Wild yam, also known as colic root or Dioscorea villosa, is a tuberous vine that is native to both China and North America. Although each locale grows a different species of wild yam, both species contain diosgenin, the active ingredient in the plant. Traditionally, the wild yam has been used for a variety of ailments, ranging from menopausal issues to mild cramps, but modern research has shown mixed results as to its effectiveness. Consult with a qualified health practitioner before taking wild yam extract, particularly if you are taking any other medication.
In North America, wild yam has traditionally been used to treat menstrual cramps, coughs, morning sickness, inflammation and problems related to childbirth, as well as colic and a variety of digestive issues. Similar uses abound in traditional Chinese medicine, with the additions of using the herb for its supposed anti-aging properties, as well as a treatment for urinary difficulties and lowering blood pressure.
The active ingredient in a plant is the part that actually affects the chemistry of the body. In wild yam, that is diosgenin, which is a form of steroid. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, diosgenin can be synthesized to make progesterone, a key hormone in the reproductive cycle and one that is adversely affected during menopause. The first birth-control pills were created using diosgenin extracts. One of the problems, however, is that diosgenin has to be processed in a lab to create progestone; it cannot convert to progesterone naturally in the human body.
Due to its active ingredient's ability to synthesize progesterone, the most common use of wild yam extract today is for the treatment of menopause -- the time in a woman's life when the level of hormones begin to decrease, causing a variety of symptoms such as hot flashes and loss of the menstrual cycle. Wild yam extract is commonly sold in cream form, which can supposedly help increase levels of progesterone, despite the inability of diosgenin to convert to the hormone naturally in the body. In some cases, according to the American Cancer Society, manufacturers add progesterone to a cream, often without listing it as an ingredient, which may help menopausal symptoms. Wild yam extract is also sold in tincture form as a supplement, primarily for its traditional uses.
The majority of studies performed with wild yam extract are done to examine the effects on menopausal and other hormone-related issues and often yield little or no results, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Despite its ineffectiveness in treating other issues, preliminary research has shown that wild yam extract may help increase the level of high-density lipoprotein -- or HDL, the "good" cholesterol -- in the body. One study published in the December 2007 edition of "Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry" reported that rats consuming a diet supplemented with diogensis for six weeks showed improvement in the levels of HDL while showing an overall decrease in cholesterol levels.
Cautions and Considerations
Before taking any form of wild yam extract, consult with a qualified doctor or herbalist, particularly if you are taking any form of medication. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, wild yam extract may cause issues if you are taking estradiol, an active ingredient found in both birth-control pills and hormone-replacement therapy. Although rare, allergic reactions can occur, so stop taking wild yam extract if you experience any symptoms such as rashes, swelling of the tongue or lips, difficulty breathing or throat swelling. Pregnant women and nursing mothers should avoid wild yam altogether.