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How to use Wild Yam
Scientific Name: Wild Yam
Other Names: Barbasco, Colic Root, Dioscorea species, Yuma
Who is this for?
Note: Wild yam is not related to either sweet potatoes or the vegetables sold as yams in the United States.
Several species of wild yam are known to contain varying amounts of phyto (or plant-derived) estrogens particularly a chemical known as diosgenin. Wild yam has been popularized, in recent years, as possibly being less hazardous than animal-derived estrogens for replacing female hormones. In both oral and topical forms, wild yam is promoted for treating the symptoms of menopause, as well as for relieving premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menstrual irregularities. These effects are largely based on general reports; evidence from human studies generally has failed to support the estrogenic effects of wild yam. One possible reason is that the human body cannot change the chemicals in wild yam to estrogens, so eating it probably has little estrogenic effect.
Because the configuration of diosgenin resembles cholesterol, taking it may help reduce cholesterol levels in the body. In one animal study, diosgenin increased the amount of cholesterol in the bile. Bile is produced by the liver, stored in the gallbladder, and secreted into the intestines where it helps to digest fats in the diet. Since cholesterol is a major component of bile, increasing bile output also increases cholesterol utilization. As a result, less cholesterol circulates in the blood and less may be deposited in blood vessels. In other animal studies, diosgenin blocked the absorption of cholesterol from the intestines causing more cholesterol to be eliminated from the body. However, results from human studies have been inconclusive. While decreased blood levels of one type of fat triglycerides have been seen, no lowering of total cholesterol was achieved by most study participants. More studies are needed to prove or disprove the use of wild yam for lowering cholesterol.
Chemicals in wild yam are thought to be antispasmodic (they may relieve tightness in muscles). Therefore, wild yam has been used to treat colic and menstrual cramps. Historically, wild yam has also been used to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Currently, however, more effective and reliable drugs are available for relieving muscle spasms and inflammation.
When should I be careful taking it?
Women with hormone-dependent conditions such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and cancers of the breast, ovaries, or uterus should not take or use wild yam due to its possible estrogenic effects. Men with prostate cancer should also avoid taking wild yam.
Pregnant women should not take wild yam because it may stimulate the uterus to contract, possibly causing a miscarriage.
Because very little information is available on how wild yam might affect an infant or a small child, its use is not recommended while breast-feeding or during early childhood.
What side effects should I watch for?
In general, few side effects have been attributed to taking or applying wild yam products. Occasional cases of diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting have been reported especially when large doses were taken by mouth.
What interactions should I watch for?
Chemicals in wild yam may act like estrogen in the body. When it is taken at the same time as estrogen replacement therapy or oral contraceptives, wild yam may interfere with the way the body uses the estrogen. As a result, estrogens or oral contraceptives may not be as effective, some women may experience increased side effects, and the risk of an unintended pregnancy may be slightly higher.
Some interactions between herbal products and medications can be more severe than others. The best way for you to avoid harmful interactions is to tell your doctor and/or pharmacist what medications you are currently taking, including any over-the-counter products, vitamins, and herbals.
Should I take it?
Many species of wild yams are found in most warm and temperate climates in the world. One species, Dioscorea villosa, is believed to have originated in east central North America. A related species, Dioscorea opposita (or oppositifolia), is native to China. Both of these species contain diosgenin, but other species may not. Wild yam species from other areas of the world may have different chemical content and different effects.
All wild yam species grow as long perennial vines with reddish-colored stems and large, flat, heart-shaped leaves. Some wild yam species contain chemicals that may be harmful if they are eaten. Tiny "tubercles" grow where the leaves branch from the plant. These small nodules may be planted to produce new wild yam plants. Yellow or greenish flowers bloom during the early summer, followed by small greenish fruits, which turn brown and stay on the vine during the winter. Unlike sweet potatoes and other species of yams, wild yams do not have large fleshy tubers. Instead, they produce very dry and narrow rhizomes (fleshy extensions of plant stems that run along or under the ground and often produce shoots and roots for new plants) that form a more or less continuous runner slightly underneath the ground. Only about half an inch in diameter, wild yam rhizomes are twisted and knotty. Although they are not large and soft like sweet potatoes or the types of yams used primarily for food, wild yams have been included in the diets of some areas. Ordinarily, they are boiled or roasted and eaten as a vegetable. Occasionally, they have been roasted, ground, and used as coffee-type beverage. For use in medicine, the rhizomes of wild yam are dug in early autumn, dried, and made into a powder to be included in capsules or tablets or to be added to soft foods.
Although wild yams have long been used to treat various medical conditions, their hormonal properties were not widely known until the 1950s. In the 1960s, wild yams provided the chemicals for the first birth control pills. Since then, they have been used to produce pharmaceutical products, including some female hormone replacement drugs. Currently, wild yam is being promoted on the internet as an ingredient in breast-enhancing products. In female laboratory animals given wild yam or chemicals from it, some growth in breast tissue has been observed, but no human studies confirm the results. Any possible enlargement is thought to be minor and temporary. It is important to know that the body cannot convert the chemicals in wild yam to estrogen or any other steroid hormone. Laboratory processing is necessary for the conversion process.
Dosage and Administration
Wild yam is available individually as oral forms such as capsules and tinctures. It is also often combined with other herbs such as black cohosh or dong quai, which may have effects on female hormones. Usually oral forms of wild yam are taken as three doses per day. Total recommended daily amounts differ, however, so the directions on the package should be followed.
Wild yam is also sold in topical creams or gels, which may contain up to 12% of wild yam extract. Extracts are concentrated liquid preparations usually made by soaking chopped or mashed plant parts in a liquid such as alcohol, and then straining out the solid parts.
Note: Some commercial wild yam creams have been found to contain differing amounts of various synthetic female hormones.
Although it is promoted as a "natural" estrogen, wild yam actually has very little estrogenic effect unless it is chemically processed in a manufacturing facility. It does appear to lower cholesterol and it may relieve muscle cramps or inflammation.
Due to the slight possibility of an estrogen-like effect, wild yam should be avoided by individuals with conditions that might be worsened by estrogen. These conditions include endometriosis and breast, prostate, or uterine cancers. Pregnant women should not take wild yam and it is not recommended for use by small children or breast-feeding women.
Wild yam may produce diarrhea or nausea.
Because it might act slightly like the hormone, estrogen, in the body, wild yam could interfere with hormone replacement therapy or oral contraceptives.
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(Note: The above information is not intended to replace the advice of your physician, pharmacist, or other healthcare professional. It is not meant to indicate that the use of the product is safe, appropriate, or effective for you.)