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Other Names: Lepidium peruvianum
Related To: Cruciferous (Broccoli, Turnips, Mustard)
Main Uses: Vegetable Food, Nutrition, Medicine
Growth Rate: Moderate; matures 8-10 months from planting
Mature Height/Spread: Small mat-type plant.
Flowering/Pollination: Borne from a central raceme, small off-white, self-fertile.
Tolerance: Intolerant of both salt and drought.
Soil/Nutrition: Maca grows naturally in soils of poor nutrition, but in commercial plantings is supplemented with animal manures.
Light: Full sun.
Temperature: Maca is a very hardy crop, native to lands that may experience freezing weather year-round.
Diseases Prone: Maca is seldom attacked by anything; it is interplanted with potatoes for its ability to naturally repel bugs and nematodes.
Bearing Age: Harvested 8-10 months after planting from seed.
History/Origin: Maca is native to the Junin plateau highlands of Peru and Bolivia. It has been grown there as a significant agricultural crop for millennia by the Inca, and modern native peoples of the land still consider it a sacred crop as their ancestors did. Maca has been harvested and used by humans in the Andean Mountains for centuries, where cultivation was common in what is now Peru and Bolivia. Historically, maca was often traded for lowland tropical food staples, such as corn, rice, Maniot (tapioca), quinoa, and jungle fruits. It was also used as a form of payment for Spanish imperial taxes. It is often cited by companies marketing maca that the root was eaten in quantity by Inca imperial warriors before battles. Their legendary strength was allegedly imparted by this copious consumption of maca. After a city was conquered, the women had to be protected from the Inca warriors, as they became ambitiously virile from eating such quantities of maca. Of course, this is quite the appealing endorsement for the overtly masculine angle of maca’s recent marketing campaign. Whether or not this oft-repeated historical use is actually true has yet to be determined; those who have studied maca’s history have not been able to locate formal mention of this particular use.
Maca is traditionally grown at altitudes of approximately 4,100-4,500 metres (13,000-15,000 ft) elevation. It grows quite well in cold climates with relatively poor agricultural soils where few other crops can be grown. Like many cruciferous root vegetables, maca can exhaust soils that are not well-tended. Nearly all maca cultivation in Peru is carried out organically, as there are few pests naturally occurring at such high altitudes, and maca itself is seldom attacked. Maca is sometimes interplanted with potatoes, as it is known to maca farmers that the plant itself naturally repels most root crop pests. Maca croplands are fertilized mainly with sheep and alpaca manure and are often rested for a period of years to rebuild nutrients in the soils naturally. 8-10 months elapse between sowing and maturity for harvest. The yield for a cultivated hectare is approximately 5 tons. Maca is typically dried for further processing, which yields about 1.5 tons total. Although maca has been cultivated outside the Andes, it is not yet clear whether it develops the same active constituents or potency. Hypocotyls grown from Peruvian seeds form with difficulty at low elevations, in greenhouses or in warm climates. Seeds obtained from Bolivian maca, which is native to lower altitudes, are more easily grown under such conditions.
Species Observations: Roots (hypocotyls) do not form readily under greenhouse conditions or at low elevations. They are often very small or non-existent, suggesting that maca is very acclimated to a specific environment. Naturally, maca varies greatly in the size and shape of the root, which can be triangular, flattened circular, spherical or rectangular, the latter of which forms the largest roots. Maca hypocotyls can be gold/cream, red, purple, black and green. All maca fields throughout Peru and Bolivia are a mixture of the different colors, which are sometimes sorted and separated after harvest and sold as unique “cultivars” although there is almost no difference between them genetically. Cream colored roots are the most widely grown and are favored in Peru for their enhanced sweetness and size. Black maca is considered the strongest in medicinal and energy-promoting properties, being both sweet and slightly bitter in taste. Red maca is also becoming popular with many people and has also been studied specifically. These three ecotypes are the most commonly grown and exported, and their specific use is based on the personal preferences of those who consume them.
Since maca was selected as a food crop, the differences between the ecotypes of maca are mainly in color, size, and sweetness, there being about 13 distinct types in all. These differences are phenotypical – some of these differences are expressed as a response to altitude/region. Maca’s genes are fairly identical across the entire species, and the medicinal effects are an incidental property that undoubtedly enhanced people’s desire for its continued cultivation.
Propagation: By seed.
Container Culture: n/a
Medicinal Uses: Maca has many uses, with varying degrees of preliminary peer-reviewed support. Presently it is used for: Alleviating Menopausal Symptoms, Correcting Hormonal Imbalances, Increasing Libido, and Increasing Energy, and Nutrition.
Nutritional Information: n/a
Preparation / Food: In Peru, maca is typically used in baking and cooking. The powders now produced commercially and exported are often mixed into shakes. Less scrupulous marketers encapsulate the product, usually resulting in relatively tiny doses with no detectable therapeutic effect. The growing demand for the supplement industry has been one of the primary reasons for maca’s expansion in farming and exporting. The prominent product is maca flour, which is ground from the hard, dried roots. In Peru, maca flour is used in cooking, porridge, and baking as a base and a flavoring. The supplement industry uses both dry roots and maca flour for different types of processing and concentrated extracts. A quick internet query will show dozens of different extracts available, each touting some enhanced efficaciousness for traditional use or health claim.
Another common form is maca which has undergone gelatinization. Starch gelatinization is an extrusion process, sometimes used for other roots and vegetables, which expands the starch molecules, and breaks down some of the fiber in the roots using heat and water. Maca is one of many root vegetables which can be gelatinized to allow more efficient digestion. Gelatinized maca is employed mainly for medicinal/supplement purposes, but can also be used like maca flour. There is also freeze-dried maca juice, which is a juice squeezed from the macerated fresh root, and subsequently freeze-dried.
Although maca root has been revered for thousands of years for its medicinal properties, it is one of the newest remedies to gain prominence in the natural health community, and its newfound superfood status is well-deserved. Researchers continue to uncover additional health benefits associated with this potent root vegetable.
What exactly is maca?
Maca, also known by its scientific name Lepidium meyenii, is a cruciferous vegetable native to the Peruvian Andes. Maca resembles radishes and turnips in size and appearance, with green tops and yellow, purple, or black roots.
The palatable root, or hypocotyls, is typically available in powder form after being harvested and ground into a fine powder. Not only is it a natural source of healing nutrients, but it has a long history of being consumed for its health benefits in Andean regions for thousands of years.
It is also known as an “adaptogen,” a term given to certain herbs, plants, and natural substances that help the body adapt naturally to stressors such as a busy schedule, demanding job, or illness.
In addition, maca is rich in essential micronutrients and antioxidants, and it has been shown to improve sexual health, balance hormone levels, and enhance energy, mood, and memory.
May Improve sexual performance
Some evidence suggests that those with low libido or low sex drive may benefit from taking maca supplements.
In a 2015 small study involving 45 women with antidepressant-induced sexual dysfunction, taking 3,000 mg of maca root per day for 12 weeks significantly improved sexual function and libido versus placebo (3Trusted Source).
Maca root may improve female sexual dysfunction and increase sex drive. One study examined the effects of maca root on postmenopausal women with antidepressant-induced sexual dysfunction. In comparison to a placebo, maca root significantly enhanced sexual function. (8) Similar results were found in a second study, which reported that maca was well-tolerated and capable of enhancing libido and sexual function. (9)
A 2008 study found that maca root benefits postmenopausal women’s psychological symptoms and sexual function. In fact, after six weeks of treatment, maca was able to reduce depression and anxiety associated with menopause. (10)
A 2010 review of four high-quality studies with a total of 131 participants found evidence that taking maca for at least six weeks increases sexual desire (4Trusted Source).
Maca has also been shown to balance female sexual hormones and alleviate menopause symptoms. (11) Balancing hormone levels is essential for numerous aspects of reproductive health and can reduce symptoms such as infertility, weight gain, hot flashes, and bloating.
However, the researchers noted that the included studies were small and that there was insufficient evidence to draw definitive conclusions.
Even though this research is encouraging, it is currently unclear whether the use of maca has any actual therapeutic value for treating sexual dysfunction or low libido caused by symptoms of depression.
Balances Estrogen Levels
The primary female sex hormone responsible for regulating the reproductive system is estrogen. This vital hormone imbalance can result in a variety of symptoms, including bloating, irregular menstrual cycles, and mood swings. A woman’s inability to ovulate and become pregnant may also be hampered by excessive or deficient estrogen levels.
Maca root can help regulate hormone levels and estrogen levels within the body. In a study published in the International Journal of Biomedical Science, 34 early postmenopausal women were given either a tablet containing maca or a placebo twice per day for four months. In addition to balancing hormone levels, maca relieved menopause symptoms, such as night sweats and hot flashes, and increased bone density. (11)
In addition to alleviating menopause symptoms, regulating estrogen levels may also improve reproductive health and fertility and reduce symptoms associated with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), such as excessive hair growth, weight gain, and acne.
Strengthens Male Fertility
What is the maca root’s effect on men? While research does not support the claim that maca increases testosterone levels, it does demonstrate that maca powder is beneficial for male sexual health and fertility.
An eight-week maca supplementation increased male sexual desire, according to a Peruvian study. In a 2001 study, maca was shown to improve semen quality and sperm concentration, two crucial factors in male infertility. (13)
Additionally, maca may benefit sexual dysfunction. A 2010 review of four clinical trials evaluating the effects of maca on libido revealed that two of the studies demonstrated an improvement in mild erectile dysfunction
and sexual desire in both men and women. However, neither of the other two trials yielded a positive result, so additional study is still required. (14)
Abundant in Antioxidants
As a natural antioxidant, the maca plant increases the levels of glutathione and superoxide dismutase in the body. Antioxidants help neutralize dangerous free radicals, preventing chronic disease and cell damage.
In a 2014 test-tube study, polysaccharides extracted from maca were shown to have high antioxidant activity and to be effective against free radical damage. (1)
In a Czech Republic animal study, it was discovered that administering a concentrated dose of maca to rats not only improved their antioxidant status but also significantly decreased levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the liver and lowered blood sugar, thereby preventing the development of chronic disease. (2) In the meantime, a separate test-tube study demonstrated that the antioxidant content of maca leaf extract could protect against neuronal damage. (3)
By preventing oxidative stress and cell damage, increasing your antioxidant status may be beneficial for preventing conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. (4) Despite these encouraging results, additional research is necessary to determine how the antioxidants in maca root may affect humans.
Boosts Energy, Mood, and Memory
Regular users of maca powder report feeling more alert, energized, and motivated, frequently within a short period of beginning use. In addition, maca can help increase energy without causing “jitters” or shakiness, as high levels of caffeine can.
According to clinical trials, maca may have a positive effect on energy and stamina. Maintaining positive energy levels can also improve mood, and preliminary research suggests that maca may reduce depressive symptoms. (5)
Maca is believed to help prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes and maintain adrenal health, which regulates mood and energy levels throughout the day. However, the exact mechanism by which maca increases energy levels remains unknown. Keeping your energy levels high may also prevent weight gain.
Several studies have also demonstrated that maca root improves memory and concentration. In fact, two animal studies published in 2011 discovered that black maca improved memory impairment in mice, most likely due to its high antioxidant content. (6, 7)
Maca root powder is an excellent source of protein, fiber, vitamin C, copper, and iron, among other vitamins and minerals. It also contains over 20 amino acids, including all eight essential amino acids, and an abundance of phytonutrients that promote health. It also contains numerous beneficial plant compounds, such as glucosinolates and polyphenols, and is a popular vegan option.
Maca’s and its Products: Correcting Misconceptions
The science surrounding maca is not extensive. Many of the focused clinical studies have been conducted on men, and only in small sample sizes, while maca remains even less formally researched in women and children.
Even though maca has been profiled genetically and biochemically, in general, the entire body of research regarding maca’s biological activity in humans is preliminary.
As with coffee, maca does contain perceptible components, the eater feels it doing something when they eat it. Reports about maca’s beneficial effects and the enthusiasm surrounding the plant is a largely anecdotal phenomenon. The author suggests that people who wish to benefit from maca’s interesting effects do so on the basis of education about what the plant is, and it’s proper/traditional uses, and make the choice based on a personal preference.
Obtaining information from entities who market the products may only confuse proper horticultural, culinary, and genetic understanding of the plant. Due to prolific, enthusiastic marketing efforts, there is much confusion around maca’s appropriate use and some incorrect or conflicting information as alternative medicine.
The most basic misconception involves the widespread ingestion of raw maca culinary flour (raw whole maca powder) as a supplement. This use, which is ubiquitous in health food and raw food circles here in the USA ignores the important culinary aspect of the plant’s ethnobotany.
Maca flour (harina de maca) is a culinary flour in the Andes Mountains, and it has always been cooked. Understanding this identity is important. Natives of the central Andes do not regularly use raw maca, and in fact, this use is sometimes considered harmful . This raw use has certainly caused stomach pain/indigestion for many people, turning them off to a rather remarkable plant.
Confusing also is the proliferation of apparently particularized information about maca’s varieties, constituents, and uses. Manufacturers and retailers have sought to create a mystique of proprietary maca science. The predominant concept that different types of maca are used in men vs. women is a recent invention, not part of maca’s historical use. Andean peoples do not make such distinctions in medicinal effects. Historically maca was grown and selected primarily as a food crop , its therapeutic benefits being incidental to its importance as food. There is no substantial difference between ecotypes, maca’s many colors and shapes are nearly identical genetically and biochemically. All are being grown side-by-side on every maca plantation, and are sometimes sorted by color after harvest depending on the manufacturer. Diversity is itself an inherent characteristic of the species lepidium peruvianum . All cultivated maca in the Andes is of the species lepidium peruvianum, although the Latin name recognized by the USDA continues to be lepidium meyenii. They are the same species, referring to the same plant.
Maca is an ancient food, one with perceptible effects and some potential health benefits – it is best to begin with that understanding, and to seek sources of scientific evidence within academic circles. Some sources are provided below.
1. Kilham, Chris (Professor of EthnoBotany at Umass Amherst) (2012, May 20). Public communication.
2. Taylor Leslie G (2005). The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs: A Guide to Understanding and Using Herbal Medicinals. Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers. ISBN 0-7570-0144-0.
3. Kilham, Christopher (2002). Tales from the Medicine Trail: Tracking Down the Health Secrets of Shamans, Herbalists, Mystics, Yogis, and Other Healers. [Emmaus PA]: Rodale Press. ISBN 1-57954-185-2.
4. Valerio, L. G., Jr. and Gonzales, G. F. Toxicological aspects of the South American Herbs “Cat’s Claw (Uncaria tomentosa)” and Maca (Lepidium meyenii) : A Critical Synopsis. Toxicol. Rev 2005;24 (1) :11-35
5. Bogani, P., Simonini, F., Iriti, M., Rossoni, M., Faoro, F., Poletti, A., and Visioli, F. Lepidium meyenii (Maca) does not exert direct androgenic activities. J Ethnopharmacol 4-6-2006;104(3):415-417.
6. Balick, M. J. and Lee, R. Maca: From Traditional Food Crop to Energy and Libido Stimulant. Altern. Ther. Health Med. 2002; 8(2):96-98.