Jungle Medicine: In Pursuit of the Wild Yam

Wild Yam on Don Berto's medicine trail in Bullet Tree, Cayo

Wild Yam on Don Berto’s medicine trail in Bullet Tree, Cayo

The first time I encountered Wild Yam was in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, receiving it through an order I placed with my “friends and neighbors organic food co-op”, an informal group of midwives and other turned-on ladies who initiated me into the alternative parenting style that would become the main thread of my life for the next 18 years.

I was looking for an alternative birth control method, as I had come to view “the pill” with suspicion. In my early twenties it was beginning to dawn on me that my fertility was big business with corporate interests, and that my personal health and well-being were not the main agenda.

I received the long awaited package, and opened it to find a half pound of woody little cubes. I had no idea what to do with it, and no source of information aside from a few vague references in books I’d read at the time. It seemed like the thing to do was powder it, and put it in capsules, as that was pretty much the format in which I encountered the herbal medicines I had tried to that point. I threw a handful in the blender. It made an incredible din, but did not affect the little cubes at all. Next I tried the coffee grinder, again to no avail. Mystified, and with no guidance, I eventually gave up on the idea.

Twenty years later, and with many years of wildcrafting North American herbs under my belt, I came to make a life for myself in Belize. I quickly realized that I would learn a whole new pharmacopeia here. Getting used to the climate, the heat, the water and the outdoor lifestyle was a huge but welcome adjustment. That was why I had come! In many ways my family and I became stronger and healthier, but we were also introduced to a whole new world of bacteria. I began to get urinary tract infections, an old teacher from my late teens and early twenties that firmly set my foot on the path of alternative medicine in my search for relief.

One day, at market in Belmopan, I was attracted from out of the bales of cheap American used clothing to a stall full of mystery and intrigue. A Creole lady with beautiful green eyes introduced herself as Janice. Other women were chatting about the benefits of various jungle medicines as I stepped forward to examine the wares. I explained my situation to Janice, and she pointed me toward a huge hardcover book, Natural Remedies Encyclopedia, and quickly flipped to the entry on Wild Yam.  Reading over the entry, I overheard Janice prescribe Wild Yam to another woman for her sore hip. I was surprised at the diversity of ailments helped by Wild Yam, and soon learned from the book that Wild Yam had many healing attributes aside from my complaint of UTI. According to the Encyclopedia of Natural Remedies, this jungle root affects muscles, joints, uterus, liver and gallbladder. It relaxes muscles spasms, any kind of cramps, balances the glands, reduces inflammation, and is beneficial in cases of gallbladder disorders, hypoglycemia, kidney stones, irritable bowel syndrome, neuralgia, and rheumatism, as well as problems common to women, from PMS to prevention of miscarriage in pregnancy. In combination with other blood cleansers, Wild Yam aids in removing wastes from the system to relieve stiff and sore joints, and also improves the function of the liver and gallbladder. The Encyclopedia of Natural Remedies lists Wild Yam as one of the 126 most important herbs.

In a further entry, I learned that Wild Yam is good for both men and women. Wild Yam contains diosgenin, a chemical used to manufacture progesterone and other steroid drugs. The Wild Yam itself does not contain progesterone, but has a similar effect to progesterone on the human body. Diosgenins are used in pharmaceutical applications to treat asthma, arthritis and eczema. They regulate metabolism and control fertility. There are a staggering variety of synthetic products manufactured from diosgenin. These include contraceptives, drugs to treat menopause, dysmenorrhea, premenstrual syndrome, testicular deficiency, impotency, prostate hypertrophy, high blood pressure, arterial spasms, migraines and other ailments. Wild Yam also contains cortisones and hydrocortisones used for allergies, bursitis, contact dermatitis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica, brown recluse spider bites, and insect stings. It is a common misconception that Wild Yam actually contains estrogen and progesterone, but these are exclusively human hormones.

I eagerly paid Janice for my little bag of dried wood chips. She said to boil them in a gallon of water for twenty minutes, and drink several cups a day. She told said I could use the chips up to seven times. What a value! I followed her prescription and felt a complete sense of well-being within a few days.

Laine prepares Wild Yam harvested during a moonlight nature hike

Laine prepares Wild Yam harvested during a moonlit nature hike.

I soon began to discover the plant during jungle hikes. Once identified it is easy to distinguish, having fairly unique characteristics even within the incredible diversity of Belize; it is a thorned twining vine with heart-shaped leaves, having conspicuous deep-set veins which run diagonally from stem to the tip of the leaf, with usually two to three vines sprouting from the top of a partially exposed root. The leaves are arranged in an alternating pattern, and the root itself is “tiled” with a mosaic of raised bark. Allow the root some time to dry out before use. It is difficult to chop, and I use both an axe to split the root into pieces, and a machete to split off the chips for use.

Last November I contracted some kind of incredibly tenacious bronchitis. I am generally accustomed to excellent health, and if I do get sick, it is never for more than a few days. Imagine my consternation and desperation at finding this condition developing into an asthmatic situation that was even worse by mid -February! After a completely useless round of antibiotics, (my first in over 13 years!), I turned to Rosita Arvigo’s now famous book, Rainforest Remedies. Turning to “coughs” in the Index of Traditional Medical Uses, I noticed my good friend Wild Yam listed among the remedies. Having some on hand, I immediately boiled up a big pot.

From the text of Rainforest Remedies I learned that not only is Wild Yam effective for bladder infection, but it is also effective in loosening mucous in the lungs due to coughs and colds, reducing fever, and relieving bilious colic. It can also be used to address internal hemorrhaging, not to mention the more popular uses in curing impotency in men, and infertility in women.

Also known as Dioscorea (D. belizensis), it is known to contain steroids. From reading the entry in Rainforest Remedies, I concluded that the Natural Remedies Encyclopedia seemed to be referring to what Rosita Arvigo describes as a closely related species, Mexican Yam (D. mexicana), a source of diosgenin, a steroid precursor as previously described. Yam is also known as White China Root, and Barba del Viejo or Cocolmeca blanca in Spanish.

Taking an interest in Gumbolimbo due to an outbreak of Poisonwood, I took a random flip to that entry in Rainforest Remedies, and was surprised to learn that this commonly found tree’s bark also is effective in treating internal infection, colds and flu, kidney ailments, and yes, it’s true,  for curing urinary tract infection.  I began to add Gumbolimbo to my Wild Yam tea, and started hacking up the last of the crazy lung infection for good!

It is interesting to note that Wild Yam and Gumbo Limbo both address the relationship between lungs and kidneys which is inherent in the practice of Chinese Traditional Medicine. This relationship involves the mixing and balancing of the energies of the upper and lower body around the navel point. In Yogic practice, this is known as the balancing of the Prana and Upana.

Chips of Wild Yam are ready to use in a tea.

Chips of Wild Yam are ready to use in a tea.

It seems that in Belize, we must look at the remedies that are close at hand, and we will discover that they most likely apply to whatever health problems arise. Often we only need to venture as far as our own backyard to find the relief we seek.


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