Digging in: Wild Yam Extract

Is Wild Yam a Scam?

Throughout the years, I have heard, through a variety of educational courses as well as word of mouth anecdotal evidence, that certain oils can help pelvic floor irritation and discomfort. Lately, I’ve fielded questions from a growing number of patients about holistic remedies recommended to them by other wellness providers. I’ve heard tidbits from the main stream, like coconut oil for lubrication, and more obscure suggestions like emu oil for vulvar vestibule irritation, but recently wild yam extract has grown in popularity. As a disclaimer, ALWAYS check with your physician before using ANY oils that are not FDA approved for your condition. This is an exploration of documented evidence on what wild yam extracts are and what the oil actually does to your body.

In my profession as a pelvic floor physical therapist, have I heard that using wild yam helps symptoms? Sure, but definitely not for everyone. I have never promoted it myself, but I have had patients read up on its benefits and experiment with the oil, so I decided to delve into the research. I found that there are a multitude of brands and types, and it can be taken in a cream/oil form or internally, in tablet form.

Potential benefits of Wild Yam Extract

Claims have been made that wild yam can provide benefit in the area of reproductive health, specifically ameliorating premenstrual syndromes and post-menopausal symptoms. In addition, wild yam can reportedly be used as an antispasmodic for relaxing muscles, regulating uterine contractions and could potentially help menstrual cramps. Interestingly, Native Americans have used wild yam for nausea and vomiting in pregnancy. It has also been described as a stimulant for increased bile flow and can relieve liver congestion and gallstones.  In traditional medicine in China, Korea and Japan, yam has been used to expedite the healing process of ulcers, boils and other skin diseases.

Is any of this true? If so, why haven’t physicians been telling all of us about it?

Well here are a few true facts about wild yam:

Originally, it was created by using the fats and oils from wild yam to produce hormones. As a result, wild yam has been promoted as a “natural hormone replacement therapy.” Within its roots and bulb, wild yam contains steroidal saponins based on a chemical called diosgenin (a plant-based estrogen) – it takes three steps to convert wild yam oil into a chemical match for the progesterone produced by the ovaries.

NOTE: Wild yam cannot actually convert into progesterone – or estrogen – in the human body – the transformation has to take place in a lab. So in reality, natural wild yam cannot increase hormones levels in the body just applied or ingested as is. If diosgenin has been converted from the yam oil and put back into a product, then it would, however, work as a type of hormone replacement. The label should then note USP bio-identical Natural Progesterone Cream or “natural progesterone.”

You need to be wary about products claiming that wild yam will give you the same benefits as the natural hormone progesterone without proper labeling. The only study I found was testing diosgenin and its effects on melanin development in the skin, back in 2007.  The study did show that the chemical could potentially be used as a depigmenting agent for hyperpigmentation.  Other than this study, there is insufficient evidence and research to support other wild yam claims.

Needless to say, leave hormone replacement up to your gynecologist and endocrinologist discretion.   They will be able to determine what you need with proper hormone testing for appropriate symptoms.

What’s the bottom line on wild yam?

Based on what I’ve read, I have to conclude that yam oil does not have sufficient clinical evidence to show that it can help with pelvic floor dysfunction. As a clinic, we are always hesitant to blindly believe in anything a physician does not prescribe, especially since every person is different and may react individually to certain ingredients. Please ask your physician before using wild yam in any form, and use it at your own risk; it may or may not be beneficial.