Maca, sometimes called ‘Peruvian ginseng,’ is an ancient food source and herbal medicine from the Andes region with a rich supply of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids, and sterols. According to ancient and modern Peruvian herbal medicine it is used for anemia, menstrual disorders, menopausal symptoms, mental clarity, tuberculosis, stomach cancer, energy, stamina and endurance, enhancing memory, reducing stress, relieving migraine headaches, and to improve general immune function. It is also used as a laxative, an aphrodisiac, to correct impotence and erectile dysfunction, enhance fertility, natural hormone replacement, and as a natural alternative to anabolic steroids.
As the popularity of maca grows, so too do the studies being done on its health benefit claims. To date, toxicity studies have shown no toxicity or adverse pharmacologic effects. Scientists investigating the phytochemistry and biological effects of the plant have found support for the historical uses. For example, in one study, rodents fed maca extract showed increased energy, stamina, and increased sexual activity compared to those not fed maca. Both healthy animals and those with low testosterone responded the same way, suggesting that men with low testosterone or erectile dysfunction may also benefit similarly.
Why science is interested
As both the population and its poor health epidemics escalate, more and more pharmaceutical drugs are being developed, but they do not seem to be stemming the tide of the health crises that are progressing at alarming rates across the developed world. In fact, there seems to be a direct correlation to the increased number of people taking prescriptions or vaccines, and the increased rates of disease diagnoses. Added to that, many of the old ‘tried and true’ drugs such as antibiotics are not working as well as they once did, as bacteria strains become resistant.
Many people believe the answers lie in the natural world. Indigenous peoples around the globe have been effectively using plants from their regions to maintain health for centuries. One thing most have in common is a diet rich in superfoods, as well as using fresh herbs and plants for their medicine. In the case of maca, it is credited with much of the success of the Incan Empire, responsible for giving their warriors an edge in energy and stamina for battle. Used in Peru for 3,000 years as a cure-all, scientists have become very interested in its adaptogen properties over the last few decades, and have begun studying its phytonutrient constituents for clues to its effectiveness. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12236688)
The latest research on maca
There are a wide range of studies being done on maca, for everything from skin anti-aging effects to prostate cancer prevention by phytocehmicals found in cruciferous vegetables, including maca (http://macaroot.com/science/index.html). Yet, by far the most studies being done are on maca’s effects on the glands of the endocrine system, especially centering around sexual performance. Studies can be found on adrenal balancing, hormone replacement therapy, regulation of sexual functions and fertility, effects on libido and performance, effects on menopausal and andropausal symptoms, anxiety and depression, osteoporosis, effects on the central nervous system, and more. Studies are also available on the alkamides of maca and on its toxicological aspects.
Few studies on humans have been conducted; however, one four-month study involving healthy adult men aged 22-44 found that oral treatment with maca significantly increased semen volume, total sperm count per ejaculum, motile sperm count, and sperm motility. Interestingly, hormone levels were not changed nor were the results contingent on dosage (http://altmedicine.about.com/od/herbsupplementguide/a/maca.htm). When women were given maca, they experienced an increase in the size of dominant follicles in just two weeks. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11753476)
Other notable studies include:
Efforts to understand the anabolic and aphrodisiac effects of maca only served to uncover additional phytochemical constituents unique to maca (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15686421). They are still being studied.
Studies have shown maca to ease menopausal symptoms from bone loss (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16466876) to anxiety, mood, and sexual function (http://altmedicine.about.com/od/herbsupplementguide/a/maca.htm). Also, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, depression, and fatigue were alleviated while energy levels increased.
A study on the phytonutrient constituents of three different colors of maca, yellow, black, and red, showed evidence of effects on nutrition, fertility, memory, and mood. Black maca had the best effect on sperm production followed by yellow, while red had none. Red maca reduced prostate size in rats, followed by more moderate effects from yellow maca with none from black. Clinical trials showed maca to have favorable effects on mood, energy, anxiety, sexual desire, sperm production, sperm motility, and semen volume while not effecting serum levels of hormones. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20090350 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17683465)
Several studies have been done on livestock and maca’s spermatogenic effects (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20452008) with similar findings regarding improvement of sperm quantity and quality without changing mating behaviors.
Experimental evidence shows potential for maca in protecting skin from ultraviolet radiation. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21977053)
Additional studies done on male reproductive health include: evaluation of black maca’s effects on testicular function (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17669402), spermatogenic cycles (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16961569), and maca’s ability to correct male infertility due to lead exposure (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16510228). (All studies were done on rats.) A double blind study of 50 men with mild ED showed significant improvement over the control group. Studies on female health found maca to increase litter size in rats (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15869705), further confirming traditional uses of maca for fertility. In women, it helped with PMS, menstruation, and other sexual dysfunction
Clinical trials seem to consistently show that maca is an adaptogen with great potential as a nutraceutical and preventative of several diseases, such as hormone-related cancers. It is among the top 10 exported items from Peru, having increased six times in the last decade. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21977053). It increases fertility, libido, and sexual function in men and women. It nourishes all the glands of the endocrine system, thereby balancing hormones. It improves digestion, elimination, metabolism, as well as physical and mental performance. It helps the body adapt to stress, and relieves the effects of stress on the body. The superfood of the Andes works with the body’s natural rhythms and specific needs. Scientists are learning what the Incas knew – maca it amazing.
Additional sources for this article include: