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9 Health Benefits of Maca Root, the Ancient Incan Superfood

Health + Wellness
9 Health Benefits of Maca Root, the Ancient Incan Superfood

By Hrefna Palsdottir

The maca plant has exploded in popularity in recent years.

It's actually a plant native to Peru and is commonly available in powder form or as a supplement.

Maca root has traditionally been used to enhance fertility and sex drive.iStock

Maca root has traditionally been used to enhance fertility and sex drive.

It's also claimed to improve energy and stamina.

What Is Maca?

The maca plant, known scientifically as Lepidium meyenii, is sometimes referred to as Peruvian ginseng.

It mainly grows in the Andes of central Peru, in harsh conditions and at very high altitudes—above 13,000 feet (4,000 meters).

Maca is a cruciferous vegetable and therefore related to broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale. It has a long history of culinary and medicinal use in Peru (1).

The main edible part of the plant is the root, which grows underground. It exists in several colors, ranging from white to black.

Maca root is generally dried and consumed in powder form, but it's also available in capsules and as a liquid extract.

This is what maca root and root powder typically look like:

The taste of maca root powder, which some people dislike, has been described as earthy and nutty. Many people add it to their smoothies, oatmeal and sweet treats.

It's worth noting that research on maca is still in its early stages.

Many of the studies are small, done in animals and/or sponsored by companies that produce or sell maca.

Bottom Line: Maca is a medicinal plant that mainly grows high up in the mountains of Peru in harsh conditions.

1. It's Highly Nutritious

Maca root powder is very nutritious and is a great source of several important vitamins and minerals (2).

One ounce (28 grams) of maca root powder contains:

  • Calories: 91
  • Carbs: 20 grams
  • Protein: 4 grams
  • Fiber: 2 grams
  • Fat: 1 gram
  • Vitamin C: 133 percent of the RDI
  • Copper: 85 percent of the RDI
  • Iron: 23 percent of the RDI
  • Potassium: 16 percent of the RDI
  • Vitamin B6: 15 percent of the RDI
  • Manganese: 10 percent of the RDI

Maca root is a good source of carbs and protein, is low in fat and contains a fair amount of fiber. It's also high in some essential vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, copper and iron.

Furthermore, it contains various plant compounds, including glucosinolates and polyphenols (1, 3, 4).

Bottom Line: Maca root powder is high in protein and carbs and rich in a number of nutrients, including vitamin C, copper and iron. It also contains many bioactive plant compounds.

2. It Increases Libido in Men and Women

Reduced sexual desire is a common problem among adults.

Consequently, interest in herbs and plants that naturally boost libido is great.

Maca has been heavily marketed as being effective at improving sexual desire and this claim is backed by research (5).

A review from 2010 that included four randomized clinical studies with a total of 131 participants found evidence that maca improves sexual desire after at least six weeks of ingestion (6).

Bottom Line: Maca increases sex drive in both men and women.

3. It May Increase Fertility in Men

When it comes to male fertility, sperm quality and quantity is very important.

There is some evidence that maca root increases men's fertility (7, 8).

A recent review summarized the findings of five small studies. It showed that maca improved semen quality in both infertile and healthy men (9).

One of the studies reviewed included nine healthy men. After consuming maca for four months, researchers detected an increase in the volume, count and motility of sperm (8).

Bottom Line: Maca can increase sperm production and improve sperm quality, thereby enhancing fertility in men.

4. It May Help Relieve Symptoms of Menopause

Menopause is defined as the time in a woman's life when her menstrual periods stop permanently.

The natural decline in estrogen that occurs during this time can cause a range of unpleasant symptoms.

These include hot flashes, vaginal dryness, mood swings, sleep problems and irritability.

One review of four studies in menopausal women found that maca helped alleviate menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes and interrupted sleep (10).

Additionally, animal studies suggest that maca can help protect bone health. Women have a higher risk of osteoporosis after menopause (11, 12, 13).

Bottom Line: Maca can improve symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes and disrupted sleep at night.

5. Maca Can Improve Your Mood

Several studies have shown that maca can enhance your mood.

It's been associated with reduced anxiety and symptoms of depression, particularly in menopausal women (14, 15, 16).

Maca contains plant compounds called flavonoids, which have been suggested to be at least partly responsible for these psychological benefits (15).

Bottom Line: Maca may improve your mental well-being and mood by reducing depression and anxiety, especially in menopausal women.

6. It May Boost Sports Performance and Energy

Maca root powder is a popular supplement among bodybuilders and athletes.

It has been claimed to help you gain muscle, increase strength, boost energy and improve exercise performance.

Also, some animal studies indicate that it enhances endurance performance (17, 18, 19).

Moreover, one small study in eight male cyclists found that they improved the time it took them to complete a nearly 25-mile (40-km) bike ride after 14 days of supplementing with maca extract (20).

Currently, there is no scientific evidence to confirm any benefits for muscle mass or strength.

Bottom Line: Supplementing with maca may improve exercise performance, particularly during endurance events. However, its effects on muscle mass and strength have yet to be studied.

7. When Applied to the Skin, Maca May Help Protect It From the Sun

Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun may burn and damage unprotected, exposed skin.

Over time, UV radiation can cause wrinkles and increase your risk of skin cancer (21).

There is some evidence that applying maca extract, a concentrated form of the plant, to your skin may help protect it from UV radiation (1, 22).

One study found that maca extract applied to the skin of five rats over a three-week period prevented skin damage from UV exposure (23).

The protective effect was attributed to the polyphenol antioxidants and glucosinolates found in maca (24).

Keep in mind that maca extract cannot replace a conventional sunscreen. Also, it only protects the skin when applied to the skin, not when eaten.

Bottom Line: When applied to the skin, maca extract may help protect it from the sun's UV rays.

8. It May Improve Learning and Memory

Maca may improve brain function (25).

In fact, it has traditionally been used by natives in Peru to improve children's performance in school (1, 26).

In animal studies, maca has improved learning and memory in rodents that have memory impairment (27, 28, 29, 30).

In this regard, black maca appears to be more effective than other varieties (29).

Bottom Line: Some evidence indicates that maca, in particular the black variety, can improve learning and memory.

9. It May Reduce Prostate Size

The prostate is a gland only found in men.

Enlargement of the prostate gland, also known as benign prostatic hyperplasia, is common in aging men (31).

A larger prostate can cause various problems with passing urine, as it surrounds the tube through which urine is removed from the body.

Interestingly, a few studies in rodents suggest that red maca reduces prostate size (32, 33, 34, 35).

It has been proposed that the effect of red maca on the prostate is linked to its high amount of glucosinolates. These substances are also associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer (36).

Bottom Line: A large prostate is common among older men and can cause issues with urination. Animal studies suggest that red maca can reduce prostate size.

How to Use Maca

Maca is easy to incorporate into your diet.

It can be taken as a supplement or added to smoothies, oatmeal, baked goods, energy bars and more.

The optimal dose for medicinal use has not been established. However, the dosage of maca root powder used in studies generally ranges from 1.5–5 grams per day.

You can find maca in some supermarkets, at health food stores and from various online retailers. It is available in powder form, 500-mg capsules or as a liquid extract.

While yellow maca is the most readily available type, darker types like red and black may possess different biological properties (32, 37).

Bottom Line: Maca root powder is easy to incorporate into your diet and is widely available.

Safety and Side Effects

Maca is generally considered safe (38, 39, 40).

However, Peruvian natives believe that consuming fresh maca root may have adverse health effects and recommend boiling it first.

Additionally, if you have thyroid problems, you may want to be careful with maca.

That's because it contains goitrogens, substances that may interfere with the normal function of the thyroid gland. These compounds are more likely to affect you if you already have impaired thyroid function.

Lastly, pregnant or breastfeeding women should consult with their doctors before taking maca.

Bottom Line: Maca is considered safe for most people, although those with thyroid issues need to be careful.

Take Home Message

Supplementing with maca may provide several health benefits, such as increased libido and better mood.

However, most of the studies are small and many of them were done in animals.

Although maca shows a lot of promise, it needs to be studied more extensively.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Authority Nutrition.

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