What Is Maca?
Maca has become one of the most popular supplements available in health stores today. However, this distinctive root has been used for centuries for health support — specifically for supporting healthy energy levels, supporting a healthy stress response, and promoting sexual health. It is typically found in the highlands of Peru, where it is used for a variety of purposes. Today, maca is often sold as a powder that can be taken alone, blended in smoothies, and even added to chocolate. Read more about maca and how this root could support your health here.
More About Maca
Maca somewhat resembles a radish or carrot — it has thin, feathery leaves that sprout in a rosette shape from the soil’s surface. They typically grow only 4-8 inches in height, and produce tiny white flowers and reddish-grey seeds. The most distinctive feature of maca is its root, which is an inverted pear shape but can vary greatly in size and shape from plant to plant. Maca is the only plant in its family with a hypocotyl, which is a fleshy germinating seedling found below the seed leaves and root. When consumed, maca has a generally pleasant taste, similar to butterscotch. Maca is typically harvested in the fall, and most maca farming is organic, as few other plants are able to thrive in the harsh maca-growing conditions. However, those who farm maca have been using it to support health for over 2,000 years. (1)
Maca is also called Lepidium meyenii or by colloquial names like maca-maca, maino, ayak chichira, Peruvian ginseng, and ayak willku. It is also sometimes referred to as Lepidium peruvianum, although the distinction between the two continues to be debated. It is typically found in the high altitudes of the central Andes, usually at heights of 4,000 to 4,5000 meters. It is a member of the Brassicaceae family, which also includes plants like mustard, cabbage, and radishes. There are over 13 varieties of maca, ranging from white to black to red. It is thought that most of the differences in maca plants depend on their soil and environment, although most prefer extreme cold, extreme sunlight, rocky soil, and intense wind. Maca is typically found in Peru on the Plateau of Bombón, in the province of Carhumayo (formerly Chinchaycocha), as well as the Óndores on the Junin Plateau, close to Cerro de Pasco.
Varieties of Maca
Of the 13 identified varieties of maca, the ones most often studies for their pharmacological benefits are red maca, black maca, and yellow maca. Black maca is thought to have potentially beneficial effects on sperm health, while yellow only moderate effects and red no effects. However, in clinical trials, red maca was shown to support prostate health in rats, while yellow maca showed moderate effects and black no effects. Red maca also may support bone health and black maca may offer support for healthy energy levels and a healthy memory. (2)
Although maca is a relative newcomer to mainstream wellness culture, it has been used for centuries to support health. The first people to take advantage of the plant were the Incan people, who used it as a food source. Since very few plants other than maca grow at the high altitudes, maca was used as a trading good for rice, corn, beans, and other staples. Dried maca root can survive for up to seven years in storage, so it was often used to supplement the diet when there weren’t other foods available. Fresh maca roots were baked or roasted in ashes (similar to sweet potatoes), and the dried roots were boiled in water or milk to make a porridge. Maca was also made into fermented drinks, jams, and puddings.
The Incas didn’t just use maca as a food source — it was also used to support fertility, and was sometimes given to livestock to support better breeding. It was also used to support healthy energy levels and for stamina and sexual health. (3)
The first written descriptions of maca came from Spanish explorers and conquerors in the 16th century. In 1549, explorer Juan Tello de Sotoy Mayor was reportedly given maca roots as a tribute and to support the fertility of his cattle. In 1553 Cieza de Leon wrote in his Chronicle of Peru about how Incans used certain roots (including maca) to support optimal health. Later, Father Bernabe Cobo coined the term “maca” to refer to the plant in his 1653 work The History of the New World. Cobo wrote that the plant flourished in the coldest areas of the province of Chinchaycocha and also noted that maca was used for fertility and to supplement diet. (4)
According to other Spanish writings, both native peoples and the Spanish used maca to support their energy before heading into battle (although this practice was discontinued as the high dosages were said to heighten the libido too much). In the 18th century, writers like Ruiz noted that maca appeared to have a stimulant-like effect on those who consumed it, and maca remained a Peruvian food staple.
Maca was officially identified as a species in 1843, when German botanist Gerhard Walpers fully described the plant’s appearances. (This is why maca is sometimes referred to as Lepidium meyenii Walp). In 1906, Tehllung provided a more complete taxonomic description of maca. Despite the attention from botanists, maca production began to slow dramatically in the 20th century. In the 1970s and 1980s, the area of maca cultivation had decreased to less than forty acres, and it was rarely used or consumed, except by Peruvian highlanders and other South American people groups. However, today maca is enjoying a revitalization, as the wellness world has touted the potential benefits of maca, and many people are choosing to try it for themselves. (5) In 2005, maca was declared one of the seven flagship products of Peru.
Maca Harvest and Preparation
Traditionally, maca is harvested and then is allowed to dry naturally. Dried maca can be stored for many years. One of the traditional methods of preparing maca includes boiling the root in water until it is soft. It is thought that boiling the maca preserves some of its bioactive compounds, and raw maca can be difficult to digest. It is also suggested that raw maca may have negative health effects, but researchers are still examining the validity of these claims. The maca is then mashed and can be either made into a drink, porridge, or dried to a powder. The roots are also used to make a flour that is used in cakes, bread, and pancakes.
Other ways of preparing maca include brewing it into a beer and making it into a freeze-dried drink. One of the more popular forms is gelatinized maca, which removes the tough fiber from the roots using heat and pressure. Most maca supplements use powder in capsules, or it is made into a nutrient drink powder that can be added to shakes and smoothies.
Potential Health Benefits of Maca
In addition to making a delicious addition to your daily smoothie, maca offers a number of potential benefits to support your health. Maca is sometimes considered an adaptogen, which is a term that refers to a group of herbs that have been shown to support a healthy response to stress. Adaptogens are not thought to alter mood — instead, they support the body’s stress response. As a result, adaptogens are thought to support a healthy sleep, a healthy mood, and healthy energy levels. There have been several studies into maca’s effect on healthy energy levels, but there is also evidence to suggest it may have other potential health benefits.
Compounds in Maca
Maca is a source of a number of health supportive compounds, including essential amino acids like leucine, arginine, phenylalanine, lysine, tyrosine, and more. It also includes minerals like iron and calcium, which support strong bones and teeth. Maca is a source of fiber, free fatty acids, and unsaturated fatty acids, as well as plant sterols and alkaloids that may have potential benefits for your health. Overall, maca is considered extremely nutrient-dense, so in addition to supporting health, it may offer sustenance as well.
Maca for Overall Health
Maca is a source of macaenes and macamides, compounds that may support healthy energy levels. In a 2016 study, researchers looked at the effects of red and black maca on overall health and wrote that “Consumption of spray-dried extracts of red and black maca resulted in improvement in mood, energy, and health status, and reduced CMS [chronic mountain sickness] score… Both varieties produced similar responses in mood, and HRQL [health-related quality of life] score. Maca extracts consumed at LA [low altitudes] or HA [high altitudes] had good acceptability and did not show serious adverse effects. In conclusion, maca extract consumption relative to the placebo improved quality of life parameters.” (6) This study examined both those living at high altitudes and those in lower altitudes.
Maca for Women
Maca may also have a positive health effect on women’s aging process, especially related to a healthy mood and healthy blood pressure levels already in the normal range. According to a 2016 study that looked at the effects of maca on postmenopausal Chinese women, maca “appeared to reduce symptoms of depression and improve diastolic blood pressure.” (7) A similar study examined the effects “as treatment for antidepressant-induced sexual dysfunction in women.” Researchers concluded that maca offered support for a healthy mood, and was “well-tolerated” by participants. (8)
Maca for Fertility
There have also been many studies that examine the link between maca, fertility, and sexual health. In trials involving rodents, it was discovered that while liquid maca extract didn’t affect the rate of implantation or number of eggs per cycle, it did result in a higher number of offspring than those in the control group. Maca also showed positive effects on progesterone levels, which indicates that maca may support a healthy hormone balance. (9) Studies into this subject are ongoing, however.
Maca for Libido
Maca may have a positive effect on healthy sexual function for men. Two clinical trials examined the effects of maca supplementation (in extract and gelatinous forms, respectively) on men’s libido. One trial found that in normal men, maca “improves sexual desire after 8 weeks of administration,” although the study notes that this is a long time for treatment on improvement of sexual desire. By contrast, the other study discovered “the use of maca extract improves sexual desire in athletic men at two weeks of treatment.” Maca has also been used to support normal sexual function for men, and in early trials appears to have a potentially beneficial effect. (10)
Maca for Cognitive Health
One of the potential benefits of maca is related to cognitive health and a healthy memory. According to a 2016 study on middle-aged mice, “maca improved cognitive function, motor coordination, and endurance capacity.” It is thought that black maca should be used to support cognitive health and memory, although studies are ongoing. (11)
Other Potential Benefits of Maca
- Supports a healthy stress response
- May promote a healthy mood
- May support healthy energy levels
- Promotes sexual health and function
- May support a healthy hormone balance
- Promotes healthy testosterone levels
- Seeks to support fertility
- May support cognitive health
- May support sperm health
- Supports a healthy metabolism
- Seeks to support bone health
- May support healthy blood pressure levels already in the normal range
While maca is still being studied, and many of these effects have not been tested on humans, maca seems to show a promise in supporting a number of health issues.
Should You Take a Maca Supplement?
Maca supplements have become incredibly popular, and the demand for maca has risen exponentially in the past few years. In most health food stores, maca is available as a powder, in vegetable caps, or as a liquid extract. People who are looking to support healthy energy levels, as well as those looking for support for sexual function may choose to take a maca supplement.
Maca is also available blended with other herbs, and it is sometimes added to chocolate for extra energy and flavor. If you’re looking to discover a wide variety of maca supplement options, check out naturalhealthyconcepts.com and shop our maca products today.