Ask the Experts: Exploring the Benefits of Maca Root and DHEA

Q: Are there any benefits to taking maca root?

A: Maca is a plant that is a relative of the cruciferous family, and is native to South America. Its root has been consumed for centuries to boost endurance and energy, enhance fertility, and as an aphrodisiac. Traditionally, the root has been cooked and added to soups, turned into porridge, or prepared as a beverage. Today, maca root is frequently found in pill form, or as a powder supplement that is commonly added to oatmeal, smoothies, or juice. Consumers still use maca root to increase energy, endurance, and fertility. It is also being used to help with anemia, chronic fatigue syndrome, memory, hormonal imbalances, and additional ailments, including osteoporosis, certain cancers, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis, among others. Although there is preliminary evidence suggesting possible benefits of maca root in enhancing fertility and regulating hormones, there is insufficient research supporting health claims in general. While maca root is believed to be safe, pregnant or lactating women, and people taking medications, should consult their physician before consuming. In addition, individuals allergic to related vegetables, including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower, should not consume it.

—Kaley, Todd, MS, RD

Q: What are DHEA supplements, and do they work?

A: Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which is used to synthesize estrogen and testosterone. Natural DHEA production begins declining in one’s 20s. Synthetic DHEA supplements have been touted to improve aging skin, mood, bone density, sexual function, athletic performance, and many other thus far unsubstantiated functions. Though some studies show benefits for female patients with adrenal insufficiency, these same benefits are not seen in people who have low DHEA levels because of aging. There is, however, some data to show a benefit for people with chronic fatigue syndrome, systemic lupus erythematosus, and depression associated with aging. DHEA supplements are not recommended for people who have hormone sensitive cancers, like prostate, ovarian, and breast cancers, or for pregnant and lactating women. Supplementation may also reduce HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which could increase the risk for heart disease. For people with diabetes, supplementing with DHEA may decrease insulin resistance and increase insulin sensitivity, and DHEA may increase the effects of medications, especially estrogen and testosterone. Much more research is needed before DHEA supplements can be recommended.

—Sharon Salomon, MS, RDN

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