I dove into deep research on maca as I wanted to understand why some women get such life-changing results from maca and others feel worse. I’m certainly one of them – maca gives me tender breasts and PMS from hell. But that’s just me. If you are thinking of trying it or have tried it in the past with mixed results, read on as the phenotype, form (gelatized, raw) and dose can make a big difference. You might try it again or put it away forever. I hope this article will help you get that clarity.
If you asked the ancient Incas to name their ‘go to’ superfoods, maca would have been top of the list. Though most modern cultures are only just catching on to the perks of this sweet-tasting South American root, in Peru, the magic of maca – to balance hormones and invigorate – has been known for thousands of years. Maca is a potent nutritional supplement that boasts the following healing and health secrets:
1. Nutrient-Rich Roots
The maca plant belongs to the brassica (mustard) family and like broccoli and cauliflower, is a cruciferous vegetable. It grows in the mineral-rich mountains of the Andes at an elevation of about 12,000 to 14,000 feet. It is found in Peruvian provinces such as Junín and Pasco, where it thrives in extreme weather conditions that include powerful winds, bitter cold and harsh sunlight. Maca is a tuber, which means that under the ground, the plant stores its rich nutrients in a bulb shaped like a radish or turnip. It is rich in vitamins C and A as well as B2, B6 and Niacin. The hardy root is also packed with minerals, including iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, copper, magnesium and potassium. Maca is also rich in beneficial plant sterols that are biochemically related to hormones such as estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. And it contains healthy fatty acids, which are beneficial for the heart and appear to help stabilize blood glucose levels and reduce inflammation.
2. Color Power
Though the cream/yellow varieties of maca often star in photos, there are actually 13 different colors (or phenotypes) of Peruvian maca, including purple and white. Throughout history, the Peruvians do not appear to have utilized these maca varieties for their individual benefits. Instead they used whatever colors were local, in the ratios they were available and mixed them together in one powder. Cut to the present and modern science is exploring the differences. For the last 10 years research has shown that different phenotypes of maca contain some different active ingredients, which trigger specific health benefits.
Dr. Gustavo Gonzales, a Professor and Researcher from the High Altitude Research Institute at the Cayetano Heredia Peruvian University in Lima, has been well recognized for his research into medicinal plants from the Peruvian highlands. His particular focus has been on maca and he has been involved in numerous studies exploring the individual health benefits of different maca colours on both rats and people. Research into maca’s color benefits, has often been done in rats and more study needs to be conducted in people. It has mostly centered on these three shades of maca:
- Yellow: This has been shown to help protect against UV radiation from the sun when applied in a liquid form to the skin.
- Red: Red maca appears to be good for bone strength.
- Black: has been shown to promote bone strength and improved brain function, such as memory and cognition. In men, it can help increase sperm count and reduce issues like enlarged prostate in men.
3. Energy Enhancement
In ancient times, warriors consumed the maca root to boost stamina and strength before going into battle. Maca was considered so valuable it was even used as currency and at times, reserved only for royalty. Cut to the present and maca is still used as a tonic to enhance vitality, energy and stamina. For this reason it is often called ‘Peruvian ginseng’. It can help prevent an 11am energy dip or 3pm crash.
And it may also improve your exercise workout. Research involving male cyclists showed that after only 14 days on maca supplements their speed improved for a 40km time trial. And they all reported a boost in their sexual desire as well! Experts believe the benefits would be similar in women.
4. Adrenal Nourishment
Rushed, edgy or juggling too many responsibilities? Maca could be your best friend. Like licorice and ginseng, the maca root is one of the rare plants that can be classified as an ‘herbal adaptogen’. This means it can directly change the balance of your hormones to help you adapt to stress and illness. Your endocrine (hormone) system is in the front line when it comes to handling the effects of stress on your body.
Long and short-term responses to stress are called the ‘general adaptation syndrome’ and this occurs in three different stages:
Alarm: You see a spider or slam on your car brakes.
Resistance: Chronic stress increases hormones like cortisol and adrenalin.
Adrenal exhaustion: Your hormones are out of balance, causing fatigue and burnout.
Your body’s adaptive response triggers your HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-axis). This is a feedback loop that impacts on areas of your brain like the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and adrenal glands. Its job is to pick up signals from your body and the environment around you and react. It kick-starts a cascade of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. It also affects your kidney function, metabolism, digestion and mood. When it’s over-stimulated? You may suffer fluid retention, constant anxiety, tummy troubles, weight gain and lowered immunity. Maca to the rescue!
If you’re under chronic stress or suffer from anxiety, the adaptogen effects of maca can reduce some of that load. Unlike HRT or drugs like antidepressants, maca helps tone the HPA axis to support the body’s own production of numerous hormones, increasing or decreasing their levels according to what you individually need. This reduces the unhealthy knock-on effects that stress and anxiety have on your cardiovascular, respiratory, lymphatic, reproductive and nervous systems. As a result, maca helps prevent you from getting stuck in the adrenal exhaustion stage.
5. Balance in Peri- and Menopause
Are you going through menopause or peri-menopause? Maca may be the ultimate natural HRT. Unlike some herbs and phytoestrogens such as soy, maca does not try to mimic estrogen in your body. Yet it can actually increase the body’s production of estrogen if your levels are too low. And unlike HRT, which may cause a rise in cholesterol, such as triglycerides, maca has been shown to help lower unhealthy HDL cholesterol and increase healthy HDL cholesterol in menopausal women.
One study at Charles Sturt University in Australia, found that after taking maca for only four months, peri-menopausal women enjoyed a range of health benefits including weight loss, reduction in blood pressure and a boost in iron and good HDL cholesterol. In another trial conducted at Charles Sturt, women in early menopause were given two 500mg capsules off Lepidium Peruvianum Chacon maca twice a day over four months. They experienced an increase in hormones, including progesterone and luteinizing hormone (which stimulates ovary function). The maca also stimulated estradiol and suppressed the production of chemicals like the stress hormone, cortisol. As a result, the women experienced fewer hot flashes, night sweats, depression, insomnia, nervousness and anxiety, as well as improved concentration.
Though it’s not well understood how maca works, one of the main theories is that the plant sterols in maca stimulate changes in the action of the HPA axis and also, the adrenal, ovarian, pineal and thyroid glands. While many people with under-active thyroid can take maca, without any problems, women with overactive thyroid issues may find it causes side effects. This may be due to the glucosinolates. On the flip side, the iodine levels in maca can be very beneficial for optimizing thyroid function in some women.
If you have thyroid issues you should monitor them when you start taking maca to see if it causes any changes.
6. PMS Relief
Does your menstrual cycle sometimes make you feel like you’re riding a roller coaster? Here’s why: at the start of the menstrual period, there is a very low level of estrogen, but by mid cycle it has increased 10-fold before steeply plummeting again. This hormonal rise and fall can be evened out by maca because it’s a herbal adaptogen.
Hello, relief from the mood swings, fluid retention and breast tenderness. Maca’s adaptogenic actions also mean it can boost fertility and help women suffering from conditions like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). A few words of caution though: maca may stimulate the body to produce more estrogen. This means it should be used with caution or not at all by women with estrogen-sensitive conditions such as estrogen receptor positive breast, ovarian or uterine cancers, endometriosis or uterine fibroids.
7. Libido Stimulation
Maca has been used for centuries in Peru to boost libido and virility. Though its aphrodisiac affects are not well understood by science, it’s ability to stimulate sexual sensation and desire has led it to be dubbed ‘nature’s Viagra’. Some experts believe its libido lift is caused by maca’s unique long chain fatty acids called, macaenes and macamides, which have yet not been found in any other plant. They have been shown to increase sexual activity and correct erectile dysfunction in animals. And they are similar in structure to endocannabinoids, chemicals that stimulate hedonistic hotspots in our brain, triggering pleasure.
In one study, at Victoria University in Australia, postmenopausal women were given 3.5 grams of powdered Maca per day for 6 weeks and placebo for 6 weeks. When using the maca they reported less anxiety and depression and higher libido. Maca may also boost libido in women struggling to achieve orgasm while taking antidepressants.
8. Reduced Cravings
Maca is high in fibers, such as cellulose and lignins, which improve gut health. Fiber is also an effective tummy filler, which can reduce hunger between meals. Most maca powders also contain between 11% to 18% protein. Your body needs protein to build muscle, promote fat burning, and support the healthy function of all your cells. Nine amino acids are considered ‘essential’, to your health and the optimal function of your body. Maca contains 7 of them and many others that are non-essential.
According to the ‘protein leverage theory’, your body keeps signaling you to keep eating until you eat enough protein. When it registers it has enough, your brain switches off your hunger pangs. So as a high protein food and supplement, maca can help you reach that protein sweet spot every day. And it’s not laden with sweeteners and flavorings, like many protein powders.
9. Liver and Enzyme Support
Maca is a cruciferous vegetable, so it contains glucosinolates. In nature, glucosinolates are stored in cells of plants and act as natural pesticides to protect the plant. When you chew and digest them they change into health-boosting chemicals, which protect against cancer. They also contain sulfurs, which are found in foods like garlic and onions and form bonds that help your enzymes do their job in the body. In particular, sulfurs help your body produce a master antioxidant called gluthionine. This boosts the function of your liver and helps your liver detoxify.
Some people believe that glucosinolates block the body’s uptake of iodine. But the enzymes that might cause any problems are destroyed through cooking and also leach into cooking water. So if you have thyroid issues, you may still be able to tolerate maca without problems. Make sure you avoid the raw maca and choose a form of maca that has been pre-gelatinized (more on that in a minute).
10. Bone Benefits
Maca contains calcium and phosphorous. Both of these nutrients help strengthen bones. Black and red varieties of maca appear to the most beneficial.
Choosing The Right Maca
For more tips about maca quality, I also asked Dr. Shawn Tassone, a Mind/Body specialist, with special interest in Bioidentical Hormone Replacement and Integrative Medicine and Kim Ross, a Certified Dietitian, Nutrition Specialist and Functional Medicine Practitioner. Here’s their advice on what to consider about how maca is made:
The manufacturing process is a key factor for the quality of maca. Dr. Meissner and others at La Molina University in Peru have perfected the gelatinization process, removing the fiber and starches that make it hard to digest. This means the bioavailability of the root is maximized and as a result, your body benefits from the active constituents but this form of maca is also gentler on the digestive tract.
According to Dr. Peter Bablis, DC, ND, LAc, Medical Herbalist, “The quality of seed sources and soil content, as well as organic or biodynamic growing strategies and drying methods, all play a part in maximizing the quality of active constituents.” He further comments that the elevation, region-specific quality soil and the traditional sun-drying method have all been shown to contribute to the highest quality raw material.
Maca is considered “fragile”, meaning it can oxidize when exposed to air, heat and moisture. The oxidation process can create a loss of the active constituents that make it so effective. A stability analysis on Maca-GO showed that when maca was stored as a powder in jars or bags, the active ingredients degenerated by 50% within 3 months. For this reason, maca is best consumed in blister packs to protect the active ingredients and extend shelf life.
How Much Maca?
To gently introduce your body to maca, Dr. Tassone recommends the following approach:
- Start with a dose of 1 teaspoon and if you are tolerating that well, without side effects, increase the dose up to 1 tablespoon. If that proves too strong, lower the dose a little – to 2 teaspoons a day.
- Take maca for 2 to 3 weeks – because it can take that long before you see the full benefits. Some women have no obvious immediate effects or a few side effects during the first week of taking maca, but Dr. Tassone recommends to keep going for the 2-3 weeks, as sometimes side effects can subside.
- Cycle on and off: That means that you take maca every day for a few months and then take a break. This allows the cell receptors that detect maca to have a break too, so they don’t get too clever and try to shut down because you are getting maca so regularly.
Why Maca Makes Some Women Feel Sick
Some women find that maca causes unpleasant side effects including stomach bloating, cramps, nausea (or a gurgling tummy) and also heart palpitations or the jitters. These side effects may occur partly because your -maca is:
- Non-gelatanized: Traditionally, people in Peru have always cooked maca before consuming. Or they used dried powder to make a dish similar to porridge. However, raw maca that has been powdered from the dried, uncooked root, can be a little hard on the digestive system and may cause stomach upset in some women. For this reason, it’s best to use a form of maca that has been gelatinized. Gelatinization involves a steam process that makes the maca more digestible and also increases bioavailability of the nutrients.
According to the experts from Team Maca, “we see that about 5-10% of people (men and women) do not digest raw maca well. This is due primarily to the starch content of maca. There isn’t necessarily a correlation between that and the health level of the person. In cases where someone has sensitive digestion or trouble digesting starches in general we always recommend gelatinized maca or liquid glycerine based extracts.”
- The wrong strain: A strain of maca called Lepidium Peruvianum Chacon has shown the best clinical results but sometimes it is also called by another name, Lepidium meyenii, which may or may not be maca from Peru. I explain more about this confusion below.
- Over-dosing: If you start a dose that’s too high it could make your symptoms worse. Similarly, if you start using maca and think more is better, taking too much could also cause symptoms. So it’s always better to start with a small dose.
- Poor quality: Maca’s popularity as a superfood and super-supplement has led it to become a huge export market for Peru. Meanwhile, other countries have started producing maca too – some apparently using maca roots that have been smuggled out of Peru.
China has been growing the maca crop in the Yunnan province, an area struggling with pollution problems. This means that maca from China may be impure due to exposure to pesticides, chemical contaminants (including heavy metals) and solvents used during the manufacturing process. In addition, some Chinese maca crops have been Genetically Modified – which means they are not the same as the traditional maca grown in the Peruvian highlands. If the company that makes your maca does not state which country your maca comes from, email them and ask for more information.
- Taken on an empty stomach: If you have a sensitive stomach, always take your maca with food.
- Adding to your FODMAP load: Maca contains carbohydrates called polysaccharides, so if you are following a FODMAP diet or sensitive to carbs called FODMAPs, you might want to take only low doses of maca or avoid it altogether.
- Just not a good fit: Our own bio-individuality means that everyone reacts differently to nutritional supplements. If you experience side effects from maca and those issues don’t settle, then your particular system may be too sensitive to tolerate maca and you should avoid taking it.
- Slow estrogen metabolizer – I have not yet found a medical backing to this statement and this purely my observation and suspicion: women who are slow estrogen metabolizers (you can confirm it by testing with 23andme), might have a opposite reaction to maca. I’m certainly one of them. Maca, no matter what phenotype, form (gelanized) and dose, gives me severely tender breasts and painful PMS.
Adding Maca To Your Diet
Locals eat maca up to three times a day in Peru, usually boiled or roasted like potatoes. They use the dry powder in baking or heat it to make a dish resembling porridge. And they consume maca as a fermented drink called ‘maca chichi’. If you prefer maca in a loose form so that you can easily add it to smoothies, snacks or desserts this one from Asana Foods and The Maca Team are both ones I recommend. Maca can be added to many things like smoothies & green juices, muffins, protein balls & bars, homemade cacao chocolate, morning porridge or quinoa, pancakes, truffles, hot cocoa, or coconut milk, and more. Check out this great collection of maca recipe ideas we’ve put together.
Your Maca Checklist
Interested in giving maca a try? Then keep this in mind when choosing your supplement:
- Look for a gelatinized form of maca.
- Where possible, choose maca that has been produced in Peru. If the manufacturer does not state the country of origin, email them and ask.
- Choose a maca brand that is organic and sustainably grown and naturally harvested without use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, solvents, radiation or high heat.