What is Maca?
If you spend any amount of time searching for health or nutritional advice, you are very likely to have come across a variety of blogs and articles extoling the many virtues of a Peruvian superfood called maca. If you had not heard about maca until recently, you are not alone but it has been used by the people of Peru for thousands of years and is rapidly gathering a reputation for its excellent nutritional value and its wide range of health benefits.
Maca, which is also known as Peruvian ginseng, is an herb which grows high in the Andes region of Peru and Bolivia. The raw maca root has been traditionally dried, powdered and eaten to enhance strength, energy, vitality and perhaps more significantly to some of us; libido. The Western world is starting to take note and maca is often seen on the ‘must have’ list for smoothie recipes and in the kitchen.
Researchers have started to explore some if the substantial claims made by proponents of maca’s benefits which range from female menstrual issues to fertility. So what can maca do for you and why is it becoming so popular?
Maca is very nutritious and very low in calories. It is a rich source of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and iron and also contains vitamins B1 and B2 as well as vitamin C and vitamin E. Maca also has a higher quantity of fiber and protein when compared with other root vegetables.
As well as its nutritional content, maca has a number of substantial health benefits. Women in particular might benefit greatly from the effects of this Peruvian wonder plant.
What can you use Maca for?
1. Libido and Sexual Dysfunction
There is a long history of anecdotal evidence that suggests maca is a potent natural aphrodisiac which could help those struggling with their sexual desire and performance. Concrete scientific evidence that your sex drive will be enhanced by maca is difficult to come by but a few small scale studies have been positive.
Those studies which suggest it can improve sex drive are unable to say for certain why or how it works. However the studies have ruled out maca’s alleged ability to increase testosterone levels as the cause. Sexual dysfunction and desire depend on a host of factors which make firm conclusions even more difficult to make.
A study done by researchers from Northumbria University in 2009 concluded that maca supplements taken for 14 days increased both sexual desire and sporting performance. (1) The study was very small-scale however and further clinical trials are necessary before any firm conclusions can be made.
Despite the rather scant evidence, many people including some experts firmly believe that maca is indeed effective. Dr.Richard Brown, a specialist in complementary medicine and clinical psychiatry professor at the University of Columbia says that maca is especially helpful in treating sexual dysfunction brought on by anti-depressant medication. Dr. Brown also states that maca is the only natural therapy that actually works effectively on the libido.
One of the traditional uses of maca was to enhance fertility and with fertility rates dropping and few signs that the trend will be bucked, many people are looking towards natural treatments to fix their problem. Some people claim that maca can increase sperm count in men and improve both male and female fertility.
Again, there is little evidence to back up these claims and scientific research is in its infancy. The only research done so far has been on animals but the results have so far been promising.
One study on rats demonstrated that maca enhanced the levels of serum in the pituitary gland which is linked to female fertility and concluded that the study supported the traditional claims regarding the fertility effects of maca.(2)
For the millions of women all too familiar with the unwanted effects of menopause, maca can potentially help you to deal with them. There are several studies that suggest that maca balances hormonal levels during menopause but a recent review recommends caution in interpreting the results questioning the size and quality of the research but even so, results have been promising.
One recent study showed that post-menopausal women treated with maca supplements had a significant reduction in menopausal symptoms including hot flushes compared with the placebo group. (3) The researchers suggested that maca had the potential to reduce menopausal discomfort and might be an alternative to hormone replacement therapy.
If you suffer from irregular menstruation cycles, maca can help your body to regulate them. Maca can also help women to ease many of the other unwelcome symptoms of menstruation such as breast tenderness, mood swings and clarity.
If you are suffering from anxiety or depression then maca might help though it should be noted that a lot of the evidence for this is anecdotal and the only clinical trials has been done on animals. The internet is however full of shared personal experiences regarding maca’s ability to enhance mood and focus the mind.
A study on mice in 2006 concluded that maca demonstrated anti-depressant potential as well as showing beneficial effects on brain function and learning. (4)
6. Energy and Endurance
Maca contains many of the nutrients essential for good athletic performance such as fatty acids, minerals and protein and it has been traditionally used to enhance energy and vitality. Some research lends credibility to the claim (1), so whether you are an athlete or you are simply feeling fatigued and just want a bit more bounce in your step, adding maca to your diet can do you no harm.
Many people report that maca helps them to maintain healthy skin and can even help to reduce skin blemishes and acne.
8. Bone Density
As women get older, maintaining bone density becomes problematic. Certain studies on post-menopausal women have demonstrated that maca can increase markers linked to bone density. (5)
Is Maca Safe?
Considering that Peruvians have been eating maca as a staple for thousands of years with no ill effect then it is safe to assume that maca is a safe and healthy addition to your diet. However, as with other supplements, you should be careful when you start using it for the first time.
It is always better to start with small amounts and build up your intake gradually just in case it throws your hormones off course. Maca is food so it would be very difficult to overdose on it but I have heard reports of nervous energy and quickened heart rate when it is taken in excess.
How to Use it
Maca is pretty easy to get hold of these days. It is readily available in tablet, capsule and powdered form.
- The recommended daily dose is between 300 and 450mg a day which equates to around 2-3 teaspoons of powder daily.
- If you are taking the powder, it is probably best to start with as little as ½ a teaspoon a day and increase the dose on around the third or fourth day.
Assuming you have decided to use the powdered variety of maca, how should you take it?
You can simply add maca to your shake, yogurt or breakfast cereal or sprinkle it over your salads. Maca should not be added to very hot drinks or cooking because it will lose all of its therapeutic benefits.
The Peruvian health ministry suggests that maca should be treated like any other food product and only eaten sporadically so as your body doesn’t become overly used to the product and find the benefits lapsing.