If you want to boost energy — increase libido — fight stress and reduce the risk for conditions such as diabetes or arthritis, then maca is for you.
In Peru, maca is a root vegetable that’s roasted or used in baking. Here in the US, this super food is available in supplement form and as a powder that you can blend into beverages or sprinkle on foods. Find out what maca can do for you…
The root of the maca (Lepidium meyenii) is shaped like a large radish. It is a cousin to other cruciferous plants, such as cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. In addition to its healthful fiber, complex carbohydrates and protein, maca provides numerous minerals, including calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur, iron, zinc, iodine and copper… vitamins B-1, B-2, C and E… nearly 20 amino acids, including linoleic acid, palmitic acid and oleic acid… as well as various plant sterols, which are natural cholesterol-lowering agents. All of these nutrients have been shown to promote health in a multitude of ways.
BOOST SEX DRIVE
Legend holds that in the era of the Incan empire, battle leaders provided maca to warriors to enhance their strength—then cut off the supply after the fighting ended to protect women from the warriors’ maca-heightened libidos.
Modern research has suggested that maca does indeed increase sex drive in men. One double-blind, randomized study published in the journal Andrologia examined the effect of maca on sexual desire in 57 men, ages 21 to 56. Participants took either placebos or 1,500 mg or 3,000 mg of maca daily. After four, eight and 12 weeks, they reported on their sex drive levels. Placebo users experienced no change in libido, while the men taking either quantity of maca reported heightened sexual desire starting at eight weeks and continuing throughout the study.
How it works: Maca’s libido-enhancing powers are attributed primarily to its amino acids and sterols, among other properties. Blood tests indicated that maca did not affect the men’s levels of the hormones testosterone or estradiol (a form of estrogen present in women and men). This is just one of maca’s virtues—it does not change hormone regulation in men.
A small study published in the Asian Journal of Andrology yielded some interesting results, indicating that maca also improves male fertility. Nine men, ages 24 to 44, received either 1,500 mg or 3,000 mg of maca per day. Compared with tests done at the outset of the study, semen analysis performed at the end of the four-month research period demonstrated that maca increased semen volume, sperm count and sperm motility at both dosage levels. Again, maca achieved these results by unknown mechanisms that were not related to increases in testosterone or other hormones.
SOOTHE MENOPAUSAL SYMPTOMS
For women, maca has a long-standing reputation for soothing menopausal symptoms. A study published in the International Journal of Biomedical Science details research at five sites in Poland, focusing on 124 women, ages 49 to 58, in the early stages of menopause. During the study, the women took varied combinations of either a placebo or 2,000 mg of maca every day. Results: Compared with placebo users, those taking maca experienced significant reductions—84% on average—in the frequency and severity of menopausal symptoms, particularly hot flashes and night sweats.
Bonus: In a substudy of the trial, researchers found that the women taking maca had a notable increase in bone density.
How it works: Blood tests showed that maca reduced follicle-stimulating hormone, which normally increases during menopause and is thought to be one cause of troublesome symptoms, such as hot flashes and night sweats. Study authors speculate that maca stimulates the regulatory mechanism responsible for optimizing ovarian function and estrogen secretion, significantly increasing the level of estradiol in a woman’s body.
It appears, then, that maca offers a safe and effective way to reduce menopausal symptoms—and it is unlikely to increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer, heart disease and stroke, as can non-bioidentical hormone replacement therapy.
We don’t know this for certain, but the fact that breast cancer is not among the leading causes of death in Peruvian women, despite a diet rich in maca, supports the assumption. In addition, increases in estradiol as a result of taking maca supplements may be safer than adding a hormone to a woman’s system because maca appears to stimulate the body’s natural estrogen production.
FIGHT STRESS AND DISEASE
Any kind of stress—from work, personal problems, illness, injury, toxins, hormonal imbalances or any other source—can negatively affect how our bodies function. Maca is what holistic doctors call an adaptogen, a plant or herb that boosts the body’s ability to resist, deal with and recover from emotional and physical stress.
Practitioners of traditional medicine from China and India have known about and made use of adaptogens for centuries, though the term itself was not coined until the middle of the 20th century. Well-known adaptogens include the herbs ashwagandha, ginseng, rhodiola and licorice root, all of which I have prescribed to my patients with much success over the years.
How it works: To be classified as an adaptogen, a natural substance must meet specific criteria. It must be nontoxic… normalize levels of chemicals raised during periods of stress… and produce physical, chemical and/or biological responses that increase the body’s resistance to stress.
Although all adaptogenic plants contain antioxidants, researchers do not believe that antioxidants alone account for adaptogens’ normalizing powers. Rather, it is thought that a variety of phytochemicals helps balance the dozens of endocrine, digestive and neural hormones that operate throughout the body—including insulin (which regulates blood sugar levels) and dopamine (which enhances and stabilizes mood). Many adaptogens also stimulate immune system components, leading to better immune function.
MORE OF MACA’S SUPERPOWERS
In addition to its documented beneficial effects on the human reproductive system, laboratory tests and animal studies suggest that maca may reduce the risk for…
- Arthritis—by promoting cartilage growth.
- Blood toxicity—by improving liver function.
- Diabetes—by allowing for better control over blood sugar levels and body weight.
- Digestive health—by combating ulcers.
- Fatigue—by increasing energy and endurance.
- Heart disease—by lowering levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides (a type of blood fat).
- Infertility—by stimulating production of estrogen and other hormones in women and boosting sperm count in men.
- Memory and mood—by enhancing certain brain chemicals.
- Osteoporosis—by increasing bone density.
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)—by regulating hormone levels.
- Prostate problems—by reducing prostate enlargement.
THE SAFEST WAY TO START
Maca generally appears to be safe, given its long history of use by Peruvians… but there are a few guidelines to bear in mind. Women who take estrogen to ease menopausal symptoms should talk to their doctors about using maca. They may be able to wean off hormone therapy or at least lower the estrogen dosage under a doctor’s supervision.
Breast cancer patients taking tamoxifen or other estrogen blockers and women who have had breast cancer must not use maca, because it raises estrogen levels. Women in a family with a strong history of breast cancer should discuss maca use with their doctors first. People who take thyroid medication should be monitored by their doctors because maca may increase thyroid activity. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not take maca, as a general precaution.
Since its long-term effects have not been scientifically studied, I recommend taking a break from maca now and then in order to give the body’s cell receptors a break from any hormone stimulation. People who want to try maca to see if it is a “super food” for them should take supplements for three months (six months for women with severe menopausal symptoms), then stop using maca for one or two weeks. They may then continue this regimen as needed for symptom relief.
HOW TO GET YOUR MACA
Maca is available in supplement and powder form. The average dose of maca supplements is 1,000 mg to 2,000 mg daily—which you can take with or without food at any time of day.
Or you can get your maca by adding powder to your favorite foods and drinks. It has a slightly nutty flavor, so you may enjoy mixing it with almond milk. Other ways to incorporate maca into your diet…
- Sprinkle on cereal (hot or cold).
- Mix into your favorite smoothie or protein shake.
- Add to yogurt or applesauce, perhaps with a little cinnamon.
- Stir into tea—especially chai blends, as the flavors complement each other.
- Use in baking—substitute maca powder for one-quarter of the flour in any recipe (no more, or it might affect texture or consistency).
I recommend organically grown maca products from Natural Health International, or NHI (888-668-3661, www.NaturalHi.com, available online or through naturopathic doctors). The company sells a blend for women called Femenessence MacaPause (the same blend used in the study of Polish women, who experienced significant improvement in their menopausal symptoms) and another for men, Revolution Macalibrium, formulated to enhance energy and vitality in men as they age.
Be aware: Maca powder has a high fiber content and may initially cause gassiness. I suggest beginning with one teaspoon daily, then gradually increasing your intake by one teaspoon every five days until you find your comfort zone. The optimum dosage is three to six teaspoons daily.