Maca is a root vegetable that’s an important food for the people of the Andes mountains of Peru. The Inca, architects of the largest pre-Columbian American society, called it the “food of the gods.” It’s legendary as an aphrodisiac. Maca might look like an ordinary turnip, but there is nothing ordinary about the hardiness or health benefits of this unassuming plant. Let’s take a look at what makes maca so exceptional.
Traditional Uses for Maca
Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is a member of the Brassicaceae family — a huge plant family which includes broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, and radishes. As a member of the genus Lepidium, it is most closely related to cress and mustard.
According to the International Plant Genetic Resources Initiative, maca was probably first domesticated between 1,300 and 2,000 years ago. Legend has it that the Inca recommended that the Spanish feed their horses maca because they were suffering from low fertility in, what was for them, a harsh environment. (Unfortunately, that was a secret the Inca should have kept to themselves.) The Spanish grew to revere maca and accepted it from the Inca as a form of currency for paying taxes.
Today, maca makes up half of the diet of indigenous men, women, children, and seniors in the Andes. It’s the only crop besides potatoes that will grow in such harsh conditions — rocky soil, sub-zero temperatures, and regular snow even in the summer. This hardy plant actually thrives on intense sun, wind, and cold. Maca’s tuberous roots can be boiled, roasted, or baked. It’s sometimes added to a porridge called mazamorra or allowed to ferment into a beverage called maca chicha.
Maca is sometimes called Peruvian ginseng because it boasts ginseng-like properties. Like ginseng, maca is used to increase strength, energy, stamina, and libido. But maca is not botanically related to the true ginsengs such as Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius).
Is Maca Nature’s Viagra?
Maca has a long history of use as an aphrodisiac in both men and women. It’s not fully understood how maca works in this regard. Maca does not contain plant hormones and does not work by increasing levels of sex hormones like testosterone or estrogen directly. It’s thought that at least some of its properties are due to two groups of compounds unique to maca — the macamides and the macaenes.
Maca may work by normalizing steroid sex hormones like testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen. Maca is a nutritional powerhouse loaded with minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and essential fatty acids. It’s possible that maca’s rich nutrient profile supports normal hormone production.
Scientific research has failed to prove for certain that maca enhances sex drive. The experts admit that studying sexuality in humans is complicated since there are many psychological aspects that play a role. So far, most of the supporting evidence for maca’s efficacy has come from studies on lab animals, not humans.
However, just because researchers have yet to conclusively prove that maca is a sexual enhancer, does not mean it is without value. World renowned ethnobotanist, educator, and author Chris Kilham told WebMD.com that: “Maca enjoys a very long history of successful medicinal use for menopausal discomfort, infertility, and sexual healing. The question is not whether it works — because we know it works with certainty — but how it works.”
If you decide to try maca for a libido boost, don’t take a single dose and expect to feel the earth move! Unlike the little blue pill, maca needs to build up in your system to work. You can expect it to take about six weeks to kick in.
Maca For Women
Though maca is often thought of as a remedy for men with low libido or erectile dysfunction (ED), maca can help women as well. Maca can be used to treat hormonal imbalances, menstrual problems, menopause, and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
Maca may be a menopausal woman’s best friend. It balances levels of estradiol and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) to significantly reduce both the frequency and severity of the hot flashes, anxiety, depression, and sexual dysfunction that occur in menopause.
According to Harvard Medical School, 23 percent of women in their 40s and 50s take an antidepressant, usually a selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). A common side effects of these drugs is sexual dysfunction. One study found that 3 grams of maca per day had a significant positive effect on SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women.
What To Look For When Buying Maca
Maca may be a near-perfect food, but not everyone finds it to be the perfect supplement. Maca is available as a dried powder, capsule, or liquid extract. Since most people use powdered maca, let’s start with what you need to know about choosing a maca powder.
When shopping for maca powder, you’ll see some labeled as “raw” and others as “gelatinized.” Distributors of raw maca claim it is best because it includes the full spectrum of maca’s nutrients, including enzymes. Raw maca is a popular superfood among raw food enthusiasts. However, if you take a look at product reviews on maca, you’ll notice that an alarming number of people experience significant digestive distress with raw maca.
Gelatinized maca has undergone a process that removes unwanted starch to make the root easier to digest. Contrary to what it might sound like, gelatinization involves the use of heat and water and has nothing to do with gelatin, so vegetarians need not be concerned. This process increases maca’s bioavailability allowing even more nutrients to be absorbed than with raw maca.
One last argument for avoiding raw maca is that traditionally maca has always been cooked. The survival of the indigenous people of the Andes depended on maca, so I think we can learn from them. You’ll rarely go wrong listening to the wisdom of the ancients!
Whether you take powder or capsules, the standard dose for maca is 1,500 to 3,000 mg. Most maca capsules are 500 mg, so you’ll need to take three to six capsules per day. If you are concerned about digestibility, find maca capsules that specifically state they contain gelatinized maca. Most don’t.
There are also a few liquid maca extracts. Many studies use the extract rather than maca powder. Look for one that is either water or ethyl acetate-based.
When buying maca, quality matters. Chris Kilham reports on his website MedicineHunter.com that since maca is now seen as a natural alternative to Viagra, the demand for it has exploded throughout the industrialized world, especially in China. There is simply not enough high quality maca to go around, so you must be wary of buying inferior maca cultivated in China.
Upon returning from a fact-finding trip to China, Kilham laments, “China has been cultivating maca in Yunnan province for about ten years now, but the altitude there is lower than in the Peruvian highlands. Thus the maca must be grown with pesticides, herbicides, etc., and with commercial fertilizers, in contrast to the high altitude Peruvian maca, which is produced with no agritoxins at all.”
There are no known maca interactions with medications. However, it’s best to avoid maca if you have a thyroid condition. Maca is high in glucosinolates — compounds found in nearly all members of the Brassicaceae family. When taken in excess, glucosinolates can cause goiter, an abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland. This is especially likely if your diet is low in iodine.
While women of the Andes eat maca while they are pregnant and breastfeeding, the safety of using maca supplements during these stages has not been established. So it’s generally recommended that new moms and moms-to-be avoid maca to be on the safe side.
The Best Way To Use Maca
Once you’ve purchased your high-quality maca powder, what do you do with it? You will almost certainly want to disguise its flavor. Few people love maca for the taste. At best, it can be described as nutty; at worst, as tasting like dirty grass. Most people add it to smoothies. Start with one teaspoon per day and work your way up to one tablespoon or more as needed.
Maca has been an important food staple for thousands of years. If you are going to use maca, treat it more like a food and less like a supplement. That means consuming it with food whether you are taking it as a powder, capsule or extract in order to maximize availability and minimize your chances of digestive upset.