Long before the first European settlers arrived in the Americas, wild yams were used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans, most notably the Aztecs and Mayans. Stewed as a tea, the brew would be given to women to help relieve their pains during childbirth and menstruation. It was also used to aid digestive discomfort and reduce the stiffness of joints. In North America, the wild yam was also known by the English common names “colic root” and “rheumatism root,” suggesting that the Native Americans and the first European settlers used it also as a remedy for colic and gout.
The habitat of Wild Yam
Native to much of North and Central America, wild yam has now become established in many other parts of the world, especially those in tropical, subtropical, and temperate areas. A perennial, the plant’s long twisting vine grows in damp woodlands and thickets. It thrives in sunny conditions and rich soil. Wild yam is a member of the Dioscoreaceae family, which contains around 750 species of flowering plants.
Wild yam is a tuberous, winding vine with pale-brown, knotty, woody, cylindrical roots. The tubers are crooked with gnarled, horizontal branches. They have a thin reddish stem that grows to lengths of 30 feet and greater. The plant produces clusters of greenish-white or greenish-yellow flowers with leaves that are heart-shaped, smooth on the top, and velvety on the underside.
Because of its nutritional content, wild yam was once used in culinary dishes. However, due to the bitter flavor of the roots, eating wild yams has faded, and people choosing the tastier, domesticated yams instead. Today, wild yam is mainly used as a medicinal herb. It is traditionally taken in herbal preparations and supplements.
Relieves Symptoms of Menopausal and Postmenopausal
Wild yam has been found to contain about 3.5% diosgenin, an ingredient used in the mixture of the hormone progesterone. There are also uses for the production of cortisone and other steroids prescribed in hormone replacement therapy which benefits women with fertility problems, irregular menstrual cycles, and hormone deficiencies It’s especially helpful in relieving symptoms of menopause. These hormonal imbalances respond best to a combination of wild yam and black cohosh in cream form. Rubbing a measured dose into pulse points such as the back of knees and bend of elbows twice daily has shown to have the best results.
Researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center have found that wild yam can help lower cholesterol. Wild yam contains diosgenin, which, in animal studies, has shown to stimulate fat metabolism and to increase the production of bile, keeping the body from absorbing cholesterol. Further research is needed to validate this claim in humans. Anyone suffering from high cholesterol should talk to a healthcare provider before taking wild yam in any form as a way to reduce cholesterol levels.
Modern science has revealed the reasons behind the health benefits attributed to wild yam and has used that knowledge to expand the plant’s uses in the pharmaceutical industry. In addition to being an ingredient in a variety of prescription drugs, wild yam is still a popular medicinal herb. Known to benefit overall liver health, wild yam roots can lower blood cholesterol levels, and lower blood pressure indirectly helping the liver by increasing its efficiency and reducing stress. Wild Yam’s antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties also provide relief to the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, which explains the traditional application for treating symptoms of rheumatism and arthritis. These same qualities are thought to make it useful in treating cramps and muscular pain.
Medicinal Forms of Wild Yam
Wild yam is produced and used in various forms:
- Dried. The dried root of wild yam is used to make a variety of herbal medicines.
- Infusion. Wild yam’s dried root can be brewed into a tea that provides warming relief of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menopause symptoms.
- Powder. This is a popular form of wild yam and can be easily added to water, smoothies, or green juices. An easy way to benefit from wild yam.
- Liquid extract. This herbal preparation provides a higher concentration of diosgenin, allowing for better and faster absorption for soothing PMS symptoms and protecting liver function.
- Cream. The extracts of wild yam can be absorbed through the skin when applied topically, gently releasing their hormone balancing compounds.
- Capsules. This supplemental form of wild yam is taken to stimulate female fertility, as well as for the relief of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menopause symptoms.
Where to Buy Medicinal Wild Yam
Wild yam herbal remedies and supplements are mainly found in specialized health stores and online retailers. Wild yam is most widely found as a topical cream. It is important to be careful when selecting wild yam supplements, as the herb is ineffective unless the featured compound, diosgenin, has been modified into an active form of progesterone. The human body cannot convert diosgenin into progesterone or estrogen on its own. To make sure the wild yam you take is right for you, check with your local health store or pharmacist.
Grow Your Own Wild Yam
Prefer your own herbs? Wild yams are relatively easy to grow. When planting wild yam seeds, choose a partly shaded spot, with well-draining, moist soil with a pH of 6.0 – 8.0. Seedlings are sensitive to temperature changes. It is best to grow them in a nursery, or pots that can move inside during inclement weather work well. Green shoots should sprout within three weeks after sowing the seeds. The top inch (2.5 cm) of soil must have plenty of water since the wild yam is highly sensitive to drought. Harvest the roots to be ground into powder or steep into tea.
Possible Side Effects
As with any medicine, herbal, prescription, or OTC, large doses of wild yam taken orally can cause vomiting. Women who are breastfeeding or pregnant, as well as those who have a form of reproductive cancer, endometriosis, or uterine fibroids, should not take wild yam because the herb can interact with medications containing estrogen, such as menopausal hormone replacement therapy. Be careful when using wild yam in liquid extract form because it is extremely strong. Use all forms of wild yam with caution. And remember, herbal supplements are powerful medicine.