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Yucca Information & Facts

Yucca is the common name for several species of perennials of the Asparagaceae family. These plants are easily recognized by their tough, sword-like leaves and a spike of whitish flowers. They are native to North and Central America and thrive in hot dry climates. Today, they can be found worldwide and find widespread use in landscaping. While discussing the properties of the yucca plant and root, it is important to distinguish between yucca and yuca as they refer to two very different plants.

Confusion arises as yucca is well known in the western and central US and has long been used as a folk remedy for various ailments ranging from rheumatism to scalp treatment. Yuca root on the other hand (also known as cassava and manioc), looks like a long sweet potato tapering at one end and is grown and consumed in Africa and parts of Asia. It is a dietary staple in many countries, usually eaten in boiled or steamed form or as a flour to make dough.

Insufficient evidence exists to support the use of yucca or its extracts for any kind of ailment. This is due to the fact that not much research has been done on the yucca plant and root. One study did seem to indicate that Yucca schidigera contains saponins that may play a role in reducing cholesterol levels. It may also have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-fungal properties.

Native Americans have a history of using yucca leaves and roots to treat numerous conditions. Poultices made from the leaves were used to heal skin sores and for sprains. Yucca was also used for treating sprains, joint inflammation and even wounds. Extracts from the leaves and roots were used by them to treat dandruff and hair loss.

Several type of yucca supplements are available mainly using extracts from the Yucca schidigera species. They come in liquid, powder and capsule form. The supplements are also available in combination with other ingredients and marketed as dietary supplements. There is no proven safe dosage for yucca and its extracts and it will vary depending on the type of supplement used.

Yucca & Health

The actual health benefits of yucca are open to debate as not enough scientific research has been done on the plant. Its traditional use by Native Americans speaks of its use as an anti-inflammatory and an anti-fungal. This traditional use and a few studies do suggest that yucca may have a beneficial impact on some diseases.

Yucca contains saponins, a compound that may help in cartilage formation. In doing so it may help relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.  The saponins are both fat and water soluble and have soap-like properties. One study reported benefits to people suffering from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The authors speculate that the saponins in yucca may be responsible for blocking the release of certain toxins from the intestines. These toxins may otherwise interfere with the production of cartilage which protects joints. Pharmacological studies on humans, however, have yet to be conducted on the saponins in yucca.

Yucca tea has been used by Native Americans for the relief from symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. The tea is made by using about 8 grams of yucca root in a pint of water and letting the mixture simmer for about 15 minutes. The tea can be drunk periodically up to five times a day to provide relief from these ailments. Some sources suggest a dose of up to 2 grams of yucca in a capsule per day.

Yucca root also contains resveratrol, a polyphenol. Resveratrol is an antioxidant and can protect the body from the damaging effects of free radicals that harm cells and may cause some kinds of cancer. In one study conducted in vitro, extracts of one species of yucca were found to be effective in fighting melanoma cells. This study has, however, not yet been replicated on humans. While yucca root does contain resveratrol, yucca supplements are not marketed as having anti-cancer properties. This stems from the fact that there is hardly any scientific data available on yucca and its benefits.

Studies conducted by Korean researchers have shown that extracts of Yucca schidigera in combination with Quillaja saponaria had a beneficial impact on cholesterol levels in patients with high cholesterol levels. Other studies have shown that resveratrol and other phenolic compounds contained in yucca extracts reduced platelet adhesion and may be beneficial in protecting against cardiovascular diseases. These studies are also of interest to people suffering from diabetes as they are prone to developing coronary heart disease and have to keep a check on their cholesterol levels.

The anti-inflammatory properties of yucca may also be of help in cases of sarcoidosis, a rare autoimmune disorder that can affect almost any organ in the body. Extracts from the Yucca gloriosa flower have been studied for their anti-fungal properties against a variety of fungi. Yucca extract can also be given to pets to provide relief from allergies.

Side Effects

Yucca can sometimes have adverse effects on health. Some people have developed contact urticarial while handling the yucca plant. Skin prick tests and tests for IgE antibodies showed that these people were allergic to yucca. It has also been known to cause loose stools when taken in large amounts. In some experiments conducted in test tubes, the saponins in yucca can sometimes cause red blood cells to burst, a process known as hemolysis. At what levels this takes place is unknown. As yucca is used as a foaming agent in root beer and other foods, and no cases of hemolysis have been reported, yucca extracts are generally considered safe. Their use for more than three months in a row is not recommended as they may interfere with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins.  For these reasons, it is better to heed the warnings regarding dosage that appear on yucca supplements.

Submitted on January 16, 2014