Wild yams are a trailing vine whose natural habitat includes most of the eastern and southern United States. The roots of this plant were valued by ancient cultures for their medicinal properties. Wild yams were also known as colic root and rheumatism root among the early American settlers of these regions in the 1800s. This herbal form of the wild yam has no horticultural relationship to the sweet potatoes and yams sold as vegetables in North American food stores.
The root of the wild yam is typically harvested in autumn. It is consumed either as a tea made by boiling the dried root, or from a manufactured fluid extract.
Wild yam has been reputed to possess powerful curative properties with respect to female reproductive system disorders of all kinds, including menstrual pain, the regulation of the menstrual cycle,
Much of the recent scientific interest in wild yams stems from the presence of a number of different steroid saponins, substances which may be converted to hormones, as well as a number of phytochemicals that assist in the promotion of good health when ingested into the body. Diosgenin is a steroid saponin that is easily converted to the female hormone progesterone; for a considerable period diosgenin was extracted from the wild yam root to manufacture progesterone and female birth control pills. There is no scientific evidence in support of the proposition advanced by some commercial promoters of wild yams as a herbal remedy that the human body will naturally convert diosgenin into progesterone.
Recent scientific study has provided some support for the proposition that wild yams may assist in the reduction of low density lipoproteins, the cholesterol that contributes to the clogging of blood vessels. Diosgenin increases the rate of stomach bile production. Stomach bile requires cholesterol, which in turn reduces the amount of cholesterol that otherwise would remain a danger to the effective function of the blood vessels.
The properties of wild yam have been shown in some settings to alleviate the symptoms of joint inflammation and menstrual difficulties. The amount of benefit to be derived from the consumption of wild yam products will vary from person to person. Unlike many herbs and dietary supplements, there are no known significant side effects or potential for harmful interaction with other substances when wild yams are consumed.