Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa L.) is a vine that’s native to North America. It’s also known by several other names, including colic root, American yam, fourleaf yam, and devil’s bones (1, 2). 

This flowering plant has dark green vines and leaves that vary in size and shape — though it’s best known for its tuberous roots, which have been used in folk medicine since the 18th century to treat menstrual cramps, coughs, and upset stomachs (1, 2). 

Today, it’s most frequently processed into a topical cream, which is said to alleviate symptoms associated with menopause and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Still, you may wonder whether wild yam root is effective for these conditions.

This article reviews the health claims and safety of wild yam root.

Does it have any benefits?

Wild yam root is said to help treat numerous conditions, though scientific research on these uses is either limited or largely disproves them.

Hormone production and imbalance 

Wild yam root contains diosgenin. It’s a plant steroid that scientists can manipulate to produce steroids, such as progesterone, estrogen, cortisone, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which are then used for medical purposes (1, 3). 

Thus, some advocates assert that wild yam root has benefits similar to those offered by these steroids in your body, providing a natural alternative to estrogen therapy or progesterone creams.

Yet, studies disprove this, showing that your body cannot turn diosgenin into these steroids (3). 

Instead, diosgenin requires chemical reactions that can only take place in a laboratory setting to convert it into steroids like progesterone, estrogen, and DHEA (3).

As a result, scientific evidence doesn’t currently support wild yam root’s effectiveness for treating conditions associated with hormonal imbalances, such as PMS, low sex drive, infertility, and weakened bones. 

Menopause 

Wild yam root cream is most commonly used in alternative medicine as an alternative to estrogen replacement therapy for alleviating menopause symptoms, such as night sweats and hot flashes (4).  

However, there’s very little evidence to prove its effectiveness (5, 6).

In fact, one of the only studies available found that 23 women who applied wild yam root cream daily for 3 months reported no changes in their menopause symptoms (7).

Arthritis

Wild yam root may have anti-inflammatory effects.

It has traditionally been used to treat arthritis, which causes pain, swelling, and stiffness in your joints (8, 9, 10). 

Notably, test-tube studies reveal that diosgenin extracted from wild yam root helps protect against the progression of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (11, 12).

Also, in a 30-day study in mice, orally administering 91 mg of wild yam extract per pound of body weight (200 mg/kg) each day significantly reduced markers of inflammation — and higher doses of 182 mg per pound (400 mg/kg) lowered nerve pain (8).

While these results are promising, human research is needed.

Skin health

Wild yam root is a common ingredient in anti-aging skin creams (13).

One test-tube study noted that diosgenin may encourage the growth of new skin cells, which could have anti-aging effects. However, overall research on wild yam root is limited (14).

Diosgenin has also been studied for its potential depigmenting effect. Excess sun exposure can result in small, flat, brown or tan spots on your skin, also known as hyperpigmentation — which is harmless but sometimes seen as undesirable (15, 16).

Still, wild yam root creams haven’t been proven effective for this application (16).

Other health claims

Though human research is lacking, wild yam root may provide a number of other benefits, such as:

  • Lowered blood sugar levels. In a study in mice, diosgenin extract significantly reduced blood sugar levels and helped prevent diabetes-induced kidney injury (9, 17).
  • Reduced cholesterol levels. In a 4-week study in rats, diosgenin extract significantly lowered total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels (18).
  • Potential anticancer effects. Preliminary test-tube studies suggest that wild yam root extract may safeguard against or slow the progression of breast cancer (19, 20).

Overall, further studies are necessary.

summary

Despite numerous health claims, very little evidence currently supports the use of wild yam root supplements or creams — especially for common applications, such as treating PMS and menopause.

Potential side effects and interactions 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not assessed wild yam root for safety or efficacy. 

While its topical use is generally considered safe, there’s no research on its potential long-term effects. What’s more, creams and ointments may irritate your skin if you’re allergic or sensitive to wild yam (21).

Small amounts of wild yam root supplements appear safe to ingest, but larger doses could cause vomiting (22). 

Due to potential hormone interactions, individuals with conditions like endometriosis, uterine fibroids, or certain forms of cancer should avoid wild yam root products. 

Children, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and people with protein S deficiency — a genetic disorder that increases your risk of blood clots — are also encouraged to steer clear of wild yam root because of insufficient safety information (22, 23).

Finally, wild yam root may interact with estradiol, a hormone present in some forms of birth control and hormone replacement therapies. As such, you should avoid yam root if you’re taking these medications unless otherwise instructed to do so by your healthcare provider (22).

Further studies are needed on this root’s interactions with other medications and supplements (22). 

summary

While low doses and the topical use of wild yam root are likely safe for many individuals, research on the supplement is insufficient. Certain individuals should avoid wild yam root, including those with hormone-sensitive conditions.

How to use wild yam root cream 

Due to insufficient evidence, there are no dosage guidelines for wild yam root cream or supplements. Thus, it’s best to consult a health professional before adding any wild yam product to your routine.

However, if you’re interested in using a cream to relieve joint pain, reduce dark spots, or prevent wrinkling, product labels commonly recommend applying the cream once or twice per day. 

That said, these products are not regulated by the FDA, and manufacturers are not required to disclose the amount of wild yam root extract that their products include.

Despite a lack of evidence for these claims, people who use wild yam root cream to treat menopause or PMS symptoms often rub it on their stomachs. Just note that it’s not intended for intravaginal use.

For the supplement form, you should always follow the instructions on the packaging. Supplements are not regulated by the FDA either, so look for a product that has been evaluated and verified by a third-party testing service.

summary

While dosage guidelines for wild yam root products are unavailable, many companies recommend applying the cream once or twice per day. Neither the topical creams or oral supplements are regulated by the FDA.

The bottom line

Wild yam root is widely sold as a skin cream but may also be found as a supplement. It has traditionally been used to treat hormonal conditions, such as menopause and PMS, as well as alleviate symptoms of arthritis.

However, current studies don’t support the claims surrounding menopause and PMS.

While uses for arthritis seem the most promising, more human research is needed to establish wild yam root’s effectiveness.