Wild Yam

Wild yam has been used since ancient times for medicinal purposes, and continues to be an herb of great importance to the pharmaceutical industry for its effectiveness in restoring female hormonal balance.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Wild yam, colic root, rheumatism root, devil's bones
  • Scientific nameDioscorea villosa
  • Plant typeVegetable
  • Native regionNorth America
  • Main producer(s)United States of America
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal
Wild Yam

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.

Wild Yam Medicinal Properties

Quick Facts (Medicinal Properties)
  • Medicinal actionHormone balancer
  • Key constituentsDiosgenin
  • Ways to useCapsules, Liquid extracts, Ointment
  • Medicinal rating(2) Minorly useful plant
  • Safety rankingUse with caution
Wild Yam Benefits and Properties

Health Benefits of Wild Yam

Wild yam is a unique herb with a very specific set of properties. Scientific studies have been inclusive about its effectiveness in direct consumption, however the claimed wild yam benefits are yet to be fully corroborated. Nevertheless, wild yam properties have been popularly used for centuries, mainly for the following purpose:

  • Treating hormonal imbalances. It is thought that wild yam properties help regulate menstrual cycles and support uterine health in menopausal and postmenopausal women.

Additionally, some research suggests that the wild yam root may help eliminate the excess of cholesterol, thus preventing the accumulation of plaque in the arterial walls. It is also thought that wild yam promotes liver health, as well as treating the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

How It Works

Most wild yam benefits have been attributed to steroidal saponins, chiefly diosgenin. However, a number of flavonoids and phytosterols - including sitosterol, stigmasterol, and taraxerol - have also been found in the wild yam root, as well as dioscorine, tannins, starch, vitamin C (ascorbic acid), and beta-carotene.

Wild yam has been found to contain about 3.5% diosgenin, which is primarily used as a source in the synthesis of a sex hormone called progesterone, as well as for the production of cortisone and other steroids prescribed in hormone replacement therapy (HRT),which benefit women with fertility problems, irregular menstrual cycles, and hormone deficiencies due to menopause and post-menopause.

Preliminary studies have also shown the stimulating effects of diosgenin over fat metabolism and bilis production. This compound can inhibit the pancreatic enzymes that aid cholesterol absorption, as well as protecting the liver from oxidative damage.

Diosgenin is widely used as an active compound in hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to relieve menopause symptoms and other conditions related to hormonal imbalances.

Herbs like black cohosh and maca root also promote hormonal balance, whereas hypocholesterolemic properties can be found in avocado and walnuts.

Wild Yam Side Effects

The medicinal forms of wild yam are considered relatively safe at established doses and under the supervision of a health specialist. However, large amounts of wild yam taken orally can cause vomiting.

Cautions

Women who are breastfeeding or pregnant, as well as those who have a form of reproductive cancer, endometriosis, or uterine fibroids should not taken wild yam. This herb can interact with medications that contain estrogen, such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for menopause symptoms.

How to Consume Wild Yam

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsRoot
  • TasteBitter
How to Use Wild Yam

Because of its nutritional content, the wild yam root was once used in culinary dishes; however, due its bitter flavor, this form of consumption has faded in favor of tastier, domesticated yams. Nowadays, wild yam is used mainly as a medicinal herb. It is traditionally consumed in herbal preparations and its active compound, diosgenin, is also available in a variety of over-the-counter products and prescribed drugs for the treatment of hormonal imbalances and menopause. 

ALTHOUGH IT WAS USED FOR NOURISHMENT IN THE PAST, NOWADAYS WILD YAM IS USED MOSTLY FOR MEDICINAL PURPOSES.

Natural Forms

  • Dried. The dried root of wild yam is used to make a variety of medicinal preparations.

  • Infusion. Wild yam's dried root can be brewed into a medicinal infusion for relieving premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menopause symptoms.

  • Powder. In this popular form wild yam benefits can be easily obtained by adding the powdered root to water, smoothies, or green juices.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

  • Liquid extract. This herbal preparation provides a higher concentration of diosgenin, allowing for better and faster absorption. In this form, wild yam properties can reduce PMS and menopausal symptoms, as well as protecting liver function.

  • Cream. The extracts of wild yam can be also absorbed through the skin when applied topically, in the form of a body cream, 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.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySpecialized health stores, Online herb stores

Natural Forms

Dried wild yam is rarely found in supermarkets. Instead, it tends to be sold through specialized health stores or online retailers, along with other forms, such as powder and teabags.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

Wild yam herbal remedies and supplements are mainly found in specialized health stores and online retailers. Wild yam creams are the most popular medicinal form of the herb, although its effects are stronger when consumed in the form of liquid extract and capsules.

The human body is not able to transform diosgenin into progesterone or estrogen, so supplements of Dioscorea villosa, or wild yam, will only be effective if this compound has been previously synthesized into an active form of progesterone.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cyclePerennial
  • Harvested partsRoots
  • Light requirementsPartial shade
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral), 7.4 – 7.8 (Slightly alkaline)
  • Growing habitatTemperate climates

Wild yam is typically found in either moist open woods, within thickets, or growing along roadsides. It is widely distributed in North America, particularly in the central and southern regions of the United States.

Growing Guidelines

  • Wild yam seeds should be planted in a partly shaded spot, with well-drained, moist soil.

  • A pH of 6.0 - 8.0. is ideal for growing wild yam plants.

  • Seedlings are sensitive to temperature changes, so it is best to grow them in a nursery or in a protected, enclosed area.

  • Germination can be expected up to three weeks after sowing the seeds.

  • The top inch (2.5 cm) of soil should be frequently watered, since this plant is highly sensitive to drought.

Additional Information

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesCosmetics

Plant Biology

Wild yam is a perennial vine producing annual stems from a tuberous rootstock. It has heart-shaped leaves, and can grow up to 15 feet (4.5 m) high. The underground stem or rhizome is the most valuable part of the plant. Wild yam produces three-sided fruits, which contain winged seeds that spread by wind.

  • Classification

    Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) is a member of the Dioscoreaceae family, which contains about 750 species of flowering plants, with commercially produced yams being the best-known species.

    Wild yam is also a member of the Dioscorea genus, contains about 600 species spread throughout tropical and warm temperate regions of the world. Yams are this genus's most economically important crop.

  • Subspecies and Related Species of Wild Yam

    No subspecies of wild yam have been identified and no cultivars have been developed to date. Some taxonomists consider wild yam to have one variety, Dioscorea villosa var. hirticaulis. Today, however, this is more widely accepted as a synonym for Dioscorea villosa.

    Some relatives of Dioscorea villosa include Mexican wild yam (D. composita or D. mexicana), yam (D. floribunda), and turtle back (D. elephantipes), however North American and Mexican wild yam are the most widely used for medicinal purposes.

Historical Information

The importance of wild yam throughout history dates back to Native American cultures, where it was valued for its nutritional content and medicinal benefits.

By the 18th century, wild yams were introduced to European settlers, who saw it used in local herbal remedies, and occasionally used it as a food crop. In the 1950s, scientific studies were done on the tuber of wild yam, revealing its active compounds and mechanisms of action.

Economic Data

The main economic importance of wild yam lies in its medicinal value, as it has found use as an ingredient in some pharmaceuticals. The United States produces the largest amount of wild yam per year. Although specific statistics on the cultivation and harvesting of wild yam root are unknown, worldwide production of yam species reaches 48.7 million tons per year.

Other Uses

  • Cosmetic industry. Wild yam can be found as an ingredient in many personal care products, especially body lotions, moisturizers, and butters.

Bibliography

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