Maca Root May Help Raise Your Spirits—But Proceed with Caution

The popularity of maca root exceeds the research behind it. While you may have read about maca benefits—boosting libido and easing menopause symptoms, for example—the medical community wants more research.

Also called ‘‘Peruvian ginseng,” maca is an adaptogen, meaning it helps the body adapt to stress

© Marek Uliasz | Dreamstime.com

You may have heard of maca root, but what exactly is it? Native to the Andes Mountains in Peru, maca root—after harvesting—can be sundried and then processed as a supplement. Also called ‘‘Peruvian ginseng,” maca is an adaptogen, meaning it helps the body adapt to stress..

A popular health supplement, maca root reportedly helps with:

  • Infertility (boosts sperm)
  • Libido
  • Sexual function
  • Hormone disruptions related to such conditions as perimenopause, menopause, and polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS)
  • Antioxidant levels
  • Memory and focus
  • Balancing moods and helping with anxiety and stress
  • Osteoporosis
  • Increasing energy (alleviate fatigue)
  • Clearing skin blemishes and acne

With all these benefits, it’s not surprising that maca root is a top-selling supplement. In fact, it became so popular for sexual function that in recent years that it experienced short supply (see “How Much Maca Root?” sidebar below).

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All That Glitters

As is often the case with nutritional supplements, the medical world isn’t overly impressed with maca root. Many experts say maca studies are too small, are conducted over too short a time period, and lack proof of cause and effect. Most of the studies we found were on maca root benefits for women experiencing menopausal symptoms and for increasing libido in both men and women.

One of the better documented uses of maca root for women battling post-menopausal symptoms was done in 2005. This double-blind, placebo-corrected study by Meissner et al., titled “Use of Gelatinized Maca (Lepidium Peruvianum) in Early Postmenopausal Women,” determined that it was “reasonable” to conclude that maca did aid hormonal processes and that test subjects reported a reduction of menopausal “discomfort.” Sounds good, but… not so fast, says the North American Menopause Society.

The organizaiton’s position statement reads, in part, “In a systematic review, only four maca studies were evaluable. All showed improved scores, but all trials were poor of quality, with poor trial design, very small sample sizes, or limited reporting of study data. Thus, these studies are not strong enough to support the use of maca for VMS (menopause-associated vasomotor symptoms).”

FYI

HOW MUCH MACA ROOT?

According to a New York Times story in December 2014, thieves broke into a warehouse in Peru and stole 2,600 pounds of maca root. Why? Herbs-america.com has a theory: The Chinese became so enthralled with maca’s libido effects that Chinese farmers couldn’t keep up with the demand. So Chinese sellers flooded Peru and purchased as much maca root as they could find, skyrocketing prices.

Since then, prices have settled down. At good old WalMart, we found maca root capsules from Nature’s Herbs at $12.99 for 100 capsules. At the recommended serving, that’s about 40 cents a day.

If you don’t like capsules, you can find maca root as a powder or liquid as well. If you find maca root fresh from the garden, you’ll probably be given a choice of red, black, and yellow, each with their own specialty (black maca root, for example, for muscle growth).

Maca for Libido

Maca root uses extend beyond menopausal symptoms. Low libido is a strong motivator for trying maca. In a report called “Maca Benefits: Low Libido in Women and Stress Relief,” the author stated, “A review of studies published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine assessed randomized clinical trials comparing maca to a placebo in men or menopausal women with sexual dysfunction. The results showed that maca was effective for increasing sexual desire when taken for at least six weeks at dosages ranging from 1.5 to 3 grams per day.” (See also our post “Maca Benefits: Low Libido in Women and Stress Relief.”)

An article in Psychology Today written by Michael Castleman lists several low-libido studies that are positive enough for the author to conclude “maca stimulates more than just the imagination.”

But, alas, again the medical community weighs in with less enthusiasm. In a study at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center that included maca, senior author Ryan Terlecki, M.D., wrote: “While certain natural supplements we reviewed show promise for improving mild sexual dysfunction, they lack robust human evidence. In addition, because of concerns that some products are impure or weak, we do not routinely recommend these products to our patients,” said Dr. Terlecki, associate professor of urology at Wake Forest.

Why So Glum?

While nutritional supplement proponents claim maca root is safe, well-tolerated, and non-toxic, the medical community recommends caution. Maca root is a phytonutrient, meaning it is a root that contains nutritional benefits. Maca root contains protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, amino acids, and a number of vitamins and minerals. However, it is so high in vitamin K that people on blood thinners may want to avoid it.

Maca root is also contraindicated for men with elevated blood PSA (prostate specific antigens) and women battling breast cancer. And while maca root also can raise blood pressure, it may also counter the libido-crushing side effects of some anti-depressant medications.

If you’re considering maca root and are battling any of the conditions or illnesses above, are taking any prescription medications, or are pregnant or nursing, consult a physician first.

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