Guest blog by Vicky Ware,
Maca – full name Lepidium meyenii – is a plant which grows in the highlands of Peru. It’s most well known as an adaptogen, that is a plant which has nutritional qualities that can help people recover from stress to get stronger, rather than becoming rundown. I found out more about adaptogens in another blog* post.
Maca can only grow at altitudes of between 4000 to 4500 metres and only does so in the Peruvian Andes where it is cultivated.
It has a long history of being used as a medicinal plant and now scientists are uncovering the biological basis for these medicinal benefits 1.
Maca powder is often consumed as a dry powder in Western countries, as it is dried and exported in powder form to preserve it. When eaten it is thought to have beneficial effects on memory, fertility, cognition, mood and more 1.
It’s thought that maca powder can energise and decrease anxiety while improving libido and sexual function 1. Scientists don’t yet know the exact mechanism behind these actions but it’s clear that maca is a ‘bioactive’ substance – one that acts directly on biological systems in the human body resulting in, in this case, positive outcomes 1.
Along with being a bioactive substance that has health benefits, maca is also a good source of some vitamins and minerals. It’s especially potent in vitamin C, iron and copper. Vitamin C is needed for iron to be absorbed properly in your body so maca is a great way to add to a balanced diet to get your daily iron requirement 2.
Athletes in particular need to pay attention to their iron intake to make sure they have enough to recover from exercise 3. Copper is essential to human health being involved in the function of a number of enzymes. Copper is also essential to allow absorption of iron. Deficiency is therefore associated with symptoms of anaemia 4.
In addition to these vitamins and minerals, 28 grams of maca powder also contains 0.4 grams of protein – that means 14% of the macronutrient content (fats, carbohydrates, fibre and protein) of maca powder is protein. Adding maca to your porridge or smoothie means adding the below nutrients and getting a boost to your protein levels.
3 grams of maca powder (that’s about 1 teaspoonful) contains 5:
- 14% of your RDA for vitamin C;
- 2% of your riboflavin;
- 1% of your niacin; and
- 2% of your vitamin B6.
3 grams also contains the following minerals:
- 1% of your RDA for calcium;
- 2.5% of your iron;
- 1.7% of your potassium;
- 9% of your copper; and
- 1.2% of your manganese.
Although the research isn’t conclusive, there’s evidence to suggest that maca can improve physical performance. When male athletes were given a maca supplement for two weeks, their speed when riding a bike for 40km improved – and what’s more, so did their libido 6.
Maca has been shown to improve sexual function – both interest in sex and ability to have sex – in a number of studies. These studies were done on both men and women, and significant improvements were seen in both 7.
A clinical trial also found that patients with mild erectile dysfunction saw improved results after using maca for 12 weeks 8. SSRIs are a group of drugs which tend to cause sexual dysfunction as a side effect. However, a study found that maca can alleviate symptoms of sexual dysfunction to some extent in people taking these drugs 9.
There is some evidence from animal studies suggest that eating maca can improve bone health. In particular, maca seems to reduce the poor bone health seen in animal models of post-menopause 10;11. Women who have gone through the menopause often see a loss of bone health which can result in osteoporosis – when bones are weak and can start to crumble 12.
In animal models maca has anti-depressant activity when consumed regularly 13. Maca also seems to improve the psychological symptoms associated with menopause in women, reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety 14.
Learning and Memory
Maca improves the ability of mice to learn new skills 13. It has also been shown to improve memory in mice – possibly due to the polyphenolic compounds found in maca which are antioxidant 13. Another study also found maca improved memory in mice again thought to be due to the antioxidant nature of maca 14.
The menopause is associated with a whole host of potential symptoms – and not many of them are jealousy inducing. There is hope though. A review study found that maca can improve symptoms associated with the menopause 16.
Prostate health is a concern for many men, with prostate cancer being the most common form of cancer seen in men in the UK 17. Maca has been shown to improve prostate health in animal studies, reducing the size of the prostate and other markers of poor prostate health 18;1.
Skin Health (UV Protection)
UV radiation from sunlight can damage skin cells which can lead to development of skin cancer. Topical application of maca leaves to skin before exposure to UV radiation (e.g. sunlight) resulted in protection from skin damage possibly due to antioxidants found in maca leaves 19. A similar study also found maca to be protective against sunburn when applied topically, but this time the maca was boiled and the extract used as a skin treatment 20.
Gelatinised maca has been processed to remove the starch and fibrous parts of the root. Raw maca has not been gelatinised and will contain the starch and fibre. Around 5kg of maca root to make 1kg of gelatinised maca meaning the gelatinised form is more potent in nutrients but lacks the fibre. Because the starch has been removed from gelatinised maca, it is easier to digest. However, the process involved in gelatinsing the maca may remove some of the nutrients and health benefits described above.
It’s the root of the maca plant which is eaten and has the health benefits described here. The root can either be eaten cooked and mashed like other root vegetables (such as potatoes) or dried and turned into a powder. The powdered form is the most common way maca is eaten outside of South America as it allows for preservation and bulk transport.
In its powdered form maca can be eaten mixed into fruit smoothies, vegetables smoothies, porridge or even soup. Its flavour isn’t strong enough to overpower the flavour of your favourite smoothie, but it will add a host of health benefits.
Maca has been known as a medicinal plant for centuries, and now scientists are finding out the reasons for its beneficial properties. Increased energy, reduced anxiety and depression along with improved fertility and sexual function are just a few of the benefits studies have reported when people and animals consume maca. Do you use maca to improve your energy and concentration? Have you noticed any other benefits? Let us known in the comments below!
Vicky has a degree in Biological Sciences with a focus on biochemistry and immunology and is currently studying for a MSc in Drug Discovery and Protein Biotechnology. She is also an endurance athlete.
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