Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) is a tuberous perennial vine with greenish-yellow, heart-shaped leaves. This vine habitually twines around the branches of other plants in order to support itself. Wild yam is found in many parts of the United States, Mexico, and Asia and has been used medicinally for centuries. Also known as Yuma, colic root, devil’s bones, and rheumatism root, it was a popular remedy used in both Native American and other types of herbal medicine to treat various problems.
The most common medicinal use of Dioscorea villosa was for the treatment of female conditions. Wild yam has had a long history of use in treating everything from menstrual cramps and PMS (premenstrual syndrome) to hot flashes and vaginal dryness. It has also been used to treat morning sickness in pregnant women and to ease the pain of childbirth.
This plant contains an important antioxidant: beta carotene. Dioscorea villosa also contains anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, the root of wild yam possesses a chemical similar to the female hormone progesterone. This chemical, called diosgenin, was used to manufacture the first oral contraceptive.
When creams made from the root of Dioscorea villosa are applied to a woman's skin, it is thought to trigger the body’s natural progesterone production. Today, the wild yam is still widely used to manufacture this hormone and other steroid drugs. It is also used as a substitute for estrogen cream, which helps combat vaginal dryness in women. It is generally no longer recommended for use during pregnancy.
Other medicinal uses of Dioscorea villosa include the treatment of insomnia, headaches and migraines, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis. Wild yam has been used for various digestive problems as well, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and colic in infants. Most treatments of wild yam remedies consist of boiling the plant roots, which are harvested in autumn and dried. Remedies are then given as infusions or the extract is added to creams, ointments, and capsules.
As with any homeopathic remedy, caution should be taken with the use of Dioscorea villosa. The fresh plant can cause severe vomiting, diarrhea, and headache. Wild yam remedies should not be used with certain health conditions, such as liver disease or certain cancers like uterine, prostate, or breast cancer. Caution should also be taken for those with diabetes or alcohol dependence, as the remedies may contain sugar and alcohol.