Maca (Lepidium meyenii) has all the makings of a great story: It’s rare, sexy, exotic, ancient and a little mysterious. But, more important, it has unique health benefits with documented results.
Maca is an herbaceous perennial crop grown in the central highlands of Peru at elevations of 12,000 feet and higher. The Quechua Indians native to the area are the principle producers and consumers of the plant, and the oldest recorded date of maca use in Peru is around 1600 b.c. Peruvians traditionally have used maca root to promote mental acuity, physical vitality, endurance and stamina. The herb also is well-known as an aphrodisiacal tonic that enhances sexual desire and performance and is especially reputed to increase fertility in men and women, as well as in domesticated animals.
Maca’s Amazing Effects
Maca is a member of the Brassicaceae family, which includes turnips and radishes. A highly nutritious food, it contains carbohydrates, proteins, calcium, fiber and lipids, as well as iodine and anticancer compounds similar to those found in cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage. It also contains antioxidants, such as catechins, which also are found in green tea, and sterols similar to those found in echinacea.
The greatest health benefit of maca may be its overall nutritive effect. As Stephanie Sulgar, founder of Medicine Plants, a supplement company in Middletown, New York, explains, maca’s nutrition alone can have a positive effect on people who are overworked, overstressed and nutritionally unfulfilled. “If you can imagine going from not sleeping correctly or relaxing or eating the right foods and all of a sudden you change those things, your body’s going to start responding appropriately to those things you’re doing,” Sulgar says. “Maca is a densely nutritious plant and it seems to fuel the body so well.”
According to Ed Smith, co-owner of Herb Pharm, a manufacturer of herbal extracts in Williams, Oregon, it is this overall nutritive effect that gives maca its ability to restore vigor and stamina. These overall health benefits lead, in turn, to what maca is probably most noted for in the United States: sexual enhancement and increased fertility. Smith is careful to point out that, unlike other herbal sexual aids, maca is not a sexual stimulant. Rather, it is nourishing to the overall health and vitality of the individual.
“If someone is malnourished, lacking vitality, has no pep, gets tired easily . . . that’s also going to be indicated by lack of sexual libido, lack of fertility and erectile dysfunction,” Smith says. Instead of forcing the body to perform under this stress, Smith explains, maca restores overall health, increasing energy and, hence, improving sexual function.
It’s important to make sure that sexual dysfunction is not the symptom of another underlying disorder. “As long as these symptoms aren’t indicative of some other disease — like a tumor on the pituitary gland — but are due more to an overall lack of vitality than some specific disease condition, then maca is the No. 1 herb to take,” Smith says.
An Herb of Many Actions
Maca has several documented and anecdotal physiological actions within the body. It increases libido and sexual performance, increases stamina and endurance, increases fertility and pregnancy rates, helps women with the symptoms of PMS and menopause, improves symptoms of erectile dysfunction, and, according to the Quechua Indians, can increase mental clarity in children prior to taking tests. It also has been used to treat anemia, stomach cancer, memory loss, arthritis, respiratory disorders (including bronchitis), alcoholism and to build strong bones in children (due to its high calcium content).
It is assumed that maca’s benefits are due to its effects on the endocrine system, which includes all of the body’s glands, such as the pituitary and endocrine glands, and the hormones they secrete. Yet, interestingly, in studies, maca has not been found to actually increase blood levels of any hormones, including testosterone, prolactin, follicle stimulating hormone, estrogen and estradiol. One theory for maca’s effectiveness is that it may encourage the body to use hormones more effectively by acting on hormone receptors.
“I find it interesting that maca can have such a distinctive and positive effect on male and female sexuality and yet it doesn’t affect blood hormone levels,” says Mary Sullivan, registered nurse and founder of the Olympian Labs online alternative health reference “What Vitamins Are Right For You?” (www.WhatVitaminsAreRight ForYou.com). “The thing I love about maca is its adaptogenic effect in the body. . . . We don’t know why it happens or why it has such a positive effect on the endocrine system,” Sullivan says.
While some mystery and controversy exists regarding the mechanism by which maca works in the body, one thing is known — it works.
Maca and Men: Studied Results
Sullivan also emphasizes that men who are experiencing erectile dysfunction should first go to their physician to ensure that the problem is not a symptom of a larger health issue. “They need to do a cardiac workup,” she says. “Sometimes the small blood vessels in the penis will be affected by a heart problem, and those erectile problems can be the first symptom they see.”
However, once other medical issues have been ruled out, maca can be a more effective and deep-seated treatment for erectile problems, as opposed to prescription sexual stimulants, such as Viagra. “The distinction is, of course, that Viagra is a medication. It’s taken about a half-hour before intercourse,” Sulgar says. “Maca, because it’s a food, corrects the overall underlying problems of erectile dysfunction. Because it targets the underlying problem, the benefits last longer. Maca will allow the erection to happen much more easily than before.”
In a 2001 study published in The Asian Journal of Andrology, participants took either 1,500 or 3,000 mg of gelatinized maca root daily for four months. The study’s findings reported “increased seminal volume, sperm count per ejaculum, motile sperm count and sperm motility” for five of the nine 24- to 44-year-old study participants. Those who did not experience statistically significant increases in sperm count were also those who had abnormally low sperm counts at the beginning of the study. Results did not appear to differ based on dosages.
In a 2002 double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized human trial on 57 healthy adult males, men consumed 1.5 to 3 grams of gelatinized maca root daily and experienced increased sexual desire, independent of changes in testosterone or estradiol levels.
In mice, studies have shown maca to increase frequency of intercourse and incidents of pregnancy, and to decrease the latent period between erections in male rats with erectile dysfunction. A decoction of maca root also increased male rats’ testicular and epididymal weight, which led researchers to believe that maca increased sperm production in its initial stages. However, a 2003 study published in The Journal of Endocrinology showed that, compared with placebo, maca given in aphrodisiac and fertility-enhancing doses had no effect on serum levels of sexual hormones.
Maca and Women: Anecdotal Success
For women, maca can help control the mood swings of premenstrual syndrome and perimenopause, as well as the hot flashes and decreased libido associated with menopause. Although few studies have been conducted on maca’s effectiveness in women, Sulgar says her clients have seen great results in countering the symptoms of menopause and perimenopause. One theory as to maca’s ability to achieve these results is that the herb nutritionally fuels the endocrine system and stimulates the body to produce hormones regularly. This may make maca more effective than other treatments that attempt to replicate or replace naturally occurring hormones.
“When we have these problems — night sweats, PMS, low libido and sexual drive — black cohosh is incredible, in that it’s the strongest plant estrogen we’ve ever found. Yet it’s still 200 times weaker than our bodies’ own hormones,” Sulgar says. “Eventually, it can’t fill that ever-widening gap that women in menopause and perimenopause feel, and it never helps the fatigue. Maca fuels the whole endocrine system so it can produce its own hormones.”
Jessica Kellner is assistant editor of Herbs for Health.