A wild yam sounds like it might be a furry animal from Africa or the Himalayas, but it’s actually a plant that produces relatively thick, underground stems called rhizomes. Rhizomes aren’t roots. Rather, they are the thicker growths above the roots. Wild yam stems contain many medicinal components, some of which may help your body balance hormones and reduce inflammation.
Wild yam and various products made from it, such as cream, are probably most often used to reduce the side effects of menopause. Menopause upsets the balance of hormones in many women and leads to symptoms such as hot flashes, abdominal pain, mood swings, headaches and insomnia. Wild yam contains diosgenin, a compound that seems to stimulate the ovaries to produce more progesterone and help balance estrogen levels. This relieves symptoms. Balancing hormones may also help reduce the symptoms of PMS, or premenstrual syndrome. On the other hand, scientists warn that the body cannot naturally convert diosgenin into progesterone, so it’s not the same as taking synthetic progesterone medication. Synthetic progesterone made in a lab from diosgenin has more demonstrated benefits on menopausal symptoms than natural wild yam products.
Wild yam seems to be able to reduce serum cholesterol levels, perhaps because it’s rich in beta-carotene and B-vitamins, although more research is needed before specific claims can be made this possible benefit. Researchers speculate that wild yam decreases the absorption of cholesterol, which tends to reduce blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. The ratio of “good” HDL cholesterol to “bad” LDL cholesterol also seems to improve with wild yam use. High blood cholesterol, especially LDL, is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Wild yam also contains dioscoretine, which has proven to lower blood sugar levels in various animal studies. Lowering glucose levels in the blood is particularly important for diabetics. Chronically high blood sugar is damaging to tissues, especially small blood vessels and nerve endings. More research on people is needed before dioscoretine and wild yam products can be recommended as a treatment or aid for diabetes, however.
Inflammation and Pain
Compounds in wild yam help to reduce inflammation, muscle spasm and pain. This is not only helpful for reducing the symptoms of menopause and PMS, but it is also beneficial for other conditions such as arthritis, gastrointestinal problems, fibromyalgia, chronic headaches, nervous tension and muscle cramps. In this sense, wild yam extract or supplements may be as effective as ibuprofen, but without the side effects. Always consult your doctor before attempting to self-treat any medical condition.
- PDR for Herbal Medicines; PDR Medical Staff
- Natural Standard Herb & Supplement Reference: Evidence-based Clinical Reviews; Catherine E. Ulbricht and Ethan M. Basch
- Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine; Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.