Bioidentical progesterone from yams?

A quick search on Amazon reveals dozens . . . maybe hundreds of companies that offer "progesterone" and "wild yam" products intended to treat menopause symptoms.

Wild yam bioidentical progesterone cream
Wild yam cream progesterone

I won't examine the value of these products in this post. Maybe I'll make a video about that in the future. I wanted to point out that these products seem to imply that . . . "progesterone comes from yams."

The late Dr. John Lee promoted the use of progesterone creams in his book, What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause, published in 2004. Nearly 20 years after Lee's death, his ideas still have a big influence on the thinking of women struggling with menopause symptoms.

The Cost of Bioidentical Progesterone in 1943

Back in 1943, progesterone was available in the pharmaceutical marketplace. It was so expensive that only the extremely wealthy could afford it.

At that time, the cost of raw progesterone powder to a pharmaceutical company was around $80 per gram.

A woman in menopause might receive 100MG to 400MG of progesterone per day. That makes the cost of the raw progesterone between $8 to $32 per dose.

In other words, the cost of the raw progesterone would go as high as $960 per month. But that's only the cost of the raw progesterone, not the price to the patient. Pharmaceutical manufacturers, drug wholesalers, and pharmacies would mark that cost up 5-10 times. That brings the price to the patient to $4800-$9600 per month (in 1943 dollars).

If we take inflation into account, that cost skyrockets. That's because the buying power of a dollar in 1943 was a lot more than it is in 2022. Consequently, the price to the patient (in today's dollars) comes to $78,787.90 on the low end, up to $164,426.91 on the high end.

My wife buys 400MG of progesterone from a compounding pharmacy for around $60 a month. What's up with the huge discrepancy?

Where Do We Get Bioidentical Hormones . . . Exactly?

There are 3 possible ways we can obtain hormones:

1. Hormones from Humans

We might want to try and get hormones directly from humans. That would mean we're getting exactly the same type of hormones. But this idea raises a bunch of questions:

  • What's the process of extracting hormones from people?
  • When we take hormones from humans . . . what happens to them?
  • Humans with hormones taken away might not have enough for themselves?
  • What are the ethical issues surrounding taking hormones from one person and giving them to another?
  • What about the ethics of paying humans to give up their hormones?
  • How much would human hormones end up costing?
Premarin Ad

2. Hormones from Animals

On the other hand, it might seem like a good idea to get hormones from animals. 

In fact, we've been doing exactly that for over 100 years. Doctors first used dried cow ovaries in the late 1890s to treat women in menopause. The result was that their symptoms improved. Animal hormones were crude, but they worked.

Unfortunately, animal hormones do have some major drawbacks.

Animal hormones often include ingredients aren't the same as human hormones and that can cause all sorts of problems.

The most well-known example of this is Premarin®. Approved in 1943, coincidentally, Premarin® comes from a natural source - the urine of pregnant mares. It contains a few useful hormones that are the same as human hormones - estrone and estradiol. Unfortunately, it also includes dozens of horse hormones that aren't found in humans.

I consider Premarin® to be a dirty, messy drug because of all the contaminants it contains.

3. Chemically Synthesized Bioidentical Hormones

The third option is to use chemical synthesis to create bioidentical hormones. That means hormones that are exactly the same as the hormones made in the human body.

Chemical synthesis creates, by definition, man-made hormones. In spite of this, synthesis of hormones is, in my opinion, the cleanest and most economically viable way to obtain bioidentical hormones.

Note: We Can't Get Bioidentical Hormones From Yams

It's important to recognize that plants do not make any human hormones. That's why "Get Hormones from Plants" is not an option in the list above. We simply can't get bioidentical progesterone from yams . . . at least not directly.

Although there's a widely-held belief that "progesterone comes from yams," that's not exactly true.

Russell Marker

Chemistry Professor Russell Marker of Pennsylvania State College

Russell Marker and The Marker Degradation

In the early 1940s, a professor of chemistry at Pennsylvania State College named Russell Marker was scouring the world for yams. Marker had a hunch that an ingredient in specific types of yams might be used in a chemical synthesis process to make synthetic hormones. The ingredient was called diosgenin and it was a member of a group of chemicals called sapogenins.

The yams Marker worked with were not at all like the ones we serve at Thanksgiving. They taste extremely bitter and would probably make you sick if you ate them.

Diascorea Mexican Wild Yam

Diascorea Mexican Wild Yam

Marker tried yams from Japan and various other countries. Eventually, he came upon a Mexican wild yam called diascorea that had high levels of diosgenin. After a few years of experiments in his chemistry lab, Marker discovered a way to turn diosgenin into progesterone. The chemical synthesis process he developed came to be known as "The Marker Degradation."

Eventually, the progesterone created in The Marker Degradation could be further changed to make estradiol, testosterone, and many other bioidentical hormones.

Bioidentical progesterone from yams via The Marker Degradation

The Marker Degradation

Impact of The Marker Degradation

Ultimately, The Marker Degradation made the manufacture of bioidentical hormones possible. In addition, the chemical synthesis of bioidentical progesterone led to the synthesis of many other hormones like ethinyl estradiol and norethindrone, which would become birth control pills that would lead to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the complete transformation of society.

Consequently, the revolution of hormone manufacturing meant that progesterone went from costing $80 per gram in 1943 to $0.48 per gram in 1951. Because of this giant decrease in costs, hormones are now available to many more people than they would have been in 1943.

Bioidentical Progesterone From Yams?

We can't really get hormones from plants . . . at least not directly. However, we can get diosgenin from specific types of wild yams . . . as well as other sapogenin compounds from soy and other plants. These sapogenins like diosgenin can be chemically synthesized into bioidentical hormones using The Marker degradation.

About the Author

I'm here to help with easy-to-understand patient education resources for both patients and healthcare practitioners. I save providers time in getting patients up to speed. I also love matching patients who need help with experienced hormone optimization practitioners.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Patients: Find help with your hormones

I have relationships with hundreds of hormone optimization specialists, all over the US and some in other countries. I can't guarantee that I know providers in your area, but I'll give it my best shot . . .

>