Have you ever felt overwhelmed after a visit to your doctor, or nutritionist? There are tons of great supplements to take, but one can’t take them all at the same time. Often a bigger problem is not that there are too many to take, but rather that we forget to take them at all.
Substituting supplements for food sources is a great deal easier and somehow feels ever so much better. Maca is one such food source, its benefits are far-reaching and are beneficial to both sexes, thus making it incredibly easy to combine and utilize in everyday eating.
What is Maca?
Maca (Lepidium Meyenii Walp or L.peruvianum) is part of the cruciferous root vegetable family. It is native to the Puna ecosystem of the Andean Mountain plateaus of Peru, where it was domesticated during the pre-Inca Arcaica period approximately 3800 BC. For over 2000 years the Inca people cultivated and utilized maca in their everyday lives. It was a food source that provided them with nourishment and which they utilized as an energizer, aphrodisiac (for themselves and their livestock) as well as a fertility aid (Laux, 2008).
It grows exclusively between 13,000 to 15,000 (3500 to 4500 meters) feet above sea level, in an incredibly harsh environment. The soil is very acidic, a combination of clay and limestone, with plenty of stones (Laux, M., 2008). The winds at that altitude are very strong and the temperatures change daily from the high twenties in the blaring sun to negative twenty degrees Celsius at night. Maca seeds are sown between September to October and it takes about seven to nine months before they can be harvested (harvesting usually takes place between May and July)(Ingram, 2014).
The preparation for the sowing begins in March to April. From March to April the area that is designated to be cultivated is cleared of all debris such as stones and plant overgrowth and later fertilized with the manure of sheep and llama. When the time comes to harvest it is essential to gather, by hand, all the vegetables at around the same times. Though it can be consumed as is, it is often dried in the sun, after which maca continues to dry in the shade of a specially built shed for two months. From there it is kept in dried storage for several months until it is needed (ibid).
The area of land that is used to cultivate maca has increased exponentially. In 1994 approximately 50 hectares were in cultivation in the Peruvian plateaus, this expanded to 1,200 hectares in 1999 and to-date an estimated 2,000 hectares are in use for the cultivation of maca. This expansion has resulted in an extension of the cultivation of maca into Bolivia and Argentina (Laux, M., 2008).
There are several colours of maca, which are a result of varying concentrations of the flavonoid (a secondary plant compound) anthocyanin in the outer layer of the root. It is traditionally believed, and probably, that there are distinctions amongst the different varieties of maca in terms of nutritional and physical benefits. However, research that is conducted on maca often looks at the plant species as a whole and does not distinguish between varieties (ibid).
Nutritional Constituents of Maca
Maca is a very nutrient-dense root that has for thousands of years been consumed by the Native Peruvians in a variety of ways. They consumed it (and continue to) both fresh and dried. In Huancayo, Peru it is made into a jam as well as a pudding. Traditionally it has been eaten as a sweet porridge known as mazamorra and as a fermented drink – maca chichi (Khan, I., Muhammad, I., & Zhao, J., 2010) (Ingram, 2014).
As an estimate, each maca root contains …
- Between 60-75% carbohydrates
- 10-14% protein (this percentage increases to 13-16% when the root is dried and is mainly available in the form of polypeptides and amino acids)
- 8.5% fibre
- Approximately 2 -3 % fat (composed of mainly; linoleic, oleic and unsaturated fatty acids)
- Fresh and raw maca roots are very high in iodine and iron.
Maca contains a large assortment of secondary metabolites, though it is believed that the types of compounds vary amongst the different colours of the root. The five main groups of metabolites that are present in maca are (there are a few described below);
- essential oils (an estimated 53 different varieties)
Glucosinolates: makes maca very potent as an anti-mutagenic and anticancer root vegetable. Glucosinolate also provides maca with its aphrodisiac properties, as well as aiding in stimulating fertility in both males and females.
Sterols: Aid in re-balancing cholesterol levels within in body, as well as reducing the uptake of cholesterol through the intestinal tract (Muhammad, I., Zhao, J., Dunbar, D., & Khan, I. A., 2002) (Khan, I., Muhammad, I., & Zhao, J., 2010).
Maca is high in Vitamins B1 (Thiamine), B2 (Riboflavin) C and E.
Vitamin B1/Thiamine: Metabolic role in the cellular production of energy (primarily the production of glucose creates energy). Essential nutrient for the health strength and flexibility of the nervous system, as well as a protector of the integrity of the myelin sheath (which is a protective fatty encasing for the nerves). Thiamine aids in the treatment of stress, muscle tension, fever, infections, cramps, diarrhea and headaches.
A deficiency of thiamine can cause fatigue, depression, insomnia, gastrointestinal discomfort, abdominal pain and constipation (etc.)
Vitamin B2/Riboflavin: Precursor for the production of two enzymes (flavin mononucleotide and flavin adenine dinucleotide) that are essential in the manufacturing of energy in the body.
Riboflavin is also essential for cell respiration, promoting more efficient use of oxygen thus allowing for the maintenance of healthy vision, hair, nails and skin (used in the treatment of acne, eczema, ulcers and dermatitis). It is also indispensable for the routine growth of cells and the recycling of glutathione in the body.
Vitamin C: Essential in the manufacturing and upkeep of collagen (skin, capillary walls, teeth, bones, joints, vertebral disks, etc.). Aids in wound healing, the metabolism of tyrosine, tryptophan and folic acid and boosting the immune system. Vitamin C stimulates the adrenal glands, positivity affects their function and assists in the balancing of hormone levels. If one is under high-stress vitamin c is depleted and the function of adrenals and subsequently the immune system depletes.
Vitamin E: is an antioxidant. It modifies and stabilizes blood fat levels to strengthen and ensure that blood vessel, the heart, and the whole body are protected from the damage of free-radicals. It reinforces the cell membrane and supports the tissues of the liver, breasts, testes, liver, eyes and skin.
Without adequate levels of Vitamin E in one’s system cell membranes, active enzyme sites and DNA become highly prone to damage from free-radicals. This can lead to chronic inflammation, heart disease, hypertension and cancer (Hass, E. M & Levin, B., 2006).
Maca is a very rich source of Potassium, Calcium, Sodium and Iron.
Potassium: Essentially needed to promote healthy cardiovascular and nerve function. Aids in the treatment of hypertension, fatigue, the feeling of weakness and tiredness as well as diarrhea and headaches.
Lack of Potassium in the diet is common among elderly and individuals with chronic disease. Diarrhea, vomiting and any gastrointestinal issues will greatly reduce potassium levels in the body – resulting in dehydration. Excessive fatigue is another sign of potassium insufficiency.
Calcium: Is needed – among other vitamins and minerals – for the maintenance and development of bones and teeth. It is essential for muscular activeness and in regulating heartbeat.
Most individuals in developed countries receive more than their fair share of calcium from food and supplementation – so much so that many experience calcium excess. Therefore, if looking to increase calcium in the diet do so by adding it through food and do not always rely on dairy products.
Sodium: Balances fluid levels in the body (Sodium-Potassium Pump – essential for muscle contraction and the transmission of nerve impulses) as well as acid-base balance. Sodium manufactures osmotic pressure which allows for the regulation of fluid levels in the body and blood.
Depletion of sodium in the body will show up as a lowering of blood volume, increased hematocrit, decreased blood pressure (if one had stable blood pressure before this would be an issue), and the cramping of muscles. Nausea, vomiting, poor concentration and memory are all signs of sodium deficiency.
Iron: Is responsible for the formation of both hemoglobin (in bone marrow) and Myoglobin (needed to carry oxygen to muscles). Iron also manufactures enzymes for the production of energy and the metabolism of protein. Furthermore, iron is needed for collagen formation, keeping immunity boosted and for the utilization of fat.
Lack of iron in the body can be seen most commonly as anemia, however, low stamina, fatigue, paleness, headaches, lowered immunity, constipation, dizziness, and psychological issues are all attributed to low iron (Hass, E. M & Levin, B., 2006)
Maca benefits are astonishingly abundant. Maca is a functional food, which is a food that has an exceedingly positive effect on our health. Maca benefits our mind, our ability to combat stress, it increases our vitality, brings up our energy and makes us feel amazingly good. It revitalizes our body and the great thing about maca, like many other functional foods, is that it works on the body as a whole. You may feel a change in one area over another, but in essence, the whole body is being worked on simultaneously.
Maca is an Adaptogen
Adaptogens are defined as “herbal preparations that [increase] attention and endurance in fatigue and [reduce] stress-induced impairments and disorders related to neuroendocrine and immune systems” (Panossian, 2010, page 190) or “metabolic regulators which increase the ability of an organism to adapt to environmental stressors and prevent damage to the organism by such stressors” (Panossian, 2013, page 49). They balance the body and bring it into a state of equilibrium despite the pathological state of the individual. Criteria for adaptogens go as follows;
- increase the state of nonspecific resistance to stress and disease
- positively reducing the effects of stress on the entire individual, as well as their organs and the function of those organs
- a great degree of safety
- balancing bodily functions despite the presence and the disposition of the stressors
- bringing the body back into hemostasis
Maca is such an adaptogen. It balances, brings structure and strength back into the body despite the presence of stressors. Maca benefits, strengthens and rebuilds the adrenal glands, allowing the individual to properly deal and handle stressors, as well as reduce the negative implications of cortisol on the body. Moreover, it effectively and simultaneously increases energy, boosting sexual function, libido, boosts immunity, improves mental clarity and function, increasing stamina and bringing the body back into a state of balance which results in a pleasant state of mind and well being (Ingram, L., 2010) (Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010).
Maca for Energy – increasing energy
The nutritional content of maca makes it a great energy booster. Along with its adaptogenic properties, the high mineral content, a wide variety of plant steroids and other secondary plant compounds, high B-complex profile and being a complex carbohydrate allow maca to provide the body with what it is missing to keep it functioning optimally. When the body is running low on nutrients, as a result of a nutrient bland diet or a life that is a high flying, full of stress and little time to recharge it gets worn down over time, therefore it is important to support it. Your body is like a car (but more awesome), sure you can put off maintenance for some time yet unlike a car you can’t buy yourself a whole new body (Khan, I., Muhammad, I., & Zhao, J., 2010)(Ingram, L., 2010) (Laux, M., 2008)
Maca aids in stabilizing blood sugar level balances hormones and aiding digestion. These are just a few of maca’s many benefits, but thought just these three energy is revved up. By stabilizing blood sugar levels one will not experience a sudden and rather unpleasant drop in energy. There will not be a surprise crash shortly after breakfast or lunch, blood sugar will slowly decline (as it should) until your next balanced meal. By balancing hormone one will not experience an uphill and crazy battle with their emotions, sleep will be better regulated and when waking up in the morning a feeling of being well-rested and recharged will come upon them. In terms of improving digestion, the gut is the centre ingredient to better health. Any dysfunction in the digestive system will sooner or later negatively affect the body in one way or another. Reducing bloating, allowing for nutrients to be properly assimilated into the body and the effective removal of toxins will boost energy stores in the body (basically it will allow your body to function more optimally resulting in energy not being wasted and instead being put to good use, such as making you feel amazing and wonderful!)(ibid).
Maca for Stress – stress reduction and adrenal health
Under periods of great stress, anxiety, depression or major trauma the body uses up much of its energy stores, leaving the body running low. At this state instead of being able to move past one’s hurdle, a draining state will persist and it may potentially get worse (Greenfield, 2014).
Stress is attributed to the release of cortisol by the adrenal glands. Cortisol, along with aldosterone, epinephrine, norepinephrine, dehydroepiandrosterone and adrenocorticotropic hormones are produced within the adrenal glands and aid the body in adapting and dealing with stress – an anti-stress hormone; among other things (Ibid) (Kharrazian, 2010).
There is a limit to the benefit. If your body believes that it is constantly in a fight or flight state – a physiological response that happens as a reaction to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival (stressful job, financial issues, car accident, divorce, illness) – ones adrenal glands will become hyperactive proliferating the production of cortisol in relation to the demands of stress; this may go on for weeks, months or even years (Greenfield, 2014) (Kharrazian, 2010). One will start to experience a sense of fatigue, unexplained tiredness even when stimulates, such as coffee are present. Insomnia and weight gain will start to arise and become evident as cortisol levels rise in the body, eventually resulting in resistance to thyroid hormones (Greenfield, 2014).
High cortisol levels in the body would also negatively implicate the following:
Maca can help, though it may take some time, remember it is an adaptogen – it builds up the body’s tolerance to stress, trauma and fatigue. Unlike coffee that may bring a sense of stimulation and rush of energy, maca will not only provide the body with a burst of energy it will support the adrenal glands allowing the individual to better recuperate and deal with stressful situations that persist in their daily lives. Maca strengthens the endocrine system (thyroid, parathyroid, pancreas, and adrenal glands) as well as bringing it back into balance. For the adrenal glands, maca will help them get back into focus and not keep churning cortisol day and night (Ingram, 2014) (Gottfried, 2014).
The B vitamins present in maca, along with its high antioxidant profile and magnesium make it the perfect food source to support overworked adrenal glands, as well as the rest of the organs in the endocrine system and the nervous system as well. When the body is in a constant state of fight or flight B vitamins are quickly used up, therefore it is important to provide the body with a steady flow of an array of B vitamins whether through supplementation or food, thus allowing for the steady healing of the adrenal glands (Ingram, 2014).
Eventually, if the adrenal glands were in fatigue their function will normalize and be rebalanced and the individual in question will be able to deal far better with stressful fight or flight situations into the future.
Female Sexual Health
Maca root benefits for a woman’s health is amazing. A prolonged daily dosage has a wonderfully positive impact on fetal growth and aids in reducing miscarriage rates, the maca dosage is about 1500 mg daily, beginning with a lower dosage and working your way up (Laux, M., 2008). Maca is also among the many natural menopause remedies, simultaneously preventing the development or aiding in the healing of estrogen deficiency bone loss also shown in women as osteoporosis (Khan, L., et al., 2010). Not only does a maca supplement improve female fertility but it is also a female libido enhancer (ibid).
Male Sexual Health
Historically Maca has been used for erectile dysfunction in South America. Being an adaptogen maca root does take time for the benefits to kick in. Taking a maca supplement with aid in rebalancing and repairing the circulatory issue of the penial artery (Laux, M., 2008) (best taken as a liquid extract (Khan, I., et al., 2010)). In terms of sexual disorders and male health, taking a maca supplement can also improve sperm count and volume by increasing insulin growth factor, showing a 200% increase in some men who supplement with about 1500mg of maca powder daily (always begin at a lower dose, work your way up and consult your physician or nutritionist). This aids in increasing male fertility (Laux, M., 2008). It has been shown in preclinical studies that black maca root powder has the greatest effect on males sperm production (Khan, I., et al., 2010). Taking a maca supplement can also bring balance back to male hormone levels including progesterone and testosterone (ibid).
What does one look for when buying Maca?
Gelatinized Maca – contains a very high amount of active nutrients, easily assimilated by the body. Starch is removed making maca more easy to be absorbed in the digestive tract. It also removes hydrocyanic acid which is not the best for the body.
Powder form, keep it in the fridge and throw it into your oatmeal, yogurt, soup, tea and smoothies. Although the pill form can be easier to take, having maca available as a powder you can sneak it into your families morning breakfast to set them up for a power-filled day. Maca is safe for children and the elderly. Moreover, some individuals already take a lot of supplements in the form of pills and tablets, or perhaps they have a hard time swallowing them – maca as a powder helps them efficiently power their day. Only buy the root. If the product ingredients say maca leaves or stem the benefit will not be there.
Read the ingredients list. You should only read Maca or Gelatinized Maca. You don’t want any fillers. The only instant that other ingredients may be beneficially wanted is if the supplement is a superfood blend. Some companies may blend it with rice flour, so read the ingredients closely. If, for example, the ingredients include maca blend; be skeptical do some research on the product beforehand. Where is it manufactured? If it’s not from Peru, Bolivia or Argentina, leave it on the shelf. Look for companies that make use of fair trade and care about traditional farming practices.
A Traditional Peruvian diet from the region where maca is grown and harvested can contain a fair amount of maca. The traditional porridge dish mazamorra can contain upwards of 60g of maca per serving (eds. Georgiopoulos, A.M., et al., 2005). This is not to say that you should start consuming a maca supplement by the tablespoon, it is simply to show you that it is safe for consumption and does not have any known levels of toxicity. Traditional Peruvian medicine utilizes maca root powder at dosages of 5g-20g, though if you are new to maca root powder it is best, to begin with, a small dose and work your way up (ibid).
Begin with 1/4 tsp or 1/2tsp a day of gelatinized maca powder or 500mg 3xdaily of maca pills. It is important to start with a smaller dosage and work your way up slowly, as some individuals find that they experience increased heart rate and nervous energy or jitters (Bennett, B.L., 2015).
As maca is a food and not a drug, herb or even a standard supplement many exports and traditional users do not see a limit to its consumption (ibid). In a 2006 study published in the International Journal of Biomedical Science, mice and rats were given maca to see the benefits the root would have on hormonal balance. A toxicity study was also conducted among other experiments. Mice were given 15g/kg of body weight and rats were given 5g/kg of body weight. No adverse effects where found and it was determined that the same dosages would be safe if administered to adult humans, though that high of a dosage would not be necessary to observe positive hormonal changes (Meissner, H.O., et al., 2006).
Maca Root Powder & Maca Pills Dosage
Menopause Relief: maca dosage 2-3.5 g/daily for up to 8 weeks. Some individuals s have even found beneficial effects with a daily dosage of between 1-2 g, therefore start small and work your way up.
Everyday dosage for adults: maca dosage 1/2 tsp – 1 tsp or 500 mg 3xdaily.
For children and elderly: maca dosage 1/4 tsp -1/2 tsp or 500 mg daily.
(Braun, L., & Cohen, M., 2015).
Maca can be taken with or without food, however, I find – as with any supplementation – it is best to have it with a meal (or as a meal – being that maca is a natural whole food supplement). Add to smoothies, baked goods, soups, hot and cold cereals, hot chocolate or matcha.
A maca supplement is safe for children, adults and the elderly. For pregnant women, it has not been shown to have any adverse effects on the body or child. It is best to consume is at the smaller dosage and to consult your nutritionist and medical practitioner for more information (ibid).
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Muhammad, I., Zhao, J., Dunbar, D., & Khan, I. A. (2002). Constituents of Lepidium meyenii ‘maca’. Phytochemistry, 59(1), 105-110.
Panossian, A.G. (PhD). (2013). Adaptogens in Mental and Behavioural Disorders. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America.pages 49-64.
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Amanda Filipowicz is a certified nutritional practitioner (CNP) with a bachelor in environmental studies (BES) from York University. She also has certification in clinical detoxification, prenatal and postnatal care as well as nutrition for mental health. She has been working as a nutritionist since 2013 and is a lifelong proponent of eating healthy.