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It enhances libido, balances hormones, and might even be a form of hormone replacement therapy, so say certain maca marketing materials, which appear to be based on rodent studies funded by those very same supplement marketers. But what do quality, independent studies on humans have to say? And what about traditional use and indigenous rights of the people who have been growing maca as their primary food source for millennia? Let’s get to the root of maca.
What Is Maca?
For thousands of years, a radish-like root called maca has been persuaded out of the planet’s worst farmland high in the plateaus of the Peruvian Andes: rocky soil blasted by high winds, intense sunlight, and high temperatures alternating with subfreezing temperatures. It is said that maca, Lepidium meyenii, an herbaceous perennial (grown as an annual) in the Brassicaceae (Cruciferae) family, is the world’s most elevated cultivated food crop, growing at 12,500-14,500 feet above sea level. There are several varieties of maca including red, white, yellow, and black.
Highly nutritious, maca has been used as a staple food source by the people of Central Peru for thousands of years, as well as a ceremonial offering in traditional sacred rites, as currency, and as medicine to improve overall health in both animals and people. The Incans first domesticated the plant over 2,000 years ago, and in the 1550s a Spanish conquistador chronicled his observations of traditional maca use in the Peruvian highlands.
Maca is nutrient-dense and is rich in copper, vitamin C, and potassium as well as trace elements like iodine, iron, and zinc, fatty acids, and amino acids. Dried maca root consists of about 10-14% protein and 60-75% carbohydrates. In terms of daily nutrient value, 100 grams (about 20 teaspoons) of maca powder contains 475% vitamin C, 82% iron, 25% calcium, 300% copper, 57% potassium, 29% niacin, and 57% vitamin B6.
Fresh maca is eaten either roasted or baked, while dried maca is made into a fermented health drink called maca chica or incorporated into jams, porridges, and puddings.
Native Peruvians recommend cooking maca before consumption – by many accounts raw maca appears to be a North American trend not based on traditional use. Like other cruciferous members of the Brassicaceae family, maca contains a chemical called glucosinolate, a sulfur compound with many health benefits that may interfere with thyroid hormones in some people if consumed in high amounts. Glucosinolate concentration is significantly reduced when maca and other brassicas (kale, bok choy, broccoli, etc.) are cooked. Raw maca has been known to cause digestive upset in some folks.
Maca as Medicine
Western herbalists have classified maca as an adaptogen, which are those plants (often found growing in hostile climates and terrain) that enhance the human body’s ability to adapt to stressors such as poor diet, lack of sleep, environmental assaults, and emotional imbalances. Adaptogens help modulate functions of the body without having a strong effect on any one particular system or disrupting the balance of the individual.
Peruvians use maca to improve energy and endurance, for reproductive disorders including infertility in both men and women, to stimulate the immune system, and to help with menopausal symptom, menstrual problems, and other health problems including memory loss and some cancers.
Worldwide, it has become a trendy herb for enhancing fertility and sexual performance, balancing hormones, and even as a potential alternative for hormone replacement therapy; however, the latter claim is primarily based on product-sponsored studies by marketers and manufacturers of maca. Independent studies do not show any change in hormone levels in either men or women; the mechanism by which it acts is likely independent of hormonal influence.
One idea to consider, as pointed out by naturopath and herbalist Leslie Taylor, is that Peruvians consume up to a pound of maca root a day and as yet do not appear to exemplify the fertile images of super human virility one might expect (if the marketing claims are true); on the other hand, the herbal supplement labels in the U.S. recommend up to just a few teaspoons or capsules of powdered root a day. It would not seem that such small amounts could have an effect, yet those small amounts do show some results, as we shall see in the following section. Gelatinized maca, which has had much of its starch removed, is more concentrated than other types of preparations. (Gelatinization refers to a specific process of starch removal and does not refer to gelatin encapsulation.)
What Does Science Say About Maca?
Independent (those not funded by the supplement companies) human studies on maca have not shown any change in circulating hormone levels, but an increase in subjective feelings of enhanced libido has been noted for both men and women. One small study showed a slight decrease in sexual dysfunction induced by selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) during maca supplementation in patients taking 3 grams of maca; those taking 1.5 grams a day did not experience improvement. A study on nine men taking 1.5-3 grams a day showed an increase in seminal volume and sperm count and motility, but again, hormone levels were unaffected.
A product-funded study showed an increase in estrogen and a suppression of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) in early postmenopausal women who took 2 grams of gelatinized maca a day. In contrast, an independent study evaluated postmenopausal women who took 3.5 grams of maca daily, but there was no difference between the baseline, maca treatment, or placebo in serum concentrations of estradiol, follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, or sex hormone-binding globulin.
A systematic review of maca’s effect on menopausal symptoms noted high risk of bias for several of the published studies, and revealed that very few rigorous studies on maca have been conducted. In the end, the review authors concluded that while there is some evidence for maca’s effect on menopausal symptoms, the number of trials, their size, and their quality were too limited to draw firm conclusions of any kind. It would also be beneficial to see more studies using the more concentrated, gelatinized form of maca on humans.
The most recent study (in 2014) on maca was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study of 29 post-menopausal women taking 3.3 grams of maca a day. As seen in other independent studies, hormone levels remained unaffected; however, both blood pressure and depression levels significantly decreased. It appears that the benefit maca confers is independent of reproductive hormone levels.
Maca and Indigenous Rights
Maca was at the center of an indigenous rights battle after several international supplement companies were granted patents in the U.S. for “inventions” related to maca root, allegedly financially benefiting from traditional knowledge without adequately providing compensation or securing permission to use that knowledge.
While it appears this issue has been mostly resolved, I advise carefully researching maca product companies to assess their relationship with indigenous farmers and their environmental policies. Don’t hesitate to contact companies and ask specific questions about their practices. Acting with sensitivity towards traditional knowledge and taking a stand against biopiracy is the responsibility of the holistic-minded and conscientious herbalist.
As a supplement, maca offers many vital nutrients that can support vibrant health and it does appear to increase libido, but one should perhaps not expect miracles such as the sort as are promoted by some marketers. I recommend seeking out maca from ethical companies who work closely and respectfully with farmers and who use organic and fair-trade farming practices.
If you experience digestive issues with maca or have a thyroid problem, try the gelatinized maca or be sure to cook your maca before consuming.
Maca has a mild butterscotch flavor and can be added to smoothies, baked goods, yogurt, and other foods as a nutritional supplement. (Check out our Summertime Maca Smoothie recipe!) It can also be taken as an herbal infusion. Below is a recipe for Maca-Roons: date-sweetened maca-fortified macaroons that are delicious and nutritious!
Yield 20 macaroons
½ cup coconut butter
¼ cup organic gelatinized or regular maca root powder
1 cup shredded coconut
7 medium sized Medjool dates, pitted
¼ cup plus 2 tbsp water
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
Dash of salt
Pre-heat oven to 150 degrees Fahrenheit – just warm enough to dehydrate the macaroons.
Mix the coconut butter, maca root, shredded coconut, and salt in a bowl.
Remove the pits from the dates, and place into a blender with the ¼ cup water. Blend until smooth.
Pour date mixture and vanilla into the dry ingredients and mix until well combined.
Scoop out a tablespoonful of the mixture at a time and place onto a baking sheet.
Place in the warmed oven for 25 minutes, then let cool. Store in the fridge and enjoy!
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Photos provided by and copyrighted to Annie Hall, Herbal Academy of New England.