Wild Yam: The Original Birth Control?
Native through the Appalachian Mountains and as far west as Texas, Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) is a little plant with a big impact. This perennial vine has been used for centuries to treat a variety of illnesses, but one of its uses in particular has completely shifted modern life.
Wild Yam grows in moist areas usually draping over bushes and shrubs. This vine can reach up to 15 feet in length, with beautiful heart-shaped leaves that can be pretty big: almost 6 inches long. If you happen to catch them in June or early July, you might see one of their small green or yellow flowers. Their lovely leaves and little flowers are beautiful, but the real magic of the plant lies underground. The root runs horizontally to the stem and is usually around two feet long! Only about half an inch thick, with red-brown bark, the root looks like nothing special.
In the 1950s, scientists discovered that the roots of the Wild Yam contained a chemical compound called Diosgenin. This discovery changed the contraceptive game…
I was first attracted to the qualities Wild Yam possesses on a day hike with my professor and a few classmates during my sophomore year of college. As we strolled through a local nature preserve in the Blue Ridge Mountains, our professor told us about this special plant, then launched into stories about its many uses.
He told us that Native American women would take doses of Wild Yam root at toxic levels for three or four days in order to become sterile, or that sometimes they would steep a tea of the root for a few hours and give it to women in labor to ease their contractions. Then, I learned the most fascinating fact yet: Wild Yam provided the foundation for the birth control we use today.
In the 1950s, scientists discovered that the roots of the Wild Yam plant contained a chemical compound called Diosgenin. This discovery changed the contraceptive game, and now nearly all of our birth control is a synthetic version of this compound. Diosgenin is a phytoesterone, a hormone that’s basically plant-based estrogen. These scientists found that if they processed the Diosgenin clinically, they could create progesterone (one of the main hormones used for birth control) and other hormonal steroids. This chemical conversion doesn’t occur naturally in the human body, so unfortunately, eating a bunch of Wild Yam won’t take the place of the pill. (And you should always do your research and consult with an herbalist or trusted reference guide before beginning a course of new supplements.)
I was so intrigued that this plant seemed to be tailored to women specifically, and after more research, I found that it really was. Not only does Wild Yam do all of those things my professor told me, but it even helps relieve PMS symptoms, can help regulate your cycle, and can help relieve cramps. Renowned holistic wellness practitioner Dr. Weil also notes that wild yams have been promoted as a source of natural progesterone for the relief of menopausal symptoms. Keep an eye out though: using herbal medications is tricky, especially when coupled with pharmaceuticals. If you want to try Wild Yam, check to make sure it doesn’t interact with your birth control or other medications first!
After more research and time spent looking through herbalist journals, I found that Wild Yam isn’t only a made-for-women plant, but it has a multitude of uses that can be beneficial for anyone and everyone when used appropriately. For centuries, herbalists have used Wild Yam to treat a range of ailments, including rheumatism, asthma, high blood pressure, migraines, insomnia, UTIs, inflammation, impotency, and osteoporosis. Wild Yam was historically offered as colic root and used in herbal remedies for gastrointestinal irritations. Research conducted at the University of Michigan also suggests that it can even help lower cholesterol.
Still, Wild Yam’s main chemical compounds– the ones that mimic female hormones– were not only used in birth control. Its chemical basis also became the foundation for many other steroids used in pharmaceuticals, like DHEA, which supports adrenal function. Today, wild yam supplements can be found in most health food and big box stores, from Whole Foods to Target. The wide range of uses (but limited conversation surrounding the plant in mainstream media) probably stems from the fact that we discovered how to convert this chemical in the lab many years ago, but as always, we need to remember that so many of our most vital modern medicines are often those that originally came from our own backyards.