Wild yam

In the 18th and 19th centuries, herbalists used wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) to treat menstrual cramps and problems related to childbirth, as well as for upset stomach and coughs. In the 1950s, scientists discovered that the roots of wild yam -- not to be confused with the sweet potato yam -- contain diosgenin. Diosgenin is a phytoestrogen, or plant-based estrogen, that can be chemically converted into a hormone called progesterone. Diosgenin was used to make the first birth control pills in the 1960s.

Although herbalists continue to use wild yam to treat menstrual cramps, nausea and morning sickness, inflammation, osteoporosis, menopausal symptoms, and other health conditions, there's no evidence to show it works for these uses. Several studies have found that it has no effect at all. That is because the body cannot change diosgenin into progesterone; it has to be done in a lab. Wild yam, by itself, does not contain progesterone.

General

Early Americans used wild yam to treat colic, a reason for another name for the plant, colic root. Traditionally, it has been used to treat inflammation, muscle spasms, and a range of disorders, including asthma. However, there is no scientific evidence that it works. Several studies show wild yam has powerful antifungal properties and may help fight yeast and other fungal infections.

Menopause and Osteoporosis

Although wild yam is often advertised as a natural source of estrogen, there is no scientific evidence that wild yam works to treat menopausal symptoms or osteoporosis. In fact, several studies have found that wild yam does not reduce the symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes, or raise levels of estrogen or progesterone in the body. Some preparations of wild yam may contain progesterone, but only because a synthetic version of progesterone (medroxyprogesterone acetate or MPA) has been added to them.

Breast Cancer

Preliminary studies suggest wild yam may act as an anti-invasive agent in breast cancer.

High Cholesterol

Researchers have speculated that taking wild yam may help lower cholesterol levels, although studies have shown mixed results. Diosgenin seems to block the body from absorbing cholesterol, at least in animal studies. But in studies 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.

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Uses of this Herb

Asthma Common cold Diabetes Hemorrhoids Infantile colic Menopause Menstrual pain Osteoporosis Rheumatoid arthritis Urinary tract infection in women

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Herbal medicine

Review Date: 1/1/2017  

Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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