Maca is a root vegetable that only grows at very high altitudes – between 4100 and 4500 metres – high in the Andean mountains of Peru and Bolivia. It’s tradition as a celebrated food and medicinal plant for the peoples of this region, including the Inca, goes back over several millennia. Oral histories attribute the Inca’s reputed longevity (over 150 years of age), clear thinking and reproductive ability at 100 years old or more to their regular dietary consumption of maca root. During the period of Spanish colonisation of the Americas maca root was used as currency because it was so highly valued.
Also known as Peruvian ginseng, maca is a brassica belonging to the same plant family as turnips, radishes, broccoli and watercress and is closely related to the latter. Maca goes by two botanical names, Lepidium meyenii and the more recent and commonly used Lepidium peruvianum chacon. Both names refer to the same plant.
Maca roots grow in a variety of colours: gold, cream, red, purple, blue, black and green. The most common are the cream variety, preferred in Peru for their sweetness and size. Blue and black maca roots are favoured for their energising properties and both sweet and bitter principles come through in their flavour. Red maca is also gaining popularity. Most of the maca cultivated in Peru is grown organically, with much of it now exported around the world for the health supplement industry.
Why is maca root held in such high regard?
Maca root’s popularity throughout Peruvian history as a nutrient-rich endurance food is probably due in large part to its aphrodisiac properties. It is celebrated for enhancing energy and strength, providing stamina and mental clarity, and improving libido, sexual function and fertility in both sexes. As an energy booster it is a safe and reliable substitute for your morning caffeine hit.
As a whole food rich in amino acids, complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, fibre, vitamins and minerals, maca’s tonic properties support and nourish every system of the body in both men and women.
Our endocrine (glandular) system controls and regulates the body’s activities by releasing hormones, the chemical messengers that influence all our functioning. Maca root is a potent natural hormone regulator and balancer, but does not contain hormones itself. Its high nutrient concentration, including phytosterols, directly feeds the endocrine system, creating conditions for optimal functioning. This action is the key to maca root’s reputation as an energy boosting food.
Maca root is effective in restoring adrenal function, normalising thyroid and pancreas activity, treating hypoglycaemia, enhancing thymus mediated immunity and optimising reproductive hormone activity.
Whole Maca root’s action is adaptogenic, which means it works in the body in response to the individual taking it, specific to their needs, sex and stage of life.
Peruvians prepare and eat maca root in several ways, although traditionally it is always cooked. This traditional use suggests that cooked maca root may be more potent than the raw form used in some dried powder supplements. Cooking breaks down fibre, aiding digestion and absorption of nutrients. Cooking also deactivates the glucosinolates present in many of the brassicas, including maca, which inhibit thyroid function and cause goitre. Taking maca root in the form of an alcoholic tincture is another way to increase potency and medicinal action.
Key nutrients contained in Maca include:
- Calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silica, sodium, selenium, zinc, manganese, copper and iron – all essential minerals. Darker coloured (red, purple and black) maca roots also contain high concentrations of natural iodine.
- The fatty acids linolenic acid (omega 3) and oleic acid (omega 9)
- 19 amino acids
- Vitamins B1, B2, B12, C and E
Important research shows maca root is superior to hormone replacement therapy
Dr. Gloria Chacon de Popovici, a Peruvian doctor, has been studying maca root’s properties since the 1960’s. Her research has identified maca’s specific stimulating effect on the pituitary gland. This discovery has huge implications for women currently relying on hormone replacement drug therapy (HRT) to regulate menopausal symptoms.
Taking maca root during peri-menopause helps keep the endocrine system in balance and facilitates a smooth transition into menopause. Clinical case studies show maca root’s beneficial effect on a range of menopausal symptoms including vaginal dryness, hot flushes, breast tenderness, insomnia, mood swings, flooding or reduced flow and PMS.
Because maca itself does not contain any hormones, its endocrine action is synergistic with the body’s natural functioning, unlike conventional hormone drug therapy which can dangerously affect women’s long term health. HRT causes the ovaries to atrophy whereas maca has been proven effective even for women who have had radical hysterectomies. By stimulating adrenal production of the reproductive hormones, maca increases post menopausal secretion to levels adequate for maintaining healthy function and minimising common symptoms of menopausal hormone imbalance.
Osteoporosis is the condition of weak and porous bones associated with post-menopausal Western women, and often treated with HRT. Red maca root has been compared with HRT in animal studies and found to be superior in its beneficial effect on osteoporotic bones. Its hormone regulating effect combined with high levels of bioavailable calcium and magnesium give maca root the advantage over conventional drug treatment.
Dr Chacon’s research revealed that alkaloids contained in maca root act on the hypothalamus-pituitary axis, the master glands of the endocrine system, in a gender-appropriate regulation of function. Fertility increases in both sexes, with improved sperm production in males and egg maturity in females – important factors in preconception health.
Women taking maca for relief of menopausal symptoms reported improvement in their hypothyroid condition. Some were able to reduce their thyroid drug gradually until stabilising at 50% of their former dosage. A few stopped their medication altogether after 2-3 months on maca root. Only cooked maca (the red variety for its iodine content) is recommended for thyroid imbalance, as raw maca contains goitrogens which inhibit iodine uptake.
Research is now focused on red maca’s estrogen-related effects on breast and uterine health.
What other health conditions can maca assist?
Science is now verifying properties of maca root known by Peruvians for centuries. Several clinical trials show maca root influencing various symptoms of sexual dysfunction in both men and women:
- improved sperm production, motility and semen volume in men
- assists erectile tissue response in men
- heightened libido in both sexes
- can enhance mood and decrease anxiety, both factors having a positive effect on sexual desire
- Some SSRI antidepressants cause sexual dysfunction and one pilot study showed positive outcomes with maca root alleviating this drug-induced effect
This is why maca root is sometimes referred to as “nature’s viagra”. More good news for men is that red maca root has been shown in animal studies to reduce prostate enlargement.
- As an adrenal agent maca supports and nourishes fatigued adrenal glands and can help relieve symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
- The commonly experienced “brain fog” associated with CFS responds well to maca root.
- Through as yet unexplained mechanisms involving complex interactions within the endocrine system, uterine fibroids in women taking maca root have dissolved within two to three months.
- Animal studies using topical applications of maca root have shown its effectiveness in protecting against damage from ultraviolet sunlight.
- There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of maca’s beneficial properties, including as a memory enhancer, energiser, anti-arthritic, immune booster and a tonic for stress and attention deficit disorder (ADD).
Are there any contraindications or adverse effects reported?
As an adaptogen, maca root produces no negative effects on the body when consumed within the normal dosage range.
While no human scientific studies have been done to verify maca root’s safety during pregnancy, remember as a wholefood it has been consumed by Peruvians as part of their normal diet for centuries and they commonly eat it while pregnant. Studies on mice have shown maca root enhances birth weight. Many, but not all, supplement manufacturers adopt a cautionary principle, advising against using maca root during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Some adverse effects of maca root supplementation can be experienced – such as palpitations, mood swings, sweating, anxiety, panic attacks, nausea and hot flushes. As these are all symptoms that maca root is known to relieve, one explanation may be that taking too much of the supplement is causing the body to ‘prove’ the remedy. In other words you can have too much of a good thing, and overloading your body with a nutrient rich food like maca can over stimulate your metabolic responses.
What is the recommended daily dosage?
Maca root as a whole food can be cooked and eaten as part of your regular diet, with intake regulated by the natural controls of appetite and stomach capacity.
When taken as a supplement, a certified organic whole maca root form is recommended. Supplements usually come in capsules or powders and in either raw or cooked form. You can use the supplier’s recommended dosage as a guideline and start with a lower daily dose, gradually increasing it until you find the amount that feels optimal for you within the range given. In this way your body will adapt to the rich nutrient intake without any initial discomfort.
As any initial symptoms reduce or disappear, you may need less maca root to maintain equilibrium. Reduce your dosage accordingly.
Importance of sustainable harvesting and pollution free sources
Despite its long history of cultivation and favour, maca was close to extinction in the late 1970’s. An unstable political system and changes in eating trends combined to reduce the crop to unsustainable levels, and only careful seed saving and planting by small native Peruvian populations preserved maca for future generations, and subsequently global distribution.
Maca crops in their natural high altitude environment require no pesticides and are generally grown organically and hand harvested. Look for products that are certified ‘sustainably harvested’, as maca root export has become a huge international business with the inherent risks to environmental stewardship.
Scott Wilson article http://www.macaroot.com/history/articles.html history
En Peru http://enperublog.com/2008/10/12/maca-2/ HRT
Thyroid-info http://www.thyroid-info.com/articles/viana-muller-herbs.htm hypothyroidism, fibroids
Maca Data http://www.macadata.com/articles_menopausal.php
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18201354 UV protection
http://examine.com/supplements/Maca/ summary of research findings
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