What is maca?

The benefits of maca and common side effects

Maca is a very hardy plant found in the Andes Mountains of Peru; it is exceptionally rich in minerals and is also known as Peruvian ginseng. It is known as a cruciferous vegetable and it is related to broccoli, cauliflower and kale. The root is the edible part of the vegetable which is like a cross between a radish and a parsnip. It has an earthy, nutty flavour and is usually eaten in powder form; the root is used to make medicine.

The plant is commonly used in Peruvian cuisine.

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So what is in Maca?

Its scientific name is Lepidium meyenii. It is sold as a ‘superfood’ because it has a strong nutritional profile. Maca contains:

  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Niacin (vitamin B3)
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Fatty acids
  • Amino acids

 

What is maca used to treat?

There is a range of benefits associated with maca when it is used medicinally:

  1. Increased libido - this is generally the best known benefit of the maca root. Studies have suggested that maca can in fact have the potential to help increase libido; there is some scientific evidence to support this claim. In a study published in 2002, it was observed that men who took between 1.5 grams and 3 grams of maca per day reported that they had raised libido as opposed to those who were in the control group and were only given a placebo. A later study carried out in 2010 also demonstrated some evidence to suggest that the root could improve a person's libido. It was noted however that more research into the claim is still required. Some menopausal women taking antidepressants may experience a loss of libido as a side effect. A study undertaken in 2015 suggested that maca root could help alleviate the problem.

  2. There may be some evidence that maca root can help alleviate issues for men with erectile dysfunction. In 2009 a study was carried out; the participants were men suffering from mild erectile dysfunction and after taking 2.4grams of maca root each day for twelve weeks, they described experiencing a perception of well being and sexual well being. The reports for those taking maca root were more significant than those in the control group suggesting that the maca root had helped improve the mild erectile dysfunction. This, however, can not be described as definitive proof.

  3. There are also claims that maca root can boost energy and improve endurance and the root is used in supplement form by some athletes. There is some evidence to support this; a pilot study carried out in 2009 showed that taking the maca root for fourteen days improved the performance of cyclists in a 40 kilometres time trial. The results, however, were not definitive as they were not sufficiently different from the results achieved by those cyclists who had been on a placebo. The study was very small so again, more research is needed.

  4. Maca root is used to increase fertility in men; a 2016 study suggested that maca root was responsible for increased semen quality in both fertile and infertile men. More research is needed.

  5. Improving mood - this could be attributed to the fact that maca root contains flavonoids which are believed to reduce anxiety and improve mood. A couple of small studies in groups of postmenopausal women has suggested that symptoms of anxiety and depression can be relieved when using maca root as a supplement.

  6. Reducing hypertension (high blood pressure) has been attributed to maca root and in one of the small studies mentioned above, taking 3.3 grammes of maca root per day lowered blood pressure in the group of post menopausal women.

  7. It is thought that the maca root may protect the skin from damaging UV radiation.

  8. Maca root promotes natural antioxidants such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase. The benefits of antioxidants are that they fight off free radicals which cause damage to cells in the body. It is believed that the risk of developing conditions such as heart disease and cancer can be reduced by antioxidants.

  9. Relief of menopausal symptoms by levelling the fluctuations in oestrogen levels may be one more benefit of taking maca root; one study demonstrated that postmenopausal women when they took maca daily reported a reduction in night sweats and hot flushes.

  10. It has also been reported that maca root can aid learning and memory. A 2011 study demonstrated that maca could improve memory in mice;  it has been suggested that maca root may have a contribution to make in the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease. To date, however, these studies have only been carried out on animals and much more research is required before any claims can be made as to its usefulness in treating humans.

  11. Maca has many other benefits that have been attributed to it.  These include its ability to treat anaemia, chronic fatigue, menstrual problems, osteoporosis, TB and HIV among others.

 

How effective is maca?

Whilst there have been a number of studies carried out and they appear to be showing positive early results, much more research is needed before any rock solid claims for its benefits can be made.

 

Side effects of maca

It seems that taking up to 3 grammes daily as a supplement is likely to be safe if taken for a period of up to four months. However, there is insufficient information about the safety of maca to suggest that it is safe to take when pregnant or breastfeeding. It is better under these circumstances to err on the side of caution and not take maca.

Whilst the studies which have been carried out need to be expanded and carried out in some depth, there appears to be a possibility that maca root can affect hormone production and for this reason, it should be avoided when suffering from hormone related conditions like some forms of cancer and thyroid disease.

 

Conclusion

Maca is a very exciting ‘super food’ supplement which has the potential to treat many of the conditions that humans suffer from.  In the future and with more in-depth studies we will be able to assess which conditions can benefit from maca root.

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