Wild yam is the common name for Dioscorea villosa, actually a perennial flowering plant of the Dioscoreaceae family which consists of around 750 species of flowering plants. The plant is native to North America, Mexico, and Asia. It is common and widespread in a range stretching from Texas and Florida north to Minnesota, Ontario and Massachusetts. Apart from wild yam it is also known as Wild yam root, devil’s bones, Mexican wild yam, American Yam, Atlantic Yam, Barbasco, China Root, Chinese Yam, Colic Root, Devil’s Bones, Rheumatism Root, Rhizoma Dioscorae, Rhizoma Dioscoreae, Shan Yao, Wild Mexican Yam, Yam and Yuma. The genus name Dioscorea gets its name from the ancient Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides. The common name “yam” comes from West African dialect and means “to eat”.
Wild Yam has been used for centuries by Native Americans and early Americans for treatment of a variety of ailments. The herb, also known as colic root, has a relaxing effect. As the name suggests, an early use was to relieve colic in babies. Be sure to consult your child’s pediatrician before giving your child any alternative treatment. But there are several other ways that wild yam can be used to improve health.
Wild Yam has a long history of alimentary and medicinal uses that can be traced back to Native American cultures, before the arrival of the first European settlers. Modern science has revealed the mechanisms behind Wild Yam's health benefits and expanded its uses to the pharmaceutical industry; however, the folk applications of the herb remain popular among herbalists.
This flowering plant has dark green vines and leaves that vary in size and shape, though it’s best known for its tuberous roots, which have been used in folk medicine since the 18th century to treat menstrual cramps, coughs, and upset stomachs.
Today, it’s most frequently processed into a topical cream, which is said to alleviate symptoms associated with menopause and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Wild Yam root extract is a medicinal herb that is commonly used to treat hot flushes symptoms of menopause, premenstrual syndrome, osteoporosis, prophylactic against breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. Wild Yam is most commonly used as a “natural alterative” to estrogen therapy for symptoms of menopause, infertility, menstrual problems, and other conditions, but there is no good scientific evidence to support these or other uses.
Wild Yam root and the bulb contains a chemical called diosgenin, which is prepared as an “extract”, a liquid that contains concentrated diosgenin. This chemical can be converted in the laboratory into various steroids, such as estrogen and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). However, while Wild Yam does seem to have some estrogen-like activity, it is not actually converted into estrogen in the body, because humans cannot convert diosgenin into progesterone, so eating or applying wild yam extract or diosgenin does not result in increased progesterone levels. Sometimes Wild Yam and diosgenin are promoted as a “natural DHEA”. This is because in the laboratory DHEA is made from diosgenin. But this chemical reaction is not believed to occur in the human body. So, taking wild yam extract will not increase DHEA levels in people. Wild Yams also make a significant contribution both as root crops and vegetables to the diets of tribal people in the world especially in the tropics and sub tropics.
Furthermore Wild Yam roots were found to be fairly good sources of dietary minerals such as calcium (18.08–74.79 mg/100 g), iron (11.15–28.61 mg/100 g), zinc (2.11–6.21 mg/100 g) and phosphorous (179–248 mg/100 g) with the levels of heavy metal concentrations that are lower than the recommended tolerable levels proposed by World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives. The heavy metals concentration (mg/100 g) ranged from: cobalt (1.06–1.98 mg/100 g), nickel (0.30–0.89 mg/100 g), chromium (2.10–4.53 mg/100 g) and lead (0.11–0.93 mg/100 g) among the studied Yam species.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition that causes inflammation of the joints. This can cause pain and stiffness that limits mobility in people with the condition. It is possible that Wild Yam might reduce this inflammation and have a positive effect on symptoms, but there is little evidence to support this. Traditional medicine practitioners believe that Wild Yam has anti-inflammatory properties and use it to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
One of the old nicknames for wild yam was "Rheumatism Root" because it was often used to treat joint and muscle pain that was referred to as rheumatism. Today, it's still used to help with symptoms of arthritis, especially the pain and inflammation. Diosgenin, the compound found in wild yam, has been shown in lab and animal studies to have strong anti-inflammatory activity. It can also alleviate pain at higher doses. No notable side effects were found in any study.
Test-tube studies reveal that diosgenin extracted from Wild Yam root helps protect against the progression of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Also, in a 30-day study in mice, orally administering 91 mg of Wild Yam extract per pound of body weight (200 mg/kg) each day significantly reduced markers of inflammation, and higher doses of 182 mg per pound (400 mg/kg) lowered nerve pain. While these results are promising, human research is needed.
Wild Yam is an old herb with many modern uses. It can be especially beneficial for women from preconception to postpartum and all the way through menopause.
It's traditionally been used especially to treat dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps). Wild Yam is thought to have an anti-spasmodic effect on the uterine muscles and has also shown anti-inflammatory properties.
Premenstrual Symptoms (PMS):
The estrogen-like activity of Wild Yam can also be beneficial for relieving symptoms of PMS. Wild Yam has most often been prescribed by herbalists for internal use for PMS symptoms. Today, you'll also find topical Wild Yam creams that are meant to raise low progesterone levels, which can help ease PMS.
Wild yam is believed that it has anti-spasmodic properties, which are substances that reduce muscle spasms. This anti-spasmodic property means that wild yam might be useful for reducing cramps and muscular pain related to premenstrual syndrome. However, more research is needed to support this.
Wild Yam is one of the leading ingredients in most breast enhancement supplements/creams since it encourages healthy breast tissue. Wild Yam does not raise your estrogen levels. Wild Yam root makes breasts larger by using the natural progesterone. It is famous for balancing female hormones and assists in the natural development of breast growth.
Hormone Production and Imbalance:
Wild yam root contains diosgenin. It’s a plant steroid that scientists can manipulate to produce steroids, such as progesterone, estrogen, cortisone, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which are then used for medical purposes. Thus, some advocates assert that wild yam root has benefits similar to those offered by these steroids in your body, providing a natural alternative to estrogen therapy or progesterone creams.
Studies disprove this, showing that your body cannot turn diosgenin into these steroids. Instead, diosgenin requires chemical reactions that can only take place in a laboratory setting to convert it into steroids like progesterone, estrogen, and DHEA. As a result, scientific evidence doesn’t currently support wild yam root’s effectiveness for treating conditions associated with hormonal imbalances, such as PMS, low sex drive, infertility, and weakened bones.
Although it's been used as part of natural estrogen therapy for centuries, there's confusion in scientific studies over how it works. The diosgenin in wild yam can be converted to hormones like estrogen and progesterone in a laboratory, but the human body cannot actually convert it into anything. In spite of this, wild yam does have the potential to have an estrogen-like effect on the body. Many herbalists will recommend it for certain hormone-related health issues.
Wild Yam root is perhaps most famous for its ability to support women in the health of their reproductive systems. With powerful antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties, Wild Yam is often prescribed by herbalists to relieve menstrual cramps and chronic pelvic pain. Helping the uterus to work more efficiently during menses, this uterine support allows for proper function of the uterus whilst working to prevent cramping and spasms.
There is much controversy over the effectiveness of this herb for the menopause. Wild Yam has long been promoted as a source of natural progesterone. It is thought to aid in menopausal symptoms due to its containing a precursor to the steroid hormone “diosgenin”, however diosgenin does not have any hormonal activity and cannot be converted to any hormones the body can use. Despite the debate, there does seem to be some credible research that Wild Yam is beneficial for menopausal women.
Wild Yam may be useful for managing menopause symptoms, though scientific evidence for its benefits is weak at this time. Its strong estrogenic and progesterone-like effects may help to balance hormone swings of menopause and decrease heavy bleeding or unpredictable spotting during peri-menopause. Wild Yam may also help reduce irritability, and its anti-inflammatory benefits might offer relief of joint pain that often accompanies menopause.
Wild Yam root cream is most commonly used in alternative medicine as an alternative to estrogen replacement therapy for alleviating menopause symptoms, such as night sweats and hot flashes.However, there’s very little evidence to prove its effectiveness.
In fact, one of the studies available found that 23 women who applied wild yam root cream daily for 3 months reported no changes in their menopause symptoms.
A 2005 clinical trial replaced the staple food, usually rice of 22 healthy, postmenopausal women with Wild Yam in two of three meals per day for 30 days. A control group was fed sweet potatoes. Serum levels of estriol, sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), and estradiol were measured before and after the trial in both groups. The hormone levels of the group eating sweet potatoes remained unchanged at the end of the trial, whereas the group eating Wild Yam showed increased levels of all three sex hormones. The authors concluded that eating Wild Yam two meals per day could improve the status of sex hormones in postmenopausal women, though further study is needed to understand the mechanism behind these hormonal changes. The researchers speculated this may reduce the risk of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease in post-menopausal women, although they admitted the mechanism is not clear. Sometimes we just have to trust that nature really does know best.
Wild Yam has traditionally been used as a uterine antispasmodic. Herbalists have recommended it through the years not only for menstrual cramps but also for the pain of childbirth and cramps or spasms postpartum. The anti-inflammatory nature of Wild Yam gives it added benefits for reducing pain.
Given Wild Yam's hormone-like effects, it's no surprise that it can have benefits for fertility. There are many factors involved in infertility issues, but hormone imbalances can be a major one. Wild Yam may help to optimize estrogen levels as well as soothe oviductal and fallopian tube spasms that can prevent conception. Although Wild Yam isn't often used on its own for fertility issues, it can be used with other herbs to balance hormones.
A 2017 study looked at whether diosegin-rich Wild Yam extract affected cognitive function in 28 healthy volunteers. The participants took Wild Yam extract prepared in Olive oil over the course of 12 weeks, and a control group was given a placebo. Participants were given the Japanese version of the Repeatable Battery for the Assessment of Neuropsychological Status (RBANS), an assessment to measure neurocognitive function before and after the trial. Those taking diosegin-rich Wild Yam extract significantly improved their score on the tests. The study suggested that cognitive function in healthy adults was enhanced by the Wild Yam extract.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT):
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychological treatment that has been used to treat hot flashes, depression, and other menopausal symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a time-limited treatment that focuses on changing cognitive appraisals and behavior choices to alter symptoms.
CBT may include education, motivational interviewing, relaxation, paced breathing, and other strategies to improve symptoms compared the effects of a 6-week cognitive behavioral therapy intervention to usual care (eg, standard follow-up care) among 96 female breast cancer survivors and found hot flash interference was reduced on average 52%. Women receiving usual care reported a 25% decrease in hot flash interference. Hot flash frequency was reduced by 38% in both groups, 38% indicating cognitive behavioral therapy was no better than usual care for reducing the frequency of hot flashes.
In a second randomized controlled trial, 65% of women receiving a 4-week cognitive behavioral therapy intervention and 21% of a no-treatment control group, reported clinically significant improvements (eg, 2-point change on a 10-point numerical rating scale) in hot flush interference. Cognitive behavioral therapy did not demonstrate a clinically significant reduction (eg, 50%) in hot flash frequency. Both of these trials used objective and subjective measures for hot flash frequency.
In a pilot study of 39 women randomized to cognitive behavioral therapy or waitlist control, there was a statistically significant reduction in hot flash distress, but not in interference or frequency of hot flashes/night sweats, in the immediate treatment group. The authors reported a 48% positive treatment effect for the 17 women who completed the cognitive behavioral therapy program, but it is unclear how that effect was calculated. In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy may reduce mild depression in menopause comparable to placebo. To date, no randomized controlled trials of cognitive behavioral therapy have demonstrated clinically significant improvements in hot flash frequency, but may be beneficial in reducing hot flash distress and interference and other psychological symptoms (eg, depression) associated with menopause. cognitive behavioral therapy has been recommended by the North American Menopausal Society for reducing the bothersomeness of vasomotor symptoms, but not for frequency.
Hypnosis, a mind-body therapy that involves a deeply relaxed state of focused attention, individualized mental imagery, and suggestion, has been investigated for menopausal symptom management. Two randomized clinical trials of 5 sessions of hypnotherapy for hot flashes among breast cancer survivors demonstrated a clinically meaningful (≥69%) reduction in hot flash severity and frequency. These results are comparable to pharmacological interventions.
In an randomized controlled trial of 187 women, hypnosis was compared with an active structured attention control and found to significantly reduce subjective hot flash frequency (74%) and interference (80%), and physiologically monitored hot flashes (57%). In addition, hypnosis improved self-reported sleep quality and sexual function.
In a 2017 pilot study 16), 71 women were randomized to 1 of 4 groups: venlafaxine 75 mg + hypnosis, venlafaxine 75 mg + sham hypnosis, placebo pill + hypnosis, and placebo pill + sham hypnosis. Hypnosis alone was as effective (50% reduction) as venlafaxine 75 mg alone in reducing hot flash score (frequency × severity). The placebo group reported a 25% reduction.
Hypnosis has been recommended by the North American Menopause Society, and others, for the treatment of menopausal symptoms and poses little risk.
Researchers have wondered that taking Wild Yam may help lower cholesterol levels, although research has shown mixed results. Diosgenin seems to block the body from absorbing cholesterol, at least in animal studies.
In a 4-week study in rats, diosgenin extract significantly lowered total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
But in research of people, cholesterol levels have not gone down, although fats in the blood (triglycerides) have decreased. More research is needed to determine whether wild yam would help people with high cholesterol.
Studies have shown that Wild Yam can contribute to the improvement of glucose metabolism. Additionally, the sugar in yams adds natural sweetness to your meals. As a result, cravings for added sugar are reduced.
Wild Yam consists of a chemical called dioscoretine, which some people think helps with the regulation of blood sugar levels. Wild Yam could be useful in regulating blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. However, the effect of dioscoretine on blood sugar has only been researched in animals so far. It is unclear whether it would have the same effect in humans.
In a study in mice, diosgenin extract significantly reduced blood sugar levels and helped prevent diabetes-induced kidney injury.
Diosgenin helps prevent carcinogenesis by acting as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. This shows that it can help prevent cancer.
Preliminary test-tube studies suggest that Wild Yam root extract may safeguard against or slow the progression of breast cancer. Overall, further studies are necessary.
Whilst rigorous scientific testing is scant, some herbalists believe that Wild Yam boosts digestion by improving the function of the gall bladder and the liver. These two organs are vital in the digestive process by encouraging the production of bile and breaking down food. Historically it was used to ease the passage of small gallstones. The antispasmodic nature of Wild Yam is beneficial for the digestive tract and may also help your liver and gallbladder function better.
One study found that Wild Yam can specifically have an anti-inflammatory effect on the intestines. Like other bitter herbs, Wild Yam can stimulate the production of bile to help break down food and improve digestion.
Wild Yam are very rich in a compound called saponin. This compound promotes your gut flora. As a result, it helps healthy bowel movements.
Wild yam root is a common ingredient in anti-aging skin creams.
One test-tube study noted that diosgenin may encourage the growth of new skin cells, which could have anti-aging effects. However, overall research on Wild Yam root is limited.
Diosgenin has also been studied for its potential depigmenting effect. Excess sun exposure can result in small, flat, brown or tan spots on your skin, also known as hyperpigmentation, which is harmless but sometimes seen as undesirable. Still, Wild Yam root creams haven’t been proven effective for this application.
Research indicates that the disogenin found in wild yam extract may have a depigmenting effect. This means it could help with issues such as melasma, melanodermatitis and sun lentigo issues that eventually result in hyperpigmentation. Hyperpigmentation is harmless and rather common, but it can be frustrating since it is a skin condition that develops, rather noticeably, as darker patches of skin.
A 2012 study looked at the health benefits of dioscorins, a soluble protein found in Wild Yam. The study indicated that dioscorins have antioxidant, antihypertensive, and immunomodulatory properties. However, the authors recommended more research to fully understand the bioactive mechanisms of dioscorin.
Traditional Uses of Wild Yam:
- Wild Yam roots consist of diosgenin which is extensively used in modern medicine in order to manufacture progesterone and other steroid drugs.
- These are used as contraceptives and in the treatment of various disorders of the genitary organs as well as in a host of other diseases such as asthma and arthritis.
- Roots are anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, cholagogue, diaphoretic and vasodilator.
- Plant affords one of the best and fastest cures for bilious colic.
- It is especially helpful in treating the nausea of pregnant women and has been used to ease the pain of childbirth.
- It is also taken internally in the treatment of arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, gastritis, gall bladder complaints, painful menstruation etc.
- Root, harvested in September, is used to make a homeopathic remedy.
- Its main use is in the treatment of infant colic.
- It is valuable also in painful cholera morbus with cramps, neuralgic affections, spasmodic hiccough and spasmodic asthma.
- Powder form of Wild Yam can be added to cream or vaginal ointments.
- It treats Intestinal disorders, Gallbladder Pain, Rheumatoid Arthritis and for increasing Energy.
- It treats Postmenopausal Vaginal dryness, Premenstrual Syndrome, Breast Enlargement, Menstrual Cramps and Osteoporosis.
- It increases sexual drive in men and women.
- Wild yam is applied topically on skin to treat hot flashes.
- It regulates the Bile production. It helps to relieve Hepatic Congestion, Bilious Colic and Gallstones.
- It increases the efficiency of Liver. It lowers the Blood Pressure and Blood Cholesterol level.
- Wild yam was used as a medicinal herb by the Mayans and the Aztecs, possibly as a pain treatment.
- Muscle aches caused due to overexertion, injury, etc. can be cured with the inclusion of this herb.
- Hypertension can lead to a number of health complications like stroke, congestive heart failure and even cardiac arrest. The use of wild yam is known to prevent and control erratic blood pressure.
- Conjunctivitis and certain skin diseases like psoriasis, eczema, etc. can be treated with the help of the cream made from wild yam extract.
- It has been found out that wild yam can prevent the formation of kidney stones.
- Wild Yam also aids in the proper functioning of the digestive, excretory and nervous systems.
- Wild Yam encourages the flow of bile to the duodenum, a part of the small intestine.
- American Indians used a tea made from this root, to relieve labor pains.
- Fresh dried root, made into a tea, is good for morning sickness.
Other Uses of Wild Yam:
- Root should not be stored for longer than 1 year, since it is likely to lose its medicinal virtues.
- While there are over 600 species of wild yam, only 12 are edible.
- Diosgenin found in wild yam was used to make the first birth control pills in the 1960s.
- Carpel Tunnel Syndrome: Make a decoction of the Viburnum Opulus, St. John’s Wort, and Wild yam. Take twice a day.
- Endometriosis: Grind dried root of Chasteberry, Echinacea, Wild yam, Viburnum Opulus in equal quantity. Take Raspberry leaves and Motherwort leaves in half quantity. Prepare a decoction. Strain. Drink one cup two times a day.
- Heavy Menstrual Bleeding: Take 2 tablespoons each of dried Licorice root and Wild Yam root, One tablespoon of powdered Burdock root and Comfrey root, 2-3 tablespoons of Dandelion root. Put these herbs in 4-5 cups of cold water and simmer for 15 minutes in a covered pot. Drink thrice daily for 3-4 months.
- Increases Fertility: Dropperful of tincture 1-3 times a day.
- Menopause: Massage half a teaspoon of Wild Yam Cream into the soft parts of the body.
- Muscular Pain: Take dried roots of Black Cohosh, Wild Yam and St John’s Wort in equal proportion. Grind them. Prepare a tincture. Take half tsp once a day.
- PCOS: Buy Dioscorea, mother tincture and have 10 drops in a glass of water. Have it 2 times in a day.
- Prevents Pregnancy: Take 3 cups tea of wild yam daily.
- Repeated Miscarriage: Tincture equal parts of Mitchella Repens, Black Haw and Wild Yam. Take 10 drops 2 times a day.
- Small Breast: Massage the breast with Wild Yam Cream.
- Vaginal infections: Mix 3 drops each lavender and tea tree essential oils, 3 cups warm water, 2 heaping tablespoons yogurt. Use it once a day.