the twentieth century was not caused by saturated fat – Europeans had been eating butter for hundreds of years. It was the introduction of trans-fats from in margarines and hydrogenated spreads (the original villain was Crisco back in 1910) that started the trend. Trans-fats also cause acne via a massive inflammatory response.
So replace your morning toast and sugar packed breakfast cereal with three or four boiled eggs instead. Replace a digestive biscuit (10 carbs right there) with some acne-friendly, antioxidant packed dark chocolate.
Once you’ve emptied the glycogen stores and your skin is less oily, you can increase your carbohydrate intake to moderate levels assuming you get decent amounts of exercise, with some carb sources being permanently replaced by fattier foods like meat (organic and well raised), eggs, and dark chocolate.
You have to pick the right types of fat categories within fats, which we discussed in my eBook Annihilate Your Acne. Simultaneously, you should tackle additional acne strategies related to insulin sensitivity, like sleep deprivation and vitamin D levels.
Compared to fenugreek, a better option for a food/acne supplement would be cinnamon. Just ¼ to ½ a tablespoon can lower blood glucose by 20%, and also lower insulin resistance. Make sure it’s Ceylon cinnamon, since the type most commonly found in grocery stores, cassia cinnamon (known as bastard cinnamon), is NOT shown to improve insulin sensitivity, and also contains a natural toxin called coumarin. This Frontier Natural Products Ceylon Cinnamon is your best option. It will last for absolutely ages considering the tiny quantities that reduce acne.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that fenugreek seeds or supplements will cure acne, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they’ll be useless for acne too. It’s not an unhealthy food for acne, in fact it might aid weight loss and improve cholesterol levels. The breast milk generating power is pretty cool too.
However, I recommend that you forget about fenugreek as a miracle solution to acne, and look elsewhere for acne supplements.
If you had to take one supplement for acne, and make no mistake that there’s tons of viable options, I would recommend vitamin D. Deficiency is an epidemic since Westerners get much less sunlight these days.
Vitamin D affects so many areas of your health (nearly 3000 out of 30,000 genes) that it can cure acne in a variety of ways too. It can improve insulin sensitivity, directly control inflammatory chemicals behind acne, and from my experience, make your skin glowing and radiant.
The supplement I take every day is this Garden of Life Vitamin Code RAW D3. This is derived from organic mushrooms like white wood ear and cordyceps, as opposed to isolated and poorly absorbed D3 from a lab.
It’s free from acne-causing additives like BPA and magnesium stearate. Garden of Life is a great supplement company in general if you’re looking for any organically sourced acne nutrients.
Thanks for reading!