Recently I’ve been working with a patient who has unexplained fertility. She has two children, but she is now over 40. When I work with fertility patients, I carefully look at their basal body temperature (BBT) charts. I learn so much from examining these charts, which in turn allows me to fine-tune my treatment strategy and customized their herbal formula.
I noticed that in the second half of her menstrual cycle, the luteal phase is too short. Typically, after ovulation, the BBT should rise and stay that way for two weeks. After that, either menstruation begins, or the woman is pregnant.
In the case of this patient, her luteal phase repeatedly lasted only 10-11 days, which suggests there’s a progesterone deficiency. The word progesterone comes from Promoting Gestation. You can’t stay pregnant without it.
Fortunately, there are lots of natural ways to boost progesterone. I gave my patient the herb Vitex, which helped to lengthen her luteal phase. And I also suggested that she eat yams.
I come from a food background. I love helping people solve health problems by making better food choices. I’m also an herbalist, so I love foods that have medicinal value. I especially love it when food is part of our herbal repertoire. I’ve blogged about seed cycling to boost fertility, eating Brazil nuts to boost thyroid health and also the health benefits of seaweed.
So what’s up with Yams? Here are some yam facts:
- The botanical name for wild yam is Dioscorea villosa. We use the root of the yam for medicinal purposes. Wild yam contains a substance called diosgenin, which acts as a precursor to progesterone in the body.
- Yams are not sweet potatoes: A true yam is a starchy edible root of the Dioscorea genus, and often imported from the Caribbean. It is rough and scaly and very low in beta carotene. Sweet potatoes can vary from white to orange and even purple.
- To distinguish it from the white variety everyone was accustomed to, producers and shippers chose the English form of the African word “nyami” and labeled them “yams.” Hence the common confusion. I found a fun little pop quiz online to help tell the difference.
- True yams contain phytoestrogens which are weak estrogens that will inhibit the body’s estrogen production in women who are estrogen dominant. It’s common for women to have estrogen and progesterone imbalances.
- Better yet, Yams also contain a form of natural progesterone (dioscin). During the reproductive cycle, the body begins to produce increased amounts of progesterone in the luteal phase immediately following ovulation. Progesterone helps the lining of the endometrium grow and thicken. If an egg is fertilized after ovulation, the thickened endometrial lining creates a healthy environment for the growth of a fetus.
- The phytoestrogens and progesterone-like properties in yams can help regulate the hormone balance. Wild yam balances hormones to help regulate the body’s menstrual cycles. Regular cycles are crucial for women who are trying to conceive. Often, wild yams are compounded into topical creams to help.
In Chinese medicine, yams are called Shan Yao, 山药, shān yào and is grouped with tonic herbs. They are thought to be sweet and neutral. They enter the Kidney, Lung, and Spleen channels. Shan Yao nourishes the qi and the yin. Like most food-herbs, it can be consumed over a long period safely.
Shan Yao has a gentle and stabilizing nature. It helps balance moisture in the body. We might include it in formulas where digestion is weak, such as the pediatric formula Shen Ling Bai Zhu San Ginseng, Poria, and White Atractylodes Powder. We include them in formulas for chronic cough and wheezing. Sometimes they’re added to formulas to treat vaginal discharge.
Concerning fertility, Shan Yao is a key herb in the formula Liu Wei Di Huang Wan Six Flavor Rehmannia Pill. This formula is a backbone for many reproductive and gynecological issues ranging from infertility to poor endometrial quality to hot flashes.
Many fertility specialists modify this formula with blood tonics to help create a nourishing environment intended to improve the quality of cervical fluid, the egg itself and nourish the endometrium.
You don’t need to take a Chinese herbal formula to add yams to your diet. All you need to do is be a little adventurous in the kitchen. Yams are found in Caribbean and Asian food markets. To help get you started, we’ve created a Pinterest board with some recipes to help you get started eating yams. Do you have recipes for dishes with yams? Share them with us!
About Cara Frank, L.OM.
Cara Frank, L.OM. was raised in a health food store in Brooklyn, NY. When she was 8, she cartwheeled 5 miles from Greenwich Village through Soho and Chinatown and across the Brooklyn Bridge. For over 35 years, she has had the same crazy passion for Chinese medicine. At 17, she had her first acupuncture treatment. At 20 she enrolled in acupuncture school. In 1998 she went to China to study where she fell deeply in love with Chinese herbs. Since then, she has devoted her life to studying and teaching the topic.
Cara is the founder of Six Fishes Healing Arts and Six Fishes Neighborhood Acupuncture, both in Philadelphia where she maintains a busy acupuncture practice and acts as the head fish of two warm and lively offices. She is also the president of China Herb Company. You can read her full bio or schedule an appointment.