How does it feel?
A cooling nutritive nerve tonic, Maca instantly delivers a rich sweet flavour profile, making it a herb that feels instantly nurturing and sustaining. Growing at the highest altitudes in one of the most botanically difficult climates in the world, Maca is a plant that can survive highly stressful environments and is interestingly used as an adaptogen to improve our ability to endure stress.
Maca has a sweet, earthy, nutty smooth taste. The sweetness can be likened to vanilla or butterscotch, with earthy, mineral rich tones making it instantly nutritive and pleasing to taste.
What can I use it for?
Maca is a deeply nutritive, nourishing herbal medicine, native to South America. Considered a superfood as well as a medicine, providing key macro and micronutrients that help to maintain health.
The primary applications of this herb are as an adaptogen (adaptogens are herbs that are used to increase the body’s resilience to high levels of stress hormones).
Maca may be of use to take during times of increased stress, or to help support with symptoms of prolonged stress exposure. An adaptogenic plant like Maca effectively works to support the systems most affected by high levels of stress hormones such as the immune system and the endocrine system (3).
Maca is also a popular herb for promoting libido and sexual fertility and overall function, as well as hormonal imbalances in men and women (5, 6). Like any herbal medicine taking Maca to achieve these effects needs to be in regular medicinal doses. It is also useful for post-menopausal women to help prevent osteoporosis, and to improve fertility in both men and women (2).
Maca is useful for adapting to altitude sickness, and for athletes or academics as it is thought to improve energy and cognitive function (2,8).
Into the heart of Maca
Maca is used both in culinary and medicinal preparations. The same seed crop of Maca produces three different coloured roots- yellow, red and black. According to ancient Andean shamans, this is no mistake – they believe that ‘la maca’ will provide you with the variety that you need for its unique medicine.
The most abundant form, yellow root, is considered best for daily use. Red and black are considered rarer and more sacred.
In traditional medicinal systems of the Andes, red maca is considered feminine and is used to nourish and nurture. Black maca is masculine – uplifting and energising, it is associated with external energy and power enhancing properties.Maca as a root medicine that is high in nutritive substances has a deeply nourishing and nurturing energy. The Incan people call maca the ‘food of the brain’, considering it their most sacred plant that brings happiness and balance back to the body during stress.
The majority of Maca products for culinary and medicinal uses are made using the yellow root and for all purposes this is known to be most versatile. The slight variations in use of the different colours is associated with minor pharmacological differences associated with the coloured root skin. The substance at the centre of the root is the same pharmacologically.
Maca has been domesticated for about the last 2000 years by the Incan tribes of Peruvian mountains, and archaeologists have found primitive cultivars of the plant dating back as far as 1600 B.C.
The root has long been considered a highly important source of nutrition and in South America it is traditionally used either fresh, or dried, and is often cooked in a similar fashion as sweet potatoes. Maca has been used for centuries by various cultures in the Andes, as a fertility medicine, in both humans and animals.
It is still used in Peruvian medical systems to treat anemia, tuberculosis, menstrual disorders, menopausal symptoms, memory loss, reproductive disorders, and as an immunostimulant, it is even used traditionally for certain cancers (4).
Western Herbal Medicine actions:
What practioners say
Nervous system: Maca has been shown to modulate the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis (HPA axis), which is critically involved with the body’s stress response feedback loop (2). Maca is also used by herbalists for its Neuroprotective effects (5). Herbalists would choose an adaptogenic herb like Maca to support patients who are experiencing prolonged exposure to stress hormones, this would be suitable in burn out, chronic fatigue syndrome and other similar stress related conditions.
Endocrine system: Maca has an amphoteric effect upon the endocrine (hormonal) system so it may be indicated for a number of different hormonal conditions. Its effects upon HPA axis, indirectly improve the function of many endocrine systems throughout the body, improving vitality, and adaptability in the body. These actions can be reflected in Macas antidiabetic, neuroprotective, antidepressant, anti-stress, fertility enhancing, aphrodisiac, antihypertensive, and menopausal supportive effects (5).
Male: Maca is used to increase sperm production and improve sperm function therefore enhancing male fertility. This works also as an aphrodisiac, increasing libido and sexual desire. Maca has also been used in practice as part of a supportive approach in other male health conditions such as benign prostate hyperplasia (6).
Female: Maca is also used as a tonic to the female reproductive system, and improves libido. Maca may also help with fertility issues. Maca is also used for support in hormonal conditions, including PMS, menopause, and hot flashes (6). It can support women’s hormonal health in every life stage.
Cardiovascular system: Maca significantly inhibits angiotensin I-converting enzyme (ACE) in vitro. ACE is an enzyme that along with potassium, is relevant in the pathophysiology of hypertension. Thus Maca may produce antihypertensive effects and support balanced blood pressure and cardiovascular health through studies on humans need to be conducted to confirm this (5).
Metabolism: Maca has many benefits to the production and maintenance of the cells in the body, as a herb that offers a complex nutritional profile, Maca is both an antioxidant and a trophorestorative.
Maca is rich in energy producing compounds and has a long history of use for enhancing energy levels. Maca has been shown to improve athletic performance, therefore it is an excellent choice for both maintaining energy and enhancing stamina, and can be used for both physical and cognitive enhancement (6).
Since the rise in maca’s popularity there has been an increase in research on maca’s aphrodisiac and fertility enhancing properties. Overall the in vivo studies and clinical trials conducted have yielded inconclusive results, and this is largely due to small sample sizes or limitations in the methodology. Some active compounds have been found but we cannot confirm their efficacy due to lack of data (11).
A randomized cross-over design, pilot investigation into the effects of maca on physical activity and sexual desire in sportsmen, 8 participants each completed a 40 km cycling trial before and after 14 days of supplementation with both Maca extract and placebo. Subjects also completed a sexual desire inventory during each visit. The study results show improved performance and sexual desire in trained male cyclists (6).
In a randomised, double-blind placebo controlled study a total of 175 participants were given 3 g of either placebo, spray-dried extracts black, or red maca extract daily for 12 weeks. Primary outcomes were changes in sexual desire, mood, energy, health-related quality of life score (HRQL), and chronic mountain sickness (CMS) score, or in glycaemia, blood pressure, and haemoglobin levels.
Low altitude participants started the study receiving placebo, red maca, or black maca, respectively. At high altitudes participants started the study receiving placebo, red maca, and black maca, respectively.
Consumption of spray-dried extracts of red and black maca resulted in improvement in mood, energy, and health status, and reduced CMS score. The study also showed that fatty acids and macamides were higher in spray-dried extracts of black maca than in red maca.
GABA predominated in spray-dried extracts of red maca. Effects on mood, energy, and CMS score were better with red maca, also reducing haemoglobin levels only in highlanders with abnormally high haemoglobin levels. Neither variety of maca reduced haemoglobin levels in lowlanders.
Black maca reduced blood glucose levels. Both varieties produced similar outcomes in mood, and HRQL score. The study concluded that Maca improves multiple quality of life parameters and reduces the risk of altitude sickness (8).
Yellow maca is especially rich in Macamides. A unique compound that works in the brain to preserve and increase levels of natural endocannabinoids, such as anandamide (also known as the bliss molecule). Macamides work by inhibiting an enzyme called FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase) which usually break down the endocannabinoids. As the macamides and anandamide have a similar chemical structure, they confuse the enzyme and slow the breakdown of natural anandamide, meaning the brain sustains higher and more resilient levels of anandamide for longer (8,9).
An in vitro study on Maca extracts to determine Maca’s ability to regulate glucose and lipid metabolism in insulin-resistant HepG2 cells. Using Maca extracts on glucose and lipid homeostasis in insulin-resistant cells the possible underlying mechanism involving the PI3K/AKT signalling pathway was investigated. The results showed that maca ethanol extracts exhibited significant antioxidant capacity. In addition, subfractions of maca ethanol extract could improve glucose and lipid metabolic disorders in HepG2 cells. The study concludes that Maca shows strong potential as a herbal medicine to improve glucose and lipid homeostasis (10).
Did you know?
The Incan people call maca the “food of the brain” and consider it their most sacred plant that brings happiness and balance back to the body during stress. What is unique about maca is that it comes in 3 colours, with seeds from any colour producing all 3 colours again. Therefore all 3 coloured roots come from the same species of the plant.
Maca is safe to take for most people with no WHO adverse reaction reports to note.
Maca is a member of the Brassicaceae (Cabbage) family and therefore contains high level of vitamin K. It is recommended to consult a Medical professional or herbalist if you are taking medications that may affect blood clotting before using Maca.
Maca can be included in the diet in powdered form or fresh where available.
Considering that 50–100 g per day of maca typically is consumed as food in Middle Andean countries, the use of 1–3 g per day as a dietary supplement is comparatively low to the required dose for medicinal actions. However some supplements are extracts and therefore stronger than plain ground root powder so it is important to check the extraction ratio and make sure you are sourcing a good quality product.
Powdered herb: approximately 70-85 g per week, depending on one’s size
Plant parts used
- Amino acids
- Fatty acids
- P-methoxybenzyl isothiocyanate
- Vitamin B1
- Vitamin B2
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Zinc (2)
Maca grows natively in the Peruvian highlands at elevations over 4000 m. While there are related species in Europe and North America, Maca’s habitat of intense cold and sunlight, along with extreme winds is unique. It has been cultivated in the Andes for 1500-2000 years, which is known for being one of the most botanically difficult climates in the world.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants database was accessed on 14.09.22 with no record of this plants endangered rating.
Maca was introduced onto the global market and demand has risen dramatically over this time. It has marketed as “Peruvian Ginseng” for fertility and libido enhancement amongst other things. The booming demand has seen a shift from traditional cultivation practises to the use of fertilisers and pesticides, which can change phytochemistry of the plant. This can effect the quality, safety and efficacy of a plant. Now maca is grown in various areas around the world such as the Yunnan province in China, where it is not naturally found. This globalisation has had serious consequences for local producers in Peru. There is a lack of protocols to regulate the production and marketing of maca further facilitating rapid expansion, which can threaten the sustainability of supply and consumer safety. This is why finding reputable suppliers is very important as products are often adulterated too (11).
It is said that boiling or otherwise heating Maca roots changes their metabolite levels. The aqueous extract of maca is effective if it has been boiled, and suggests that the boiled aqueous extract, has similar effect as hydroalcoholic extract of Lepidium spp (5).
Maca also contains glucosinolates, which are sensitive to heat. On the other hand, sulforaphane in Maca is actually increased in heat extraction preparations. Other metabolites influenced by heat include antioxidants in Maca (found to increase with heat) (5).
Herbal Medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to supply herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from unreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.
Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific/ botanical name is used.
A supplier should also be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration where supply chain is unknown.
How to grow
Store Maca seeds at or below 60 °F (16 °C) so they stay viable. Maca grows in cold mountainous climates, so it is important to avoid damp, humid conditions.
Maca is suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils. Suitable pH: mildly acid, neutral and basic (mildly alkaline) soils.
Sow seeds directly into soil in a spot that has full sun. Ideally locate your Maca where it gets at least 8–10 hours of sunlight throughout the day.
Maca and hempseed ‘brain boost’ smoothie
- 1 cup of fresh or frozen blueberries
- 1 cup of almond milk or oat milk
- 1 heaped teaspoon of unsweetened cacao powder
- 1 banana
- 1 teaspoon of powdered Maca
- 1 teaspoon of hulled hempseeds
To prepare your smoothie, blend all the ingredients until the mixture is smooth, and then sip and enjoy!
- DSC USP Safety Review of Maca: https://www.usp.org/sites/default/files/usp/document/products-services/dsc-sample-safety-review-2012.pdf. Accessed 13.19.2022
- The Sunlight Experiment. (n.d.). Maca Monograph (Lepidium meyenii). [online] Available at: https://thesunlightexperiment.com/herb/maca [Accessed 13 Sep. 2022].
- Winston, D. and Maimes, S. (2019). Adaptogens : herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press.
- Taylor, L. (2005). The healing power of rainforest herbs. Raintree Nutrition Inc., Carson City, NV, 89701, 122-125.
- Gonzales, G. F. (2012). Ethnobiology and ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a plant from the Peruvian highlands. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012
- Stone, M., Ibarra, A., Roller, M., Zangara, A. and Stevenson, E. (2009). A pilot investigation into the effect of maca supplementation on physical activity and sexual desire in sportsmen. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, [online] 126(3), pp.574–576. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2009.09.012.
- org. (n.d.). Lepidium meyenii Maca PFAF Plant Database. [online] Available at: https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Lepidium+meyenii.
- Gonzales-Arimborgo, C., Yupanqui, I., Montero, E., Alarcón-Yaquetto, D.E., Zevallos-Concha, A., Caballero, L., Gasco, M., Zhao, J., Khan, I.A. and Gonzales, G.F. (2016). Acceptability, Safety, and Efficacy of Oral Administration of Extracts of Black or Red Maca (Lepidium meyenii) in Adult Human Subjects: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study. Pharmaceuticals, [online] 9(3), p.49. doi:10.3390/ph9030049.
- Indigo Herbs. (n.d.). Red, Yellow or Black Maca – What’s the Difference? [online] Available at: https://www.indigo-herbs.co.uk/blog/coloured-maca-whats-the-difference [Accessed 13 Sep. 2022].
- Li, A., Liu, J., Ding, F., Wu, X., Pan, C., Wang, Q., Gao, M., Duan, S., Han, X., Xia, K., Liu, S., Wu, Y., Zhou, Z., Zhang, X. and Gao, X. (2021). Maca extracts regulate glucose and lipid metabolism in insulin‐resistant HepG2 cells via the PI3K/AKT signalling pathway. Food Science & Nutrition, 9(6), pp.2894–2907. doi:10.1002/fsn3.2246.
- Beharry S, Heinrich M. Is the hype around the reproductive health claims of maca (Lepidium meyenii Walp.) justified?. J Ethnopharmacol. 2018;211:126-170. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2017.08.003