Common Names

Wild Yam, Rheumatism root, Colic root
Botanical Name
Dioscorea villosa

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What is it?

The root of a long lived, curling and twisting vine that grows widely in the Eastern USA. Wild Yam root becomes very hard when dried and has a distinctive, bitter flavour with a long, lingering aftertaste.




How has it been used?

As some of the other common names (Colic root, Rheumatism root) for Wild Yam amply demonstrate this is a herb that has been highly regarded for helping the pain of rheumatism and colic.

Note that these are two problems that occur in very different parts of the body (the joints and the gut) and also typically occur in two age groups that are much older or much younger. Perhaps the best way to understand just how Wild Yam could have such a range of applications is to feel what it actually does when you take it. This is a profoundly relaxing herbal medicine to the physical body.

Native American Indians used Wild Yam for colic and also to relieve the pain of childbirth. Traditional Japanese medicine (Kampo) used Wild Yam for many centuries to treat infertility. In fact high very high doses of Yams can cause infertility but lower doses have the opposite effect.

WM Cook writes 'Dioscorea is largely relaxant and moderately stimulant, acting as an antispasmodic, and relieving nervous excitement. Its principal use has been in the various forms of wind and bilious colic, to which it is admirably adapted. It both relaxes the muscular fibers and soothes the nerves, aiding the expulsion of flatus and promoting gentle diaphoresis. It is indeed an excellent agent in all painful and flatulent troubles of the bowels, whether simple colic, or connected with cold or diarrhea. For these purposes, it is generally advisable to combine it with some agent more stimulating than itself, such as zingiber, angelica, or other aromatic. In painful menstruation, neuralgia of the womb, vomiting during gestation, and the painful knottings of the uterus incident to the latter stages of pregnancy, it is an excellent remedy'

King's Dispensatory writes In former editions I have termed this agent an antispasmodic, and solely for the reason that it cures bilious colic, having proved almost invariably successful if used in frequent enough doses. No other medicine is required, as it gives prompt and permanent relief in the most severe cases (Prof. J. King). In fact it is not only of value in bilious colic, but in all forms of colic and other painful abdominal neuroses, and all forms of gastro-intestinal irritation. It has also proved valuable in painful cholera morbus attended with cramps, in neuralgic affections, in irritable conditions of the nervous system, especially when attended with pain or spasms, in spasmodic hiccough, obstinate and painful vomiting. It will likewise allay nausea, also spasms of the bowels. This root appears to exert an action especially upon enfeebled and irritable mucous tissues that become painful from spasmodic contractions of their muscular fibres'

The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (BHP) describes Wild Yam's actions as spasmolytic, mild diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory, antirheumatic, cholagogue and says it is indicated for intestincal colic, diverticulitis, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular rheumatism, cramps and intermittent claudication, cholecystitis, dysmenorrhoea, ovarian & uterine pain and specifically indicated for bilious colic and the acute phase of rheumatoid arthritis. The BHP suggests a dose of 2-4 gms or by infusion or a dose of 2-4mls of the 45% ethanolic extract.

Thomas Bartram describes Wild Yam's actions as 'antirheumatic, visceral, anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxant, cholagogue, diaphoretic, cardiac sedative (mild angina), antibilious. Believed that its anti-inflammatory action is due to a steroidal effect' Wild Yam is the starting material in the manufacture of steroidal preparations; cortisone, sex hormones, the 'pill' and anabolic hormones' He says it can help 'adrenal exhaustion, inflammatory rheumatism, stomach and muscle cramps, biliary, gall-stone, renal and intestinal colic, persistent nausea and vomiting, to promote bile flow. Diverticulosis, appendicitis, together with a some drops of Ginger. To aid liver function in degenerative disease. Pain in the womb and ovaries, hormone imbalance associated with the menopause. Intermittent claudication, spasmodic asthma. Threatened miscarriage (add quarter of a tsp of powdered Ginger with 1 tsp of powdered Wild Yam)'


Science on Wild Yam

The many 'steroidal saponins' in Wild Yam have been used by pharmaceutical companies as the basis for manufacturing hormonal drugs such as anabolic hormones, cortisone and 'the pill'. Whilst it is proven that internal doses of Wild Yam do have mild effects on progestin there have been many exaggerated claims about its effects on women's hormones and its true virtue as an antispasmodic has been somewhat lost whilst being typecast as a natural hormone treatment.

It does help some women with the change of life when taken as an internal medicine but when it has been marketed as a cream for menopause the science simply does not add up. Several clinical trials have been performed using Wild Yam creams vs. placebo; saliva samples have been taken and analysed and have shown that there is no change in the hormones that Wild Yam creams are marketed as benefiting i.e. progesterone and DHEA. In a nutshell: do not buy Wild Yam cream, unless you want some very expensive moisturiser!

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of nearly 40 further studies and articles on Wild Yam are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Wild Yam

Wild Yam is considered very safe to use for all ages and whilst breastfeeding or pregnant however it should be noted that the presence of saponins in Wild Yam may cause upset to the stomach of sensitive individuals if taken in excess. This is a potent herb that will not yield higher benefits if taken in increasing quantities but rather should be used at the level the body can well tolerate and respond to.

General safety note on herbs

Therapeutic substances, and this certainly all includes all medicinal herbs, can do good and, therefore, also have the potential to do harm. The maxim that 'the poison is in the dose' precisely describes how too much of anything can be bad for us and the ancient rule to 'firstly, do no harm is, to this day, held as the core directive by all practitioners of traditional herbal medicine. So, not only are we careful to do our best to use the right herbs but, equally, we take care to not give too much of them or use them overlong.

For some years now, against this old, proven and safe way of herbalism, there has been a rising tide of excessive caution and scare-mongering in many parts of the world. The same authorities and medical publications that no so long ago decried herbal medicines as ineffectual have now taken up a different kind of adversarial position. That they are dangerous substances that should not be taken for a long list of reasons and really should only be prescribed by Doctors, who of course have zero training in them.

Lists of '10 popular herbs and why you should avoid them' include things like Garlic and Ginger that might 'thin your blood'. It is absurd to the point of the ridiculous, but fear is a universal driver, and fear has also been long proven to be effective when used to manipulate and control others.

I realise that the reader who comes to a page like this is unlikely to be swayed by such misinformation, but I nevertheless want to remind you that the reason that herbs cannot be patented or owned by any individual or corporation is that they are the people's medicine. They belong to us all and it is my great hope that you will learn how to use them safely and wisely for yourself and the people you care for. Be safe but do not be afraid.


Personal experiences

One of my main experiences with Wild Yam has been for problems connected to having too much tension in the gut or the pelvis. Wild Yam reaches into the core of the body and gently releases tension at a deep 'visceral' level. Taking Wild Yam over an extended period has greatly helped a number of my patients heal long standing digestive and reproductive system disorders.

Anyone in practice reading this who has a patient come to them with acute bilious colic (from gall-stones getting stuck in the duct; a hideously painful indigestion that has little in conventional medicine to offer it apart from removing the gall-bladder) simply has to try Wild Yam as a first-aid remedy (see the note from King's Dispensatory in the 'how it has been used' section above). However, as other authors have also written, it does not work for everyone and if things are not improving in a timely manner then alternate treatment approaches are called for.

Another very positive experience I have had with Wild Yam has been in the terribly difficult condition of rheumatoid arthritis where the famous old combination of Wild Yam, Black Cohosh & Cramp bark has lived up to its reputation by providing a great deal of relief from pain and tension in the joints.

Not needed in great amounts to achieve this effect either; just a good dose of the combined tinctures in regular doses over the day has been seen to give great aid.

For chronic conditions, Wild Yam combines perfectly with Ginger for chronic gut congestion and with Licorice root and Devil's claw for inflammatory arthritic problems where there is an obvious connection between the digestive system and what is happening in the joints. With the longer-term use of Wild Yam I would use from 20 to 40mls in a week of the tincture to be sure to convey its benefits.

If there is significant pain or spasm (such as in colic, period pain, muscle spasm etc.) then Wild Yam works best in small frequent doses until it is clearly working; for example, just 1-2 mls every 2 hours or so. Each time you take a dose it adds to the effect of the last dose so once it starts relieving the pain and spasm you can be confident that the benefits will continue to accumulate.

Lastly, Wild Yam takes a vital place in the relaxing herbal formula that we use for so many patients with anxiety related health problems. Here it has been seen to be highly effective in even smaller doses and that formula, and further information on this most common and distressing trouble, is written about in depth here


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Wild Yam is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with herb B. There is value in this approach in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another but where it falls short is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Wild Yam might work brilliantly for one person but less well for another with the same kind of symptom picture -- why is this?

Part of the reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This useful and rather fascinating subject is introduced further here

Another big part of using the right herb when it is most needed comes from understanding the need to treat what is going wrong for the person that had led up to their getting a health condition and in this light Wild Yam can particularly offer its benefits when a relaxing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd