Doctors today prescribe a synthetic form of the female hormone progesterone for women with menstrual problems, osteoporosis, and menopausal symptoms. In spite of the known side effects and risks associated with taking synthetic progesterone, most doctors believe that the benefits generally outweigh the risks.
The risks though are not inconsequential. In addition to unpleasant side effects such as fluid retention and salt build-up, synthetic progesterone is known to cause some serious illnesses such as blood clots and uterine and breast cancers.
Some women today are discovering, however, that they don't have to take synthetic progesterone. A natural and safer form of progesterone is readily available and is effective in relieving the symptoms for which synthetic progesterone is prescribed.
Marsha Sampson is a 40 year old woman who switched from the synthetic to a natural progesterone. For her unpredictable menstrual cycle - which had included wild mood swings and irritability - Sampson's physician prescribed the synthetic progesterone called Provera to help regulate her cycle. But the side effects were unacceptable to Sampson.
Using Provera made me so nervous, my heart began to palpitate," she says. "At first I thought my doctor had prescribed speed."
Sampson consulted an acupuncturist, who recommended that she take the progesterone found in an extract of the wild yam plant. The acupuncturist gave her a cream containing the extract and told her to rub it into the soft parts of her body - on her belly and thighs and under her arms - right up to the time her period began.
"After using wild yam for three months, I was shocked, " Sampson says. "I sailed right through my period. It was phenomenal. And my cycle became regular - every 30 days."
Wild yam's medicinal properties have actually been known for a long time by folk herbalists and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Daniel Mowrey reported in The Scientific Validation of Herbal medicine (Keats Publishing, 1986) that throughout the 18th and 19th centuries wild yam was used to treat menstrual cramps and problems related to child birth.
In 1936, Japanese scientists discovered that a species of wild yam growing in the south of Mexico contained a chemical called diosgenin, which is remarkably similar to progesterone. For a number of years following this discovery, Mexican wild yam was the primary source for the production of progesterone and other hormones. Until recently, wild yam - not to be confused with the tuberous sweet potato yam - was the sole source of the diosgenin used in making contraceptive pills. According to herbalist Rosemary Gladstar in Herbal Healing for Womem (Simon & Schuster, 1993), wild yam is "The most widely used herb in the world today." Over 200 million prescriptions that contain its derivatives are sold each year.
Although many physicians believe that there is no significant difference between synthetic and natural progesterones, others, such as New York City obstetrician Neils Lauersen, disagree. Lauersen says that some synthetic progesterones can have masculinizing effects on a woman, while others cause fluid retention. "Natural progesterone (from thre wild yam), on the other hand, does not cause masculinization, and is known to reduce sodium and fluid retention," says Lauersen, the author of PMS: Premenstrual Syndrome and You (Simon & Schuster, 1983).
John Lee, M.D., of Sebastopol, California, says that the reason synthetic progesterone causes side effects is because "Its not progesterone. The pharmaceutical companies alter the molecular structure so it no longer fits into the biochemical machinery of the body."
The progesterone taken from the wild yam, on the other hand, is nearly identical to what the body produces, Lee says. And the body easily converts it into the identical molecule. That is not the case with the synthetic compound.
Wild Yam has proved useful to women whose progesterone production has declined naturally, during menopause. For example, it prevents and heals osteoporosis, the disfiguring and potentially fatal brittle-bone disease. Osteoporosis becomes most severe following menopause, when women's bodies stop producing progesterone; Lee and many other doctors say progesterone is the key to maintaining healthy bones (despite the oft-heard advice that women take estrogen "replacement".
Lee has observed and treated 100 post menopausal women, many of whom had lost height, a sign of osteoporisis. Many also had suffered one or more fractures, Lee reported in the July 1990 issue of International Clinical Nutrition Review.
Lee used bone density tests to measure the effectiveness of natural progesterone. "It was common to see a 10 percent increase (in bone density) in the first six to 12 months and an annual increase of three to five percent until stabilizing at the levels of healthy 35-year-olds," Lee says. "Neither age nor time from menopause was an apparent factor. The faster increases occured in those with the lowest initial bone densities."
Lee adds, "The occurences of osteoporotic fractures dropped to zero."
Lee's results run counter to current medical thinking about osteoporosis. "The results of this study suggest that osteoporosis is not an irreversible condition,: he says. "Reversal has been demonstrated by the bone density tests and by the clinical results. This cannot be said of any other conventional therapy for osteoporosis."
Of equal importance, Lee says, supplementation with wild yam is safe. It imposes no increased risk of cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, or endometrial cancer, he says, and it has no side effects.
You can obtain wild yam progesterone as a cream, oil, tablet, or capsule through your physician or over the counter in pharmacies.
When using commercially prepared forms, the label should state that the product contains progesterone derived from wild yam or from an extract of wild yam.