Herb to Know: Peruvian Maca

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Maca thrives in rocky, unforgiving environments.
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The root of the maca is the part we consume.
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Maca grows high in the Peruvian mountains.

Lepidium meyenii
• Brassicaceae family
• Grows in the Peruvian highlands at 12,000 feet and higher

Peruvian Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is an herb with 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.

Try These Editor-Recommended Peruvian Maca Products

The herbaceous perennial crop is 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 Peruvian herb also is well-known as a tonic that enhances sexual desire and performance and is especially reputed to increase fertility in men and women, as well as in domesticated animals.

What is maca?

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 Peruvian maca may be its overall nutritive effect. 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.

Because maca is a food, it should be safe for anyone. But, as always, it is important to consult your physician or a natural practitioner before taking regular, large doses of any nutritional supplement. Maca also does not seem to interact with any other medicines or herbal remedies.

Maca for Overall Health

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, Peruvian maca has not been found to 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.

Getting Your Maca

There are several ways to add maca to your health regime. You can try liquid extracts, capsules and tablets. Maca powders also are becoming more available to purchase in the United States, but be aware of your source: Because maca traditionally is grown in such unique conditions, maca grown in the United States or elsewhere may not have the same health benefits and chemical composition as Peruvian maca.

Herb Pharm’s Ed Smith says that liquid extracts, capsules and tablets are easier to find in the United States, although his favorite way to take maca is a traditional Peruvian method–the smoothie, or licuado. Maca powder can be substituted for regular flour in recipes for cakes, puddings, cookies or other baked goods.

“You can switch out a couple of tablespoons of regular flour and replace them with maca powder in most baked recipes,” Julie Morris of Navitas Naturals says. “Low-heat and raw-food recipes take advantage of maca’s nutrition even further, such as mixing a teaspoon of maca into cooked oatmeal or blending some maca into a protein smoothie.”

Jessica Kellner is editor of our sister publication, Natural Home & Garden magazine.

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