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Maca has got quite a reputation––but we all know those can be misleading.
Anecdotal evidence notes a flurry of maca health benefits that include helping memory and concentration, reducing prostate size, and boosting muscle mass. Other studies show maca root can boost libido, alleviate menopause symptoms, and improve male fertility.
Sounds pretty right? Unfortunately, the research on this herbal supplement is scant. Let’s look at what the science says so far.
What is maca?
Maca, or Lepidium meyenii, is a plant in the cruciferous vegetable family (like kale and Brussels sprouts). Also known as Peruvian ginseng, maca is grown in the Andes mountains and has historically been used by the Inca people. Maca is known for its purported adaptogenic properties, which help your body adapt to and cope with stress (Gonzales, 2012).
Most medicine is made from maca root, which resembles a radish or turnip and can be red, black, white, or yellow.
Health benefits of maca
So, what can an herbal supplement dating back to the Incas offer the modern health seeker? Potentially a lot.
It’s important to keep in mind that like many herbal remedies, any health benefits of maca are supported by limited data. For example, the proposal that maca can improve learning and memory has only been tested on animals. It’s good practice to take any health claims you see online about maca root with a grain of salt (da Silva Leitão Peres, 2020).
That said, here’s what we know so far about the herbal supplement and what it might do for humans.
1. Increases libido
Maca was traditionally taken as an aphrodisiac—and science may back this up. One study showed that men taking the herbal supplement had increased sexual desire. The researchers also reported this raise in sexual appetite was independent of other factors that affect libido, like depression and anxiety or hormone levels (Gonzales, 2002).
And it might not just be men that get a boost from the medicinal root. A meta-analysis found maca supplements also raised sex drive in menopausal women. These results are based on only a few small studies and further testing is needed to be sure (Shin, 2010).
2. Boosts mood
Improving mood and bumping up energy levels is where maca is really gaining its reputation in modern alternative medicine. This medicinal herb is rich in carbohydrates (a primary fuel source for our bodies) and may replenish any exhausted glycogen stores, in turn, giving us more energy. For example, animal studies demonstrated that rats given maca could swim longer (Yang, 2015; Choi, 2012).
Researchers suggest maca may also lessen the effects of oxidative stress brought on by exercise. In one small study, trained male cyclists were given maca extract for 14 days. The group completed a 40 km time trial faster than they did before taking the supplements, although the results weren’t statistically significant from the placebo group (da Silva Leitão Peres, 2020).
3. Improves fertility in men
Another study reported that while hormone levels did not change, the sperm motility, semen volume, sperm count per ejaculation, and motile sperm count increased in participants after four months of supplementation (Gonzales, 2001). Thus, fertility potentially improved without affecting testosterone levels.
A meta-analysis of the available research concluded that while the results of several clinical trials are promising and suggest maca may improve sperm quality, all of these studies were limited in size. More research needs to confirm their findings (Lee, 2016).
4. May alleviate menopause symptoms
Pilot studies have looked into maca’s effects on the physical and mental symptoms of menopause. One small study found that 3.5 g of maca daily for six weeks slightly diminished psychological symptoms (including anxiety and depression) and improved sexual function in menopausal women (Brooks, 2008).
Side effects of maca
The biggest concern with maca is that the available research is limited. So while we wait for research to catch up, it’s better to err on the side of safety, discuss any potential concerns or interactions with a professional, and follow medical advice.
Animal studies and small clinical trials are a start. Still, their findings do not allow us to say for certain that the health benefits observed (and lack of side effects) are also the case in humans or larger populations.
Side effects for maca tend to be anecdotal, suggesting that the herbal supplement is generally well-tolerated. These self-reported side effects include heightened alertness or a “jittery” feeling that disturbed sleep. But the science just isn’t there to back up the anecdotal evidence.
Different kinds of maca are used to make supplements. You can also find all forms of maca supplements including powders, extracts, liquids, and pills. Products made from red or black maca may offer slightly different health benefits than supplements made from yellow maca.
As far as supplements go, maca tastes pretty good, too. It has an earthy, nutty flavor that many people describe tasting like butterscotch or caramel. Maca is also very easy to incorporate into your daily diet by adding it to smoothies, lattes, and meals.
How to take maca root
The most common form you’ll find is maca powder, and its earthy, nutty flavor blends well with steamed milk (like in a latte) or smoothies.
Adding a serving of maca root powder into a morning smoothie seems the most popular way to use it. But there is a recent rise in a new form of maca: skincare products. Research done on animals suggests that applied topically, maca may be able to protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays thanks to its polyphenol antioxidant content (Gonzales-Castañeda, 2011).
Besides causing wrinkles, UV radiation and sun damage also contribute to skin cancer risk. More work needs to be done to confirm this protective mechanism also works on humans, and it should be noted that this doesn’t replace regular sunscreen.
Warnings and risks
Maca is not for everyone. While it’s generally considered safe, you should still talk to your healthcare provider before trying it. If you fall into any of the groups below you may want to avoid maca root.
Abnormal thyroid function
Like cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and other related vegetables, maca contains goitrogens, which are substances that can interfere with the normal functioning of your thyroid gland (Bajaj, 2016). That means people with conditions like hypothyroidism should avoid supplements with this ingredient.
People with hormone-sensitive conditions like endometriosis, uterine or breast cancer, or uterine fibroids should avoid maca. Studies suggest that maca extract may act like estrogen in the body, which is known to be carcinogenic in some cases (Valentová, 2006).
Management of these conditions requires you to work closely with a healthcare professional who can monitor your estrogen levels. There is the potential for maca supplements to make symptoms worse by affecting hormone levels.
Pregnancy or breastfeeding
Maca may help if you’re actively trying to get pregnant. As mentioned earlier, it may improve sexual desire and male fertility. While the supplement may set a couple up with the right conditions to get pregnant, people shouldn’t take maca extract or root powder once they are expecting or while breastfeeding.
The reason behind this is that scientists don’t have enough information about its safety in these circumstances (MedlinePlus, 2021).
- Bajaj, J. K., Salwan, P., & Salwan, S. (2016). Various Possible Toxicants Involved in Thyroid Dysfunction: A Review. Journal Of Clinical And Diagnostic Research, 10(1), FE01–FE03. doi:10.7860/jcdr/2016/15195.7092. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26894086/
- Brooks, N. A., Wilcox, G., Walker, K. Z., et al. (2008). Beneficial effects of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) on psychological symptoms and measures of sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women are not related to estrogen or androgen content. Menopause, 15(6), 1157–1162. doi:10.1097/gme.0b013e3181732953. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18784609/
- Choi, E. H., Kang, J. I., Cho, J. Y., et al. (2012). Supplementation of standardized lipid-soluble extract from maca (Lepidium meyenii) increases swimming endurance capacity in rats. Journal of Functional Foods, 4(2), 568–573. doi:10.1016/j.jff.2012.03.002. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1756464612000436
- da Silva Leitão Peres, N., Cabrera Parra Bortoluzzi, L., Medeiros Marques, L. L., et al. (2020). Medicinal effects of Peruvian maca (Lepidium meyenii): a review. Food & Function, 11(1), 83–92. doi:10.1039/c9fo02732g. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31951246/
- Gonzales, G. F. (2012). Ethnobiology and ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a plant from the Peruvian highlands. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. doi:10.1155/2012/193496. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21977053/
- Gonzales, G. F., Cordova, A., Gonzales, C., et al. (2001). Lepidium meyenii (Maca) improved semen parameters in adult men. Asian Journal of Andrology, 3(4), 301–303. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11753476/
- Gonzales, G. F., Cordova, A., Vega, K., et al. (2002). Effect of Lepidium meyenii (MACA) on sexual desire and its absent relationship with serum testosterone levels in adult healthy men. Andrologia, 34(6), 367–372. doi:10.1046/j.1439-0272.2002.00519.x. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12472620/
- Gonzales-Castañeda, C., Rivera, V., Chirinos, A. L., et al. (2011). Photoprotection against the UVB-induced oxidative stress and epidermal damage in mice using leaves of three different varieties of Lepidium meyenii (maca). International Journal of Dermatology, 50(8), 928–938. doi:10.1111/j.1365-4632.2010.04793.x. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21781063/
- Lee, M. S., Lee, H. W., You, S., & Ha, K. T. (2016). The use of maca (Lepidium meyenii) to improve semen quality: A systematic review. Maturitas, 92, 64–69. doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2016.07.013. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27621241/
- Li, Y., Xin, Y., Xu, F., et al. (2018). Maca polysaccharides: Extraction optimization, structural features and anti-fatigue activities. International Journal of Biological Macromolecules, 115, 618–624. doi:10.1016/j.ijbiomac.2018.04.063. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29665394/
- Medline Plus. (2021). Herbs and Supplements: Maca. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/natural/555.html
- Melnikovova, I., Fait, T., Kolarova, M., et al. (2015). Effect of Lepidium meyenii Walp. on Semen Parameters and Serum Hormone Levels in Healthy Adult Men: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Pilot Study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 1–6. doi:10.1155/2015/324369. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26421049/
- Shin, B. C., Lee, M. S., Yang, E. J., et al. (2010). Maca (L. meyenii) for improving sexual function: a systematic review. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 10(1), 44. doi:10.1186/1472-6882-10-44. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20691074/
- Stojanovska, L., Law, C., Lai, B., et al. (2014). Maca reduces blood pressure and depression, in a pilot study in postmenopausal women. Climacteric, 18(1), 69–78. doi:10.3109/13697137.2014.929649. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24931003/#:~:text=Conclusions%3A%20Maca%20did%20not%20exert,pressure%20in%20Chinese%20postmenopausal%20women
- Stone, M., Ibarra, A., Roller, M., et al. (2009). A pilot investigation into the effect of maca supplementation on physical activity and sexual desire in sportsmen. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 126(3), 574–576. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2009.09.012. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19781622/
- Valentová, K., Buckiová, D., Křen, V., et al. (2006). The in vitro biological activity of Lepidium meyenii extracts. Cell Biology and Toxicology, 22(2), 91–99. doi:10.1007/s10565-006-0033-0. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16528448/
- Yang, Q., Jin, W., Lv, X., et al. (2016). Effects of macamides on endurance capacity and anti-fatigue property in prolonged swimming mice. Pharmaceutical Biology, 54(5), 827–834. doi:10.3109/13880209.2015.1087036. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26453017/
Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.