To clear up any confusion from the start, the wild yam is not the one served at Thanksgiving or Christmas (that is a sweet potato), nor is it a yam (a tuber of a tropical vine indigenous to Africa and Asia, not at all related to the flavorful sweet potato), neither is it a Mexican yam (otherwise known as a jicama – a member of the Fabaceae, pea family).
Now that we know what it is not, let’s find out what it is!
The wild yam which grows best in flooded freshwater marshes and swamps is known as (Dioscorea villosa), and it is native to eastern North America. Indeed, it is a wild variety of the more common sweet potato; with 600 varieties, only a dozen are considered edible and it is quite rare that you would discover it on your own, though native American Indians have long used this relaxing root to treat colic in infants and to reduce hot flashes in women.
You won’t find wild yams for sale in the supermarket, however you will encounter them as an herbal supplement, often in the form of a dried root powder, as a capsule or tincture.
Wild yam contains complex compounds that are very similar to the female hormones progesterone and estrogen, it also contains a natural steroid, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which is believed to improve your sex drive and fight the effects of aging. The human body reaches its production peak of DHEA in the mid-20s, from there it declines with age. Often in an effort to fight time, we wish to stall aging by increasing our hormone levels. We would all love to improve our memory, build bone and muscle strength, support our adrenals and strengthen our immune system, but life is not strictly about supplements, so exercise caution when searching for the fountain of youth.
Moving onto its healing properties, it is the biochemical diosgenin that makes wild yam so special. Diosgenin is a phytoestrogen, a plant-based estrogen such as in soy, that mimics estrogen, and at the same time acts as an estrogen antagonist. So, while not essential in the human diet, know that phytoestrogens can influence your health, good or bad, and it is important to monitor your usage of them.
Wild yam has both antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties and is often recommended by herbalists when a woman is suffering from chronic pelvic pain or troublesome menstrual cramps. In reproductive health it supports uterus functionality more efficiently during menstruation, relieving cramps and spasms – this supports the folk and historical application of the herb, in using it to ease the pain of childbirth and in restoring hormonal balance after delivery.
For both men and women, wild yams are reported to treat gallbladder problems, prevent osteoporosis and increase sexual desire. They also:
- Reduce signs of aging
- Relieve symptoms of PMS
- Prevent infertility and miscarriage
- Control blood sugar levels
- Relieve nausea and mood swings
- Aid in treating diverticulosis
- Improve cholesterol levels
Many herbs are widely studied and can be trusted to provide relief when you need it most. With wild yam, please consult an herbalist or doctor if you are facing infertility, currently pregnant or taking birth control pills. Use herbal supplements wisely and embrace your health the natural way!