Wild yam has traditionally been used to rebalance see-sawing hormones that can trigger symptoms such as PMS and menstrual cramps.
But it could also help with the menopause, from tackling hot flushes to beating low mood.
Wild yam root contains a chemical called diosgenin, a phytoestrogen; a plant substance that has weak oestrogen-type effects.
This may be why wild yam is often recommended by herbalists as a natural alternative to menopause remedies.
Keep reading for more insight on wild yam, including the health benefits of using it.
Wild yam (Dioscorea Villosa) is a plant that hails from North America, Mexico and parts of Asia.
The root and bulb have been used in traditional medicine for many years.
Wild yam also goes by these names - American yam, Chinese yam, colic root, devil's bone, four-leaf yam, Mexican yam, rheumatism root, shan yao and yuma.
More recently, studies have found that wild yam contains a chemical called diosgenin, which has been identified as having numerous medicinal qualities.
This chemical, which has also been recognised as being a phytosteroid, is reportedly similar to the steroids that are naturally produced by our body.
Meanwhile, it’s also believed to have weak oestrogen-type effects, which is why it’s often used as a natural menopause remedy.
The diosgenin that can be found in wild yam is used to make a variety of steroids for medical use, including progesterone, cortisone and dehydroepiandrosterone.
It’s believed that the wild yam versions of diosgenin offer similar benefits to steroids that have been manufactured in a lab.
You can take wild yam as a supplement or you can buy wild yam cream that you rub into your skin.1
The root and bulb from the wild yam (Dioscorea Villosa) plant have been used in traditional medicine for centuries.
It contains a chemical called diosgenin that’s reportedly similar to the steroids that are naturally produced by our body.
The oestrogen-like compounds in wild yam may help ease menopausal symptoms.
Hot flushes are the most common symptom of menopause, reported by three-quarters of women.2
You may also experience other symptoms, including night sweats, insomnia, joint pain, vaginal dryness and anxiety.
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These symptoms are caused by a decline in ovarian function – your ovaries start to produce less oestrogen as you go through perimenopause, usually starting in your 40s.
This has a knock-on effect on other hormones and leads to changes in the way your body works.
So exactly how can wild yam help ease the symptoms of menopause? Keep reading to find out how it affects the hormone levels in the body.
As we’ve already mentioned, oestrogen-like compounds in wild yam may help ease menopausal symptoms.
A double-blind placebo-controlled trial of 13 peri-and post-menopausal women in 1997 found that those taking wild yam combined with other herbs experienced a reduction in the number and severity of menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes, mood changes and insomnia.3
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Using yam creams to increase progesterone levels is something that’s been the subject of much debate over the years.
Why? Because some manufacturers of yam creams claim their products produce natural progesterone in the body or contain natural progesterone.4
At present, there is no evidence of the human body converting diosgenin into hormones, namely progesterone.
According to endocrinologist, Dr David Zava, from hormone testing centre, Aeron Life Cycles, the body doesn’t contain any enzymes that convert diosgenin, the active component of wild yams, into progesterone.
More scientific research is needed into the diosgenin that’s present in wild yams and its impact, if any, on human progesterone levels.
Oestrogen-like compounds in wild yam may help ease menopausal symptoms.
Meanwhile, yam creams may contain natural progesterone or increase the body’s progesterone levels. More research is needed to evidence these claims.
Wild yam has long been used by herbalists for menstrual cramps due to the fact it may influence hormones in a similar way to how oestrogen does.5
However, more research is required to evidence these claims.
To date, some research has been carried out, and according to a study by the National Institutes of Health, there is ‘insufficient evidence’ that wild yam can help with PMS, painful periods, low libido or vaginal dryness.
Meanwhile, while most scientific research tends to have focused so far on wild yam’s possible impact on menopausal symptoms, the vast majority of results remain inconclusive.
Wild yam has long been used in traditional medicine to help with infertility.
It’s believed to optimise oestrogen levels and improve the quality and amount of cervical mucus.
Meanwhile, its natural antispasmodic properties may help reduce oviductal and fallopian tube spasms, which can prevent conception and implantation from taking place.6
However, some researchers and organisations, such as the American Cancer Society, believe that wild yam has no effect on fertility because it doesn’t produce progesterone within the body.
Meanwhile, others state that the plant does release a natural form of progesterone that’s quickly absorbed by the body when used as a topical cream.7
The connection between wild yam and fertility is due to the fact that during a typical reproductive cycle, the body produces increased amounts of progesterone immediately after ovulation.
This progesterone helps the lining of the endometrium to grow and thicken. If an egg is fertilised after ovulation, the thickened endometrial lining provides an environment suitable for the foetus to grow.
After menopause, women have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease due to a drop in oestrogen, which supports their heart health.
Some experts now believe another use of wild yam could be to reduce cholesterol levels, helping protect against heart disease.8
One study published in the journal, Life Sciences, in 1996 that explored the benefits of wild yam revealed that older people taking wild yam had lower triglyceride levels9 – a type of fat found in the blood.
More research is required to clarify whether wild yam would be beneficial for people with high cholesterol.
One of the many names that wild yam goes by is ‘rheumatism root’, which dates back to when it was regularly used to treat joint and muscle pain (rheumatism) in the 19th century.
The use of wild yam to help with rheumatism, and claims that it does help in this field, has continued until the present day.10
Wild yam is believed to be effective at treating the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis because of its potent anti-inflammatory effects that can relieve swelling, pain, which has been evidenced by some studies.
A 2013 study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine concluded that a daily dried extract of wild yam significantly reduced inflammatory markers in the blood samples of mice with medically-induced inflammation.
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Wild yams have an impressive nutritional profile. They contain potassium, as well as small amounts of Vitamin C, Vitamin B6 and beta carotene.
While they may be starchy, they are relatively low-glycaemic due to their fibre content, which is around 2% of their overall weight.11
As well as having a relatively low GI, some of the sugars that are present in Chinese yam, in particular, exist as polysaccharides, multiple sugar units connected together with chemical bonds.
Some of the polysaccharides from Chinese yam reduce blood sugar, while others have strong antioxidant properties.12
Meanwhile, yam’s dietary fibre content (glucomannan) has been shown to reduce blood glucose due to the way it delays gastric emptying, which slows the flow of dietary glucose to the intestines.
Preliminary studies have found that glucomannan reduced non-fasting glucose and suppressed appetite in individuals with type 2 diabetes.13
The glucomannan that’s found in yams reportedly may be beneficial for weight loss.
This is due to the fact that the fibre turns into a gel that sits in the stomach, making you feel fuller for longer.
In turn, this can help curb cravings and reduce the likelihood of snacking in between meals.
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In addition to the vitamin and mineral content, yams also contain antioxidants that may prevent cancer.
A study conducted on rats in 2014 found that a diet that’s rich in yams can lead to a significant reduction in colon tumours.14
Further studies have suggested that these results were closely related to the many antioxidants in yams.15
A study in 2017 showed that people who consumed a yam extract supplement showed a higher functioning brain than those who used a placebo.
The diosgenin in yams is associated with improving neuron growth and overall brain health.16
It has also been found to help enhance memory and learning skills in mice and other animal tests.17
Minimal side effects have been linked to wild yam.
However, some people may experience vomiting, diarrhoea and sickness if they take large amounts of it, e.g. more than 400mg per kilo of their body weight. Most supplements contain 100 to 400mg of wild yam.18
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, do not use wild yam until you’ve checked with your GP or other medical professional that it is safe for you to do so, as is the case when taking any medicines or supplements when pregnant or breastfeeding.
Wild yam is used for numerous health reasons, from potentially easing menopause symptoms and aiding with fertility, to boosting memory and relieving swelling and pain caused by arthritis.
There are minimal side effects to taking it, providing you take the correct dosage.
Wild yam may be something you’ve never heard of or heard very little about, until now.
However, the potential power of yam shouldn’t be overlooked; there’s a reason why it’s long been used within traditional medicine for a multitude of health issues, ranging from easing menopausal and PMS symptoms, to boosting heart health and brain function.
Research in relation to yam’s health properties is mixed, especially concerning using it to help with menopause, so if you are planning on using it for menopausal or wider issues, make sure you speak to your GP or another health professional about it first.
Joined Holland & Barrett: April 2019
Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry