Maca root is a natural remedy that is thousands of years old, but has only resurfaced in the last decade as a popular supplement for a number of health conditions.
It is considered a superfood because of it’s nutrient density.
What is Maca Root?
Maca is a cruciferous root vegetable that is about the size of a radish and belongs to the same family as broccoli, cauliflower, watercress, turnips, and cabbage. It is native to Peru, in the Andes mountains, where it grows in extremely harsh conditions at a very high elevation.
It is rich in antioxidants and other nutrients, which is why it has superfood status. Maca can range in color from white to pink to yellow to black, with the different varieties having slightly different flavors and nutrient profiles.
Maca is a great source of several nutrients, including both protein and fiber. It also contains vitamin C, iron, B vitamins, zinc, and copper, along with all eight amino acids that are essential, and 12 more nonessential ones.
One tablespoon of maca contains 45 calories, 10 grams of carbohydrates, and one gram of fiber.
Maca is most often available as a powder, made from drying the root vegetable and grinding it down. It has a pleasant but earthy taste, with some people comparing it to unsweetened butterscotch.
While most use it in powder form, native Peruvians eat the cooked root just like any other vegetable, and it is also available in tincture or capsule form.
Maca is also classed as an adaptogen, which is a group of foods and herbs that helps the body “adapt” to and handle stress better, including ashwagandha, astragalus, holy basil, ginseng, and elderberry.
Health Benefits of Maca Root
Maca has numerous research-backed health benefits that range from fertility to athleticism to depression, and much in between. While the body of research isn’t as deep as it could be, maca has been more well-studied than many other supplements.
Because it is considered as a generally safe supplement and doesn’t seem to have many pharmaceutical interactions, it is a popular supplement at health food stores.
Reproductive health and fertility
Because maca can counterbalance estrogen dominance and general hormone imbalance, it can help to improve fertility in both women and men.
It does not physically boost these hormones themselves, but it creates an environment where the body is more equipped to produce balanced levels. It also has a therapeutic effect on women who have PCOS, by reducing androgen hormones and symptoms like male pattern hair growth, weight gain, and acne.
In men, Maca can help improve both the quality, quantity, and motility of sperm, which are all important factors in fertility, and can sometimes mean the difference between being able to conceive or not.
Almost all men saw sperm improvements in as little as four months of regular use.
Sexual health and function
In women, maca benefits female sexual health on several levels. It can help boost libido, especially in menopausal women, and in women who are post-menopausal or on antidepressants and experiencing sexual dysfunction and loss of orgasm.
Maca can also help to restore normal sexual function. Maca is also tolerated well and doesn’t have noticeable side effects for most who take it. In men, maca can also help to restore normal sexual function and desire, especially in older men. It is sometimes referred to as “nature’s viagra” for this reason.
It can also help to shrink enlarged prostates and reduce the frequent urge to urinate, while acting as a protector of testicular health. Most men and women notice improvements in as little as six weeks of regular, daily supplementation of at least one tablespoon.
Energy levels and fatigue
Maca is a natural energy booster that many compare to caffeine, but without the side effects or dependence. It produces a more natural energy that is void of the typical caffeine jitters, and tends to have a longer-lasting effect than a cup of coffee, especially when taken regularly for two weeks or longer in the morning.
For a morning boost, maca can be added to a smoothie, a bowl of oatmeal, sprinkled over granola, or stirred into butter and spread over bread.
Memory and neurological health
Because of the antioxidants in maca, it can help to prevent neurological damage with regular use. It can also help to improve memory and even improve symptoms of brain fog or confusion, also due to the antioxidant activity.
In Peru it is common to give maca to school aged children to improve their focus and performance in regular educational activities, learning, and tests.
Free radical scavenging
Maca finds and scavenges free radicals that can cause inflammation and other chronic problems in the body. Because it’s an antioxidant, it naturally boosts other antioxidants like glutathione and superoxide dismutase, which are essential for cellular, digestive, liver, and metabolic health, and so much more.
Maca has a balancing effect on the adrenal glands, which in turn can help to stabilize other hormone levels since the adrenals produce stress and sex hormones.
Maca can also independently balance male and female sex hormones without having a direct hormone effect. It seems to stabilize the various organs that produce hormones, without having hormone components itself. Maca can also provide relief from estrogen dominant symptoms of menopause.
It can reduce hormone-associated symptoms of the menstrual cycle like bloating, cramping, and PMS. Maca can also relieve the more interfering symptoms of menopause, like night sweats and hot flashes.
Some research has found that Maca can alleviate the symptoms of depression by having an elevating effect on the mood and overall energy levels. (Source) Some research found that it could greatly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety after just six weeks of regular use.
(Source) While maca is by no means a direct replacement for antidepressants, it can potentially work in conjunction with them, or reduce the length of time on them.
Maca can help to reduce inflammation in the body and as a result, can help to stabilize blood sugar. Maca also contains protein and fiber, which can help to slow how the body uses glucose.
For maximum blood sugar benefits, maca should be taken once or twice daily, in the morning and afternoon, paired with a meal that contains ample amounts of protein.
Some research shows that maca can reduce high blood pressure after regular use, similar to dose-specific pharmaceutical medication.
However, more research is needed to thoroughly understand how maca works with the cardiovascular system, so it should not be supplemented for high blood pressure unless directed by a physician.
Some experts recommend avoiding maca if thyroid issues are present, because it is a goitrogen, but many others believe that the positive benefits outweigh the fact that it is cruciferous.
Maca has been shown by some research to boost thyroid function, especially in cases of straightforward hypothyroidism. It can have an energizing effect on the metabolism, which is regulated by the thyroid.
Because it is an energizing food, some suspect that it can produce an unpleasant effect on people suffering from hyperthyroidism, but others praises its balancing impacts on disturbed hormone levels.
Ultimately, anyone who has thyroid issues should check with their medical provider before adding maca to their nutritional regimen.
Research has found that maca can help to protect bone density and health in men and women when taken regularly. As natural aging occurs, bones become less dense and more brittle, but maca can help to naturally counter some of this effect.
Maca might even be able to help prevent osteoporosis.
Chronic arthritis pain
Some research indicates that regular intake of maca can help reduce chronic pain symptoms associated with various forms of arthritis. It can also improve stiffness and the ability to physically function.
Maca can lead to reduced weight and fat by helping to balance the hormones that can often lead to weight gain or the inability to lose weight, primarily cortisol, which is also known as the stress hormone.
It also contains fiber and many micronutrients that can address underlying causes of weight gain, such as poor digestion, hormone imbalance, or stress.
Cholesterol and triglycerides
Because of the high volume of antioxidants in maca, it can decrease cholesterol and triglycerides with regular use, while reducing inflammatory markers that are associated with problematic triglyceride and LDL levels.
Maca is often used by athletes, such as those who run, bike, or swim, as well as bodybuilders to gain muscle and increase strength, potentially improving overall performance.
It has even been shown to improve performance time in as little as two weeks. (Source)
When maca extract is applied directly to the skin, some research shows that it can help protect the skin from long term UV damage.
Even so, maca doesn’t replace sunscreen but can be used in combination with it to help prevent sun damage, thanks to the high antioxidant levels. This can be especially beneficial in cases of lots of repeated sun exposure.
Maca extract has also been used topically to address skin issues like acne, eczema, and psoriasis, although the long-term success rates are mixed.
For acne, the extract should be dabbed directly onto breakouts, and for eczema and psoriasis, the extract or powder should be mixed with coconut or another carrier oil and applied as a moisturizer.
Discontinue if any redness or irritation occurs.
How to Take Maca
Maca is available in many forms, but powder is most common. If you’re new to taking it, start with one teaspoon daily and work up from there, or follow the recommended serving size on your product.
Maca has an earthy, nutty, slightly sweet taste that makes it work well in dishes like oatmeal or smoothies, and it’s gluten-free and Paleo-friendly.
Because of the high antioxidant content, maca should not be heated or cooked to maintain the integrity of the nutrients. Instead, add it to oatmeal after cooking, or blend directly into a cold smoothie.
The positive effects of maca only work when taken regularly, typically for at least two to four weeks or longer.
After taking maca consistently for six to twelve weeks, it can be beneficial to take a week off, or to reduce maca intake to just five or six days per week, to reduce long-term dependence on it.
Where to Buy Maca
Maca is widely available in powder or capsule form both in health stores and at online retailers. When purchasing maca, it’s important to verify that it is 100 percent pure, and that there are no added or extra ingredients.
Since the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements as strictly as pharmaceuticals, it’s important to verify that you’re choosing a quality brand by researching their harvesting and production practices. Consuming adulterated maca would reduce or nullify the positive health benefits that it can offer.
How to Store Maca
Maca, like most supplements, should be kept sealed and stored in a cool, dark place away from humidity and bright light. In a pantry, it will keep for 12 to 18 months, and if stored in a fridge or freezer, it can last for as long as two to three years.
Who Shouldn’t Use Maca
Maca is considered as a safe supplement, but there are still certain people who are better off avoiding it, even though it is not officially considered to have any pharmaceutical interactions.
Because Maca can influence hormone levels, people who are on hormone medications or need to avoid hormone disruptors, like women dealing with breast cancer, should avoid using maca.
People who are on thyroid medications or hormone replacement for menopause should verify with their practitioners that maca won’t interfere with any aspect of their treatment.
People who have high blood pressure or heart disease should not take maca unless approved by their doctor since the full effects of maca on the cardiovascular system are largely unknown.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not use maca, as is the case with most supplements, since hormone levels can impact fetal development and it isn’t certain how maca may or may not be transferred via breastmilk.
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.