Before you reach for another cream claiming to be made from wild yams and to be a "natural" progesterone, think again. Although yams are highly nutritious, you aren't going to adjust your hormones, prevent pregnancy or soothe menopausal symptoms from eating them. The claims of yam products as a source of progesterone are based on the fact that yams contain an ingredient that can be chemically transformed into progesterone. That process, however, takes place in a lab and not in your digestive tract.
Progesterone is a female hormone produced your ovaries. Along with estrogen, progesterone helps to prepare your uterus for a possible pregnancy each month. If you conceive, progesterone also helps support the fertilized egg, and later it works in preparing for lactation and nursing. If you don't conceive, your progesterone drops and your period begins. As you approach menopause, the surge of progesterone naturally declines.
Yen for Yams
In the last few decades, alternative health practitioners have argued that menopausal symptoms are caused by a phenomena known as "estrogen dominance." Essentially, the idea was that the ratio of estrogen to progesterone becomes significantly imbalanced during menopause. However, with the heart attacks and health scares associated with hormone replacement therapy, many women sought to find natural ways to rebalance their hormones. Dr. Marcell Pick, an OB/GYN and founder of WomentoWomen.com says these two factors have led to the marketing, perhaps irresponsibly so, of hundred of products containing a yam-based cream that claim to boost progesterone levels. However, Pick argues the estrogen dominance theory is just that, a theory, and one that takes a far too simplistic view of the dynamic hormones within a woman's body.
The Truth about Yams for Progesterone
Wild yams — not the sweet potatoes sold in American supermarkets — but a starchy tuber grown in tropical regions around the world contains an active ingredient known as diosgenin. This substance has the same chemical structure as progesterone, and in 1941, a scientist figured out how to transform diosgenin into progesterone, forever making birth control pills more affordable. Diosgenin is not progesterone, however, and so wild yams aren't going to give you the same benefits as the natural hormone. Besides that, Pick argues, progesterone alone is not the way to restore hormonal balance in menopause.
Authorities with the University of Maryland Medical Center, MedlinePlus, the Mayo Clinic and Columbia University say yams and products made with yam are ineffective at impacting your level of progesterone. The diosgenin in yams does not have any hormonal activity. A June 2001 "Climacteric" study by Australian researchers reported that although there were no harmful side effects of women using a yam-based cream for progesterone, the cream "appears to have little effect on menopausal symptoms." There's more evidence that yams are more effective in reducing high cholesterol than they are at helping with hormones.
- "Climacteric"; Effects of Wild Yam Extract on Menopausal Symptoms, Lipids and Sex Hormones in Healthy Menopausal Women; P.A. Komesaroff, et al.; June 2001
- MedlinePlus: Wild Yam
- Columbia University Go Ask Alice!: Are Yams an Adequate Alternative to Hormone Replacement Therapy?; June 29, 2001
- WomentoWomen.com: Menopause & Perimenopause; Marcelle Pick; June 2, 2011
- Harvard Women's HealthWatch: What are Bioidentical Horomones?
- Mayo Clinic: Menopause: Alternative Medicine