What is wild yam root?
DISCLAIMER: CONSULT WITH A DOCTOR BEFORE DECIDING ON A TREATMENT PLAN FOR ANY DISEASE OR INJURY.
Wild yam root (Dioscorea villosa) is a natural female contraceptive with a long history of use in Native American and Mexican cultures, as well as in Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. It is also known as American yam, fourleaf yam, yuma, Shan-Yao, and Devil’s Bones (among other names). As some readers may already know, the compound diosgenin found in wild yam root was the predecessor to the modern birth control pill, in which it can be synthetically converted to progesterone. What most readers may not know is that diosgenin was also the natural precursor to other commonly prescribed synthetic pharmaceuticals like steroid drugs, hydrocortisone cream, and DHEA, a synthetic hormone administered in an attempt to support adrenal function.
Before continuing, it’s worth noting that although wild yam root is related to the common, cultivated yam, it’s necessary to be aware that these are two different plants with two different functions. The yam that you may be more familiar with as a food is most likely to be either Dioscorea rotundata, Dioscorea alata, or Dioscorea trifida, or another species of cultivated, edible yam.
In order to understand an herb’s actual function, knowing how it is currently used and how it has traditionally been used as a medicine can help illuminate otherwise hidden aspects of the plant’s properties. So, although this article concentrates on wild yam’s use as a contraceptive herb, as you can see below, it also has other applications for women’s health in particular, as well as for general health and well-being.
Thus, besides being used as a contraceptive, wild yam root has also been used to treat/prevent:
- Menstrual cramps
- Stomach upset
- Morning sickness
- Menopausal symptoms (including hot flashes, pain, insomnia, etc)
- Cancer (including breast cancer and leukemia)
- Muscle spasms
- Fungal infection (including Candida overgrowth)
- High cholesterol
- Leg cramps
- Labor pains
- Threatened miscarriage
- Liver and gallbladder conditions (including jaundice, the improvement of general gallbladder health, support of the passage of small gallstones, and stimulation of bile production; this action in the gallbladder specifically is linked to overall improvements in digestion as well as hormonal health)
- Hepatoprotective agent
- Chronic cough
- Anorexia (loss of appetite)
- Chronic thirst
- Arthritis (including rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis)
- Infant colic (this use of Dioscorea villosa earned it another name: “colic root”)
- Urinary tract infections
- High blood sugar levels
- Vaginal dryness
- Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
- Adrenal exhaustion
- Mild angina
How Wild Yam Root Works as a Contraceptive
Wild yam root contains a phytoestrogenic compound called diosgenin. Phytoestrogens are plant compounds that mimic the action of estrogen produced in the human body; interestingly, though, some research has noted that despite the fact that diosgenin is a phytoestrogen, it doesn’t behave like an estrogen in the body, unlike other phytoestrogens from plants like soy.
There’s a lot of controversy around how exactly diosgenin works when a woman takes wild yam root. One body of thought notes that although diosgenin is indeed a phytoestrogen, and that while it can synthetically be converted to progesterone in a lab, that this particular compound cannot be converted to progesterone naturally by the body. This same body of thought claims that wild yam root isn’t an effective contraceptive nor treatment for any related health condition (which, based on reports from native populations across the globe that have used this herb successfully for thousands of years to manage fertility, can’t possibly be the whole truth).
Another body of thought, in contrast, acknowledges that wild yam root works (at least in many cases, like with any contraceptive, natural or synthetic, there’s a margin of “error”), but researchers haven’t established why the plant works the way that it does. The people who ascribe to this idea accept that, yes, wild yam root can be highly effective. However, the scientific evidence that it works and for how and why it works is still extremely limited.
One anecdotal report says that Native American women in Appalachia used to drink wild yam root at very high (nearly toxic) doses for 3-4 days in order to become sterile. Women in childbirth were given a tea in which the root had been steeped for a few hours to help ease labor pains. In humans, the vast majority of evidence that wild yam root works is packaged in stories like these. There are, however, some animal studies that suggest some possible mechanisms through which natural wild yam root may work as a contraceptive.
A 30-day study on female Wistar rats completed in Nigeria in 2014 observed the effects of wild yam on female hormones. The researchers noted the following effects on the rats’ hormone levels following the end of the study:
- Rats that were given a daily dose of 100mg/kg of ethanolic extract of wild yam root exhibited lower levels of luteinizing hormone (LH) than the control group rats (higher doses were actually less effective in regard to lowering LH than the 100mg/kg dosage).
- The rats’ progesterone levels decreased notably when they were given wild yam root, with the highest dosage of 400mg/kg being linked with the most significant decrease in progesterone levels.
- Doses of 100mg/kg and 200mg/kg of wild yam root extract slightly reduced estradiol concentration.
- Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) increased dramatically when the rats were given 400mg/kg of extract, while the levels of this hormone increased to a lesser extent when the rats were administered 200mg/kg and 100mg/kg of extract.
So then, what exactly does this mean when it comes to wild yam root as a contraceptive?
To begin to answer this question, it’s necessary to first understand the basics of female hormones during the menstrual cycle. It’s helpful to think of female hormones in terms of a hierarchy, since this can explain when and why many women experience problems related to hormones throughout their lives. Here is the hierarchy (in a nutshell):
- Gonadotropin-releasing Hormone (GnRH) – This is the “first” hormone in the hierarchy, and is released from the hypothalamus in the brain.
- Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing Hormone (LH) – These are also known as anterior pituitary sex hormones, and are released in response to the hypothalamus releasing GnRH. FSH is responsible for female physical maturation at puberty, and during the menstrual cycle, as well as for the growth and maturation of ovarian follicle cells, which produce estradiol and other estrogens as they grow. LH is responsible for the final stages of follicle cell growth and for the stimulation of ovulation. It also directs granulosa and theca cells (which initially produce estrogen and androgens, respectively) to begin producing progesterone.
- Estrogen and Progesterone – Otherwise known as ovarian hormones, these familiar hormones are (as the name suggests) released by the ovaries in response to the presence of FSH and LH. These two hormones are responsible for preparing the uterus for pregnancy, and when a pregnancy doesn’t occur and levels of these hormones drop, a woman will get her period. Estrogen, specifically estradiol, stimulates the thickening of the uterine lining in the preovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle as the body prepares for a potential pregnancy. Progesterone levels increase when a pregnancy occurs, but outside of pregnancy, the presence of this ovarian hormone regulates the menstrual cycle and encourages a healthy libido.
Wild yam root use has been shown to make luteinizing hormone levels lower, as well as to decrease progesterone levels. Since luteinizing hormone is mostly responsible for the production of progesterone, this comes as no surprise that lower levels of LH would lead to lower levels of progesterone. Luteinizing hormone ultimately encourages the release of oocytes (eggs) for fertilization, so lower levels of this hormone in particular make ovulation less likely, thus reducing the chance of a pregnancy occurring. The decreased level of progesterone as well doesn’t favor pregnancy, as progesterone is essential for maintaining a pregnancy.
The notable increase in follicle stimulating hormone in rats given wild yam root is also relevant, and may play a role in preventing the maturation of oocytes. The study cited above considers the possibility that the extract of Dioscorea villosa increases ovarian cell resistance to FSH stimulation, thus preventing ovulation (and therefore preventing conception).
I want to draw special attention to wild yam root’s use in the treatment of gallbladder and liver conditions, here, since there is (believe it or not) a strong connection between gallbladder health in particular and hormonal balance. As an herb of particular benefit to women, as well as to men who struggle with infertility, the role of this plant in the gallbladder is especially notable. The gallbladder works closely with the thyroid to regulate hormone production throughout the body. When the gallbladder’s health fails, thyroid health often suffers similarly, and vice versa. People who have either a gallbladder condition or a thyroid condition frequently find themselves with an additional health problem in the other organ, too.
Wild yam root has been prescribed for all manners of gallbladder conditions, including biliary colic, gallstones, and the stimulation of bile production, among other gallbladder problems. If you’re experiencing any kind of hormonal imbalance, the first organs to consider are the gallbladder and the thyroid (specifically with the treatment of iodine). This article explains the connection between these organs in more depth as well as how hormones like estrogen and insulin play a role in their health.
Wild Yam Root / Shan Yao: The Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), wild yam root is considered to have tonifying properties for the kidneys and spleen. It is commonly prescribed for the treatment of spleen deficiency, a condition that encompasses symptoms such as fatigue, paleness, anorexia (loss of appetite), loose stools, and bloating or fullness of the abdomen. The kidneys are acknowledged as the source of heredity and fertility in TCM belief, so the idea that wild yam root would be linked to fertility fits with this model of medicine.
How to Take Wild Yam Root for Contraception, Threatened Miscarriage, and More
Wild yam root can be found fresh in some places, though most people will only have access to herbal tinctures, capsules, or powders of this herb. It is frequently combined with other estrogenic herbs like black cohosh for the treatment of women’s problems, or with stimulating herbs like ginger or angelica for the treatment of colic, the common cold, diarrhea, and digestive complaints. It is sometimes combined with Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) for the treatment of afterbirth pains.
Follow the dosing guidelines below to use wild yam root as a contraceptive:
- Take 2-4ml of herbal tincture consisting of 45% ethanolic extract up to 3 times per day. For long-term use, this dose should be adjusted to only 4ml per day of the tincture taken in divided doses throughout the day.
- Boil fresh or dried root in water (make sure that the roots are completely covered) for 30 minutes, then strain and refrigerate. This decoction may be taken daily.
- Ayurvedic practitioners recommend a dose of 3-6g of wild yam root powder take daily. The British Herbal Pharmacopeia recommends a similar dose of 2-4 grams of powder given by infusion.
- The recommended dose for standardized capsule forms of wild yam root is 400mg taken twice daily.
- For threatened miscarriage, the British herbalist Thomas Bartram recommends an infusion of a ¼ teaspoon of powdered ginger root combined with 1 teaspoon of wild yam root powder. In the book “The Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year”, author Susan S. Weed recommends taking 2-4 ounces of fresh infusion every half-hour until the threat passes (most women will see positive results by the second dose). If using a tincture, she recommends a dose of 10 drops every half-hour (however, Weed notes that the tincture is generally less effective than the infusion in most cases).
- For the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, some patients have had success using a combination of 2-4ml of wild yam root tincture in combination with black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) and cramp bark (Viburnum opulus).
Always carefully check the label of any wild yam root supplement, since some products market themselves as natural but actually contain synthetic hormones as well as the natural wild yam root. While this isn’t always the case, it’s better to err on the safe side and double-check the labels of the supplements you’re interested in.
Our Amazon links to powerful cures like Hawaii Pharm herbal tinctures often disappear mysteriously after we publish.
Support our outside vendors by purchasing Hawaii Pharm’s Wild Yam Root tincture here.
Before using wild yam root as a contraceptive or for any other women’s health purpose, please note that this plant can be and has been used in the past to induce permanent sterility when taken in high doses. In contrast, lower doses can enhance fertility (based on my current research, the fertility-enhancing effect of wild yam root is likely similar to that of Mucuna pruriens, another contraceptive herb with fertility promoting qualities). When used correctly, wild yam can be a safe and generally effective form of birth control, but it should be used with respect since, like many other plants, it’s a powerful natural medicine.
NOTE: Most sources recommend avoiding wild yam root during pregnancy, however this herb has been known traditionally in many cultures as an important remedy for morning sickness as well as for easing labor pains during childbirth. Morning sickness is often (though not always) caused in large part by gallstones or gallbladder-related issues, and resolution of these issues before or during pregnancy frequently resolves this issue. Since wild yam root has been used and studied in regard to its application in treating gallbladder and liver complaints, I would believe that this herb works for morning sickness because it resolves and/or soothes gallbladder problems. However, due to the many contradictions in information and limited evidence as to whether or not this herb is safe during pregnancy, exercise caution and consult with a certified herbalist practitioner if you’re uncertain.
It is generally safe during breastfeeding, though mothers should of course monitor their infants when starting any new herbal (or other) medicine for changes.
Contraindications and Side Effects of Wild Yam Root
The contraindications for use of wild yam root are listed below:
- Women who are taking estradiol and/or birth control should not take wild yam root, since the two may interact or cancel each other out.
- Men and children should be aware the plant does contain phytoestrogens; it can be and has been used in men and children, but should be used carefully with some awareness. Even though the plant doesn’t have the same estrogenic-type properties as other herbs with phytoestrogens, this aspect of wild yam root deserves special mention.
- Individuals with Protein S deficiency – people with this condition are advised to avoid using this particular herbal treatment.
- People who struggle with constipation should avoid wild yam root since the astringent qualities of this herb may worsen the condition.
- Taking excess amounts of wild yam root may worsen the symptoms of endometriosis or uterine fibroids; women with prolonged periods should also avoid using wild yam root without first consulting an herbalist for advice.
- Some sources claim that wild yam root can help prevent and cure breast cancer, while others advise avoiding this herb due to its estrogenic qualities; if you have breast cancer and are concerned about taking wild yam root, consider first addressing the breast cancer diagnosis with cures from the Cancer Cure Catalog such as frankincense essential oil and iodine therapy.
Side effects of wild yam root include nausea, vomiting, headaches, and digestive problems.
Mount Sinai (n.d). Wild yam. Retrieved September 20, 2022 from: https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/herb/wild-yam
Stone, Anita B. (2010). Herb to Know: Wild Yam. Retrieved September 20, 2022 from: https://www.motherearthliving.com/gardening/herb-to-know-wild-yam/
Indigo Herbs (n.d). Wild Yam Benefits. Retrieved September 20, 2022 from: https://www.indigo-herbs.co.uk/natural-health-guide/benefits/wild-yam
Staughton, John (2020). 16 Best Benefits of Wild Yams. Retrieved September 20, 2022 from: https://www.organicfacts.net/wild-yams.html
Zamorski, Kathryn (2015). Wild Yam: The Original Birth Control? Retrieved September 20, 2022 from: https://gardencollage.com/heal/botanical-medicine/wild-yam-the-original-birth-control/
Atsukwei, Denen, et. al. (2014). Contraceptive Effect of Ethanolic Extract of Dioscorea villosa Tuber on Reproductive Hormones of Female Wistar Rats. Retrieved September 20, 2022 from: https://www.edouniversity.edu.ng/oerrepository/articles/contraceptive_effect_of_ethanolic_extract_of_dioscorea_villosa_tuber_on_reproductive_hormones_of_female_wistar_rats.pdf
N.A. (2022). Chinese Yam (Shan Yao). Retrieved September 22, 2022 from: https://www.chineseherbshealing.com/proven-herbal-remedies/chinese-yam.html
Planet Ayurveda (n.d). What Are the Health Benefits and Uses of Wild Yam? Retrieved September 22, 2022 from: https://www.planetayurveda.com/wild-yam-root/
D., James (2021). Wild Yam Extract: Benefits, Side Effects, & Dosage. Retrieved September 22, 2022 from: https://community.bulksupplements.com/wild-yam/
Whelan, Richard (n.d). Wild Yam. Retrieved September 22, 2022 from: https://www.rjwhelan.co.nz/herbs%20A-Z/wild_yam.html
Barton, Dalene (2021). Wild Yam: Herb for Reproductive System Support in Women. Retrieved September 22, 2022 from: https://natural-fertility-info.com/reproductive-system-support-for-women-with-wild-yam.html