If you’ve read some of the previous articles I’ve written for Herb Affair then you’ll know that maca is one of my favorite adaptogenic herbs. I’ve been using it personally and professionally with clients for years to do everything from balance sex hormones and boost energy to improve libido and sexual function or reduce symptoms of menopause.
Adaptogens are natural substances that are non-toxic over the long term and generally help the body adapt to and cope with stress, while helping to normalize other bodily processes. In the case of maca, most of its mechanisms focus on balancing the endocrine system and keeping a vast array of hormones functioning optimally.
Maca root, often referred to as Peruvian Ginseng, is best used in cases where sex hormone balance has been affected by stress because it has a nourishing and modulating effect on the endocrine system through its action on the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. These glands are basically the bosses of the whole endocrine system, so if they’re functioning optimally, it can help ensure all the other glands down the line are receiving the proper signals on how they should be functioning as well, ensuring the proper amounts and ratios of steroid and sex hormones are being released.
Pure Maca Root Powder has a sweet, caramel-like flavor, which makes it a great addition to desserts, baking, chocolate, healing elixirs, and smoothies. Let’s take a closer look at where maca comes from and whether it might make sense to add to your functional nutrition cabinet!
History & Background of Maca Root
Considered one of the ‘lost crops of the Andes’, Maca root or lepidium Meyenii is a biennial plant from South America, namely Peru and Bolivia. Known as Peruvian ginseng, it is a root vegetable with a leafy herbaceous top, similar to the radish or turnip family, except that it grows at high altitudes of 8,000 to 14,500 feet. There is even record of Incan soldiers carrying maca root with them into battle to fortify their strength, ferocity, and endurance.
Maca was used by the ancient Peruvians as currency for trade and played an important role as a powerful plant medicine for 3,000 or more years.
During the time that the Incas controlled the Andes region, the maca root herb was considered to be so potent and valuable that its use was restricted to the royal court and the imperial family.
Later maca was imported to Spain and was used at court by the royals for its nutritious qualities, such as its high amino acid content, and for energy-boosting properties until eventually the knowledge of its health benefits and its use was lost.
There are a number of uses for maca root today and several means of preparation for consumption. The traditional methods are to cook the fresh or raw root, either by boiling and mashing to produce a thick sweetish liquid or by roasting it.
Raw maca has thick fibers and goitrogen content (compounds that can affect thyroid function), which tends to cause gastric disturbances if eaten. It can be fermented and used to make beer or dried and mixed with porridge and grains. It is also used in flour production and baking. There is even a freeze-dried Maca juice available. Its leaves can also be cooked or put raw into salads.
Processed maca powder has recently become popular in North America, where it enjoys status as a powerful adaptogen used by men and women for hormone balance.
How Maca Root Grows
The plant thrives only at higher levels with poor soils and needs to be rotated because it tends to exhaust the soil nutrients. It has played an important part in medicine and nutrition, as well as commerce for the regions in which it grows.
The leaves grow in a rosette pattern, lying close to the soil surface and they continually renew themselves from the center, those older leaves on the outer circle eventually drying out and dying off.
The small off-white flowers are self-fertilized and become small fruits that contain its seeds. The seeds germinate within a week, and as with all root vegetables there are variations in size and shape as well as color.
The color of the root is dependent on the various genetic varieties and specific phenotypes. The colors range from a yellow or cream to red or purple root to darker blue or black varieties.
The different colors are being examined and investigated to determine the specific properties for nutrition and its therapeutic qualities, but it is believe that yellow maca root is best used in cases of sexual dysfunction where libido has been decreased and where there is a desire for improved in sexual function. Some even go so far as to refer to it as natural Viagra, though these claims need more research to be fully verified.
Red maca is highest in amino acids, the building blocks of protein in the body, and is often recommended for those seeking out hormone balance, an increase in strength and stamina, or to help boost your mood.
Dark or black maca powder is often suggested for not only its aid in boosting fertility, but also for a general strengthening of the immune system and digestive function.
Rather than focus too closely on the different varieties of maca, it’s better to focus on the form that you purchase. I like to use a raw maca powder for health maintenance or a gelatinized form that is easier to absorb when I’m working with clients to support a specific imbalance. Always look for organic where possible!
Top Health Benefits of Maca Root
1. Maca Root Improves Menopausal Symptoms
Menopause is often a period of a women’s life that is looked at with trepidation thanks to the onset of symptoms such as hot flashes, mood swings, weight gain, decreased energy, diminished bone density, sexual dysfunction, and anxiety or depressive symptoms.
This study showed that when post-menopausal women took 3.5 grams of maca powder daily for six weeks their psychological symptoms, including anxiety and depression improved. They also saw an improvement in sexual function independent of hormone levels.
If the development of osteoporosis is worrying you as you approach menopause, maca may also help against estrogen-deficient bone loss.
If you’re peri-menopausal, currently menopausal, or post-menopausal and suffering from uncomfortable symptoms then it may be worth looking at maca powder as a beneficial addition to your functional nutrition arsenal.
2. Maca Root Boosts Fertility in Men
Unfortunately, many couples are currently struggling with infertility or difficulty building their family. With the cause of infertility being about 50/50 split between male and female causes, it’s always helpful to know where you can turn for natural physiological support.
In the case of maca, this study showed that supplementing with 1.5-3 grams per day was associated not only with an increase in sperm count, but also improvements in motility!
If you and your partner are struggling with infertility caused by sperm count or motility, then it may be worthwhile discussing the use of maca in your fertility treatment options!
3. Maca Root Improves Fertility in Women
As mentioned above, when it comes to struggles with fertility about 50% of the time it is happening in the female body.
Just as maca root has been shown to boost fertility in men, it has also shown promise when it comes to improving outcomes of pregnancy in females.
If you’re thinking about starting a family, talk to your healthcare provider about including maca powder in your pre-conception planning.
4. Maca Root Improves Sexual Well-Being in Men With Mild Erectile Dysfunction
For some reason ED is still somewhat of a taboo subject, despite that fact that up to 52% of men may struggle with it at some point in their lifetime.
Not only does ED impact sexual function and pleasure in the bedroom, but it can also take a heavy toll on the psychological well being of those who suffer from it.
This randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled study demonstrated that supplementing with approximate 2.5 grams of maca extra over 12 weeks improved erectile function and sexual satisfaction & well-being more than those on the placebo.
If you’re struggling with mild ED then maca may be a great way to help improve your sexual function and libido!
5. Maca Root Boosts Libido in Men and Women
With lives full of stress and myriad demands on our time its no wonder that our libidos can diminish over time, leaving us wondering when our inner fire has disappeared.
If you’re looking to bring some spice back to the boudoir then maca root may be just the herb for you.
Maca Root Contraindications and Precautions
As with all herb use, a note of caution should be added. That is the diagnosis of medical conditions and the consequent use of medicinal herbs to treat such, should always be undertaken with the guidance of professionals trained in the knowledge and use of such substances. I
n the case of Maca root you will want to consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner before incorporating it into your routine if you have thyroid issues, as it is high in iodine and glucosinolate and the possibility that over use may cause liver dysfunction is being investigated.