Health Benefits of Wild Yam

Herbal Remedy Use to Treat Arthritis and Menstrual Problems

Dioscorea villosa, Dioscoreaceae, Wild Yam, habitus. The root is used in homeopathy as remedy: Dioscorea villosa (Dios.)
Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa).

H. Zell/Wikimedia Commons

Wild yam (scientific name Dioscorea villosa) is a plant native to North America, Mexico, and part of Asia. The root and bulb of the plant have long been used for traditional medicine. In recent years, the phytosteroid diosgenin has been identified as the key medicinal component. Phytosteroids are plant-based steroids that are similar to the steroids produced in the human body.

Diosgenin from wild yam is used to make a variety of steroids for medical use, including progesterone, cortisone, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). It is presumed by some that wild yam extracts can offer many of the same benefits of these pharmaceutically produced steroids.

Also Known As

Wild yam is mostly sold in the United States as a dietary supplement or a topical cream.

Health Benefits

Wild yam is believed to influence hormone balances in a way that can benefits conditions like morning sickness, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), hot flashes, menstrual cramps, vaginal dryness, low libido, and osteoporosis.

Herbal supplements manufacturers will often describe wild yam as "natural estrogen" or "natural DHEA" despite the fact that diosgenin cannot be converted into any of these steroids in the body.

Moreover, contrary to health claims, diosgenin is not a phytoestrogen (plant-based estrogen) and interacts in no way with estrogen receptors in the body.

Alternative practitioners will often claim that wild yam can treat stomach upset, diverticulosis, gallbladder pain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. The evidence supporting these claims is generally weak.

Menstrual Problems

 Since the 18th century, herbalists have been using wild yam to treat menstrual cramps and problems related to childbirth and menopause. Although wild yam has no direct estrogenic effect, it appears to influence hormones in a way that is similar to estrogen.

Unfortunately, these claims have not been well supported by research, in part because so little has been done. For its part, the National Institutes of Health has stated that there "insufficient evidence" that wild yam can aid in the treatment of PMS, infertility, painful periods, low libido, or vaginal dryness.

Although a bit more research has been dedicated to the use of wild yam in menopause, the results have been inconclusive at best. Most of the studies have been centered around the use of topical wild yam ointments.

A four-week study from Australia found that wild yam ointment, while safe, had little to no effect on menopause symptoms and affected neither weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, nor cholesterol levels compared to a placebo.

Moreover, the absence of estrogenic effects means that wild yam is unlikely to aid in the prevention of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women.

Arthritis

Wild yam earned the nickname "rheumatism root" in the 19th century when it was regularly used to treat joint and muscle pain, historically referred to as "rheumatism." These health claims have persisted into the 20th and 21st centuries.

Today, many alternative practitioners believe that wild yam can effectively treat symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (the autoimmune form of arthritis). Their contention is that wild yam exerts potent anti-inflammatory effects that can relieve swelling, pain, and inflammation characteristic of the disease. There is some evidence of this.

A 2013 study published BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine reported that a daily dried extract of wild yam significantly reduced inflammatory markers in the blood samples of lab mice with medically induced inflammation.

Higher doses of wild yam (400 milligrams per kilogram of body weight) appeared to alleviate nerve pain, while lower doses (200 milligrams per kilogram) reduced overall inflammation. No notable side effects or toxicities were found.

These findings suggest that wild yam may aid in the treatment of osteoarthritis ("wear-and-tear arthritis"), a condition characterized by chronic inflammation. Its use in treating rheumatoid arthritis is less certain given that the source of the inflammation—namely the body's own immune system—is less affected by anti-inflammatory compounds.

Human clinical research is needed to determine whether wild yam has any effect on either of these forms of arthritis or if it can possibly aid in the treatment of nerve pain disorders.

Possible Side Effects

Wild yams in considered safe when taken orally or used as a topical cream. With that being side, there have been no studies exploring the long-term use of wild yam. Side effects, if any, tend to be mild and may include stomach upset, nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting. Side effects are most likely to occur with higher doses.

As a phytosteroid, wild yam may affect hormone levels. People with hormone-dependent conditions, such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, or cancers of the breast, ovaries, uterus, or prostate should not take wild yam.

Due to the lack of research, it is not known if wild yam is safe during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Stay on the safe side and avoid it. The same applies to the use of wild yam in children.

It is not known if wild yam can interact with other drugs or supplements.

Dosage and Preparation

There are no guidelines directing the appropriate use of wild yam supplements or creams. Wild yam supplements are typically sold in capsules and tablets in doses ranging from 100 milligrams to 400 milligrams. They are generally safe if taken once or twice daily with or without food.

Wild yam ointments are used in the same way as progesterone creams. You can apply the cream once or twice daily to one arm from the wrist to the shoulder. Wild yam cream not intended for intravaginal use.

What to Look For

Because dietary supplements are largely unregulated in the United States, the quality can vary from one brand to the next. This is especially true of herbal remedies, many of which fail to list the dosage or complete list of ingredients.

To better ensure quality and safety, choose supplements from well-known manufacturers with an established market presence. Choose products that include Dioscorea villosa or D. villosa on the product label. Avoid those that don't list the milligram dose or other active or inactive ingredients (such as gelatin or rice flour).

If you're considering the use of wild yam, talk with your primary care provider first. Self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying the standard care of treatment may have serious consequences.

Other Questions

Can you buy fresh wild yam?

Because wild yam is not used for food, you're unlikely to find it in grocery stores or in anything other than supplements or creams. Even if you did happen upon a supplier, there are over 600 types of wild yam, only six of which are non-toxic.

On top of that, there are environmental concerns about the sustainability of wild yam. Dioscorea villosa is currently on the United Plant Savers "At Risk" list of endangered medicinal plants.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources