If you’re the type of person who peruses the aisles of your local health food store to browse through supplements, you may have noticed bottles of maca root on the shelves—and you may have even tried some out for yourself. (If you’re not this type, you may be wondering what the heck this product is and why its name sounds so much like a particular ‘90s dance craze.) Maca root is a dietary supplement that has steadily gained popularity in the U. S. in recent years because of its numerous purported health benefits. Yet, like many supplements, conflicting information exists as to its actual results. Let’s take a look to separate fact from fiction when it comes to what maca root can—and can’t—really do to help your overall health.
What Exactly Is Maca Root?
First, a bit of background: The roots of the maca plant grow in the high Andes of Peru at an elevation of at least 12,000 feet. This region boasts the ideal environment for these plants, as they require wind, cold, and ample sunlight. Since pre-Columbian times, maca roots have been used by the Peruvian people as a traditional medicinal agent for a variety of conditions, many of them related to hormones and reproduction. Spanish explorers first noted the use of the root of the maca on their expeditions in the 16th and 17th centuries, and German botanist Gerhard Walpers bestowed the plant with its scientific name Lepidium meyenii in 1843—but since that’s quite a mouthful, we’re thankful to just call it maca.
Like many natural remedies, maca root in its original form is an edible vegetable. A member of the crucifer family of plants, it’s not surprising that this plant has an appearance rather like a sandy turnip. Its categorization as cruciferous also means it’s related (distantly) to broccoli, kale, and radishes, among other well-known veggies. Maca roots can vary widely in size and shape, and multiple varieties grow on the Andean highlands. Scientists have isolated thirteen different types of maca, but native farmers typically identify just four by their color: cream-yellow (the most common), half-purple, purple, and black. These nuances have led to some discussion within the scientific community about the botanical uniqueness of each, and the healing properties they may confer.
If It’s a Vegetable, Why Don’t We Eat It?
Despite the edibility of maca roots, unlike many other supplements, these tuberous vegetables aren’t generally available in the U.S. in their original food form. (Which, in a sense, is a shame, since the root of the maca plant is packed with nutrients, like calcium, zinc, iron, and B vitamins.) So while you might pick up fresh ginger or turmeric spice at the grocery store to toss in your dinner stir-fry for an anti-inflammatory boost, you’re not likely to find maca root in your local produce aisle, unless you’re shopping in the heights of the Peruvian Andes.
With rising interest in unique international foods, there may come a day when maca roots find their place next to broccoli and beets on American grocery shelves—but most Westerners dislike the taste, which has been described as “dirty butterscotch.” (Yum?) If you do ever happen to locate fresh maca, be sure to cook it before consumption, as the raw plant is difficult to digest. Barring that situation, however, maca root is best taken as a powder or pill.
So, what is maca root used for, and what could it do for you?
Maca Root Powder Uses
Throughout the 3,000 years or so that maca has been employed as a supplement in traditional South American cultures—and more recently, in Western medicine—people have experimented with it as a treatment for dozens of conditions. By far at the top of the list of uses is improving sexual function, both as an aphrodisiac and libido booster (who knew a turnip could turn people on?). The ancient Incas believed maca root could not only stimulate sexual health, but also improve fertility and help ease symptoms of menopause. Hey, if we were living in the Andes without a modern pharmacy, we’d try it, too!
In modern times, people continue to seek out maca root powder for the same sexual health issues as the ancient Peruvians. These days, however, the supplement has also been associated with treating a host of other conditions, such as anemia, chronic fatigue syndrome, low testosterone, depression and anxiety, menstrual problems, PMS, and memory impairment.
While we’re all about food as medicine, we’d like to know our healthcare choices are based on evidence. So what does the science say about maca root’s real healing properties?
Evidence-Based Maca Root Benefits
Maca Root for Libido
First things first. Since the primary benefit associated with taking maca root seems to be its enhancement of libido, let’s delve a little deeper to see if the claims are true. So far, the research might be described as “cautiously encouraging”—though, compared to many other supplements, relatively few clinical trials have been conducted. In one study, a group of post-menopausal women was given a high-dose maca supplement for six weeks and placebo for another six weeks. After their maca dosage, the women reported significantly less sexual dysfunction (1). Likewise, a study on men (this time on male endurance cyclists) showed results after just fourteen days of taking maca root (2). The athletes’ self-reported sexual desire surveys reflected a notable increase with just a 2 gram daily dosage.
Perhaps the best news about maca root and sexual performance comes for people on anti-depressants. If you’ve tried conventional drug treatment for a mental health condition, you’ve probably discovered that SSRI antidepressants are notorious for decreasing sexual desire and ability to climax (a significant downside when trying to feel better). A small study conducted in 2008 tested the effectiveness of maca supplementation on improving this unfortunate issue (3). Subjects on anti-depressants stated that their libido improved significantly when they took a high dose (3 grams/day) of maca root.
Taken as a whole, these results look promising for maca root as a treatment for enhancing sexual desire. In a journal article on the subject, internationally recognized herbal medicine expert Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., says, “I would say that given the inexpensive cost of maca and its excellent safety profile, it seems reasonable to encourage women and men to give this herb a try if they are experiencing low libido” (4). Now we’re envisioning “dirty butterscotch” as maca root’s new sexy code name.
Maca Root for Men
In addition to jump-starting sex drive, it seems maca may offer additional benefits just for men. A study of 50 men with mild erectile dysfunction revealed that 12 weeks of taking maca root led to a “small but significant” improvement in their ED symptoms—and even boosted their overall sense of well-being (5). Plus, new research holds out hope for would-be dads: a 2016 systematic review indicated that maca root supplementation could improve semen quality in men (6).
The mechanism behind these benefits is so far unclear, since maca root does not actually appear to interfere with hormones (7). Scientists have theorized that organic compounds called sterols in the plant may act as chemical triggers for hormone-like changes, but the actual process remains a mystery. So if you ever see claims that maca increases testosterone, be wary. Blood testosterone literally does not change in men taking maca. Yet clearly this little Andean turnip gets results. Until further research sheds light on the process, we’ll have to trust the workings of nature.
Maca Root for Fertility
The Peruvian people have been using maca to enhance fertility for thousands of years. Could they have been onto something? Modern-day research is in the process of teasing out the answer. Thus far, with the exception of proven improvements in semen quality for men, most studies on maca root’s effects on fertility have been conducted on animals. In rats and mice, maca supplementation appears to increase embryo survival and the number of offspring, but humans (with a few exceptions) are not rats (8). So while these studies may open the door to investigating a connection between maca and baby-making, it’s important to remember that rodent and human reproductive systems have significant differences.
That being the case, more research is definitely needed to back up any claims of maca’s effectiveness for fertility—especially in women. As one (apparently frustrated) journal article author said of the claims around maca and fertility, “It appears that the indigenous local knowledge about the health benefits of maca has been dragged out of context to fit the demands of a growing market for herbal remedies” (9). Is it worth a trial if you’re struggling with fertility? Perhaps. The potential benefits do appear to outweigh the potential risks.
Maca Root for Menopause and PMS Symptoms
Let’s jump back for a moment to the study that found an increase in the libido of post-menopausal women using maca. This same research revealed that a high dose (3.5 grams/day) improved subjects’ emotional symptoms associated with menopause. Though no differences in actual hormone levels were detected (just like with men and testosterone), women reported less anxiety and depression when taking the supplement. While this makes maca sound like a saving grace for mental health issues, these results were unfortunately not replicated in other studies with younger subjects.
Many popular websites have also promoted maca root as a remedy to ease PMS symptoms, but these claims appear to be unsubstantiated. As much as we might wish this over-the-counter powder could take away mood swings, tender breasts, and food cravings, not enough clinical research has been performed around maca and PMS to confirm any connection.
Maca Root for Anemia and Increased Energy
Aside from its other hormone-related uses, maca has gained a reputation for boosting energy and even improving anemia—hence its nickname “Peruvian ginseng.” Legend has it that in ancient times, it was sometimes reserved for Incan warriors to consume before heading into battle. But as with PMS and fertility, limited clinical research exists around maca’s real effects on low energy and “tired blood.”
Those who tout using maca for these conditions often claim it boosts energy because of its status as an “adaptogen.” An adaptogen is an herbal medicine term that describes the way certain plants help the body regulate stress. Maca could be considered an adaptogen for the way it affects emotional well-being without actually changing hormones. But the concept of adaptogens is often disputed. The FDA has issued warnings to companies making false health claims using the term, and in 2008 European Medicines Agency (Europe’s version of the FDA) stated that they do not accept it in their official terminology.
You make the call on whether to add maca to your daily routine. As with everything taught inside the 131 Method, each body responds to food and nutrients differently. It may be worth experimenting for you!
Maca Root Side Effects and Safety
Thinking of trying maca out? Though it’s been used for thousands of years in the heights of the Andes, as a relatively new product on the U.S. market, official info regarding its safety and potential side effects can be difficult to come by. New research is emerging, however. In a study where human subjects ingested 3 grams of maca root daily for 12 weeks, researchers concluded that usage at this dose was safe (10). Other more cautious medical publications, such as WebMD, state that maca root is “likely safe” when ingested as a food and “possibly safe” when taken by mouth as medicine, up to 3 grams per day for four months (11). As for pregnant or breast-feeding mothers, maca is not recommended, simply because experts lack enough information on its use. More research may be needed to determine exact recommendations for all populations concerning safety.
As a potent medicinal agent, maca root can also cause side effects for some people. Commonly reported side effects include diarrhea, weight gain, indigestion, insomnia, and feeling jittery. Lastly, be mindful that maca contains iodine and goitrogens so if supplementing or reducing goitrogen intake, factor maca in. As with any medication, herbal or otherwise, talk to your medical professional before you supplement with maca root.
Maca Root Dosage
If you decide to give maca a whirl, it’s helpful to be as informed as possible about what you’re taking—and how much. Standard dosage in capsule form is 1,500-3,000 mg, or 1.5 g to 3 grams—though the amount of maca an individual should take for optimal effectiveness can often be influenced by body weight, age, and general health. Not surprisingly, dosage can also depend on the content of the supplement. Natural medicine expert Dr. Low Dog states that “Most of the maca products in the marketplace are standardized to .6% macamides and macaenese and the labels recommend a dose of 900-1500 mg a day. If a person uses a product that is not standardized, the dosage range is generally 2-3 g per day of the root.”
Choosing the Right Maca Product for You
The FDA does not regulate herbal supplements in the same way as other drugs, so while supplements do have to meet manufacturing standards, the government does not guarantee their safety or effectiveness. When purchasing maca root, always shop from a reputable source. You can check quality on resources like labdoor.com. Also, be aware that maca quality and potency may vary by the soil, elevation, or region in which the plant was grown. While you may not have access to all these details when scanning the shelves of your local health food store, it can’t hurt to ask the store manager what they know about the source of their products. You may be surprised at their level of knowledge.
As with most supplements, maca can be found in various forms. Powders, pills, and extracts are all available options, and each may contain different amounts of actual maca root. Whichever product you choose, pay close attention to the amount in each dose, and take as directed on the packaging. And a quick note about maca in pill form: just like the plant itself needs very specific conditions to flourish in the Andes, maca root is rather sensitive to environmental conditions even after processing. For this reason, it’s best to purchase pills in blister packs to protect active ingredients.
The Bottom Line About Maca Root
Of all the ostensible benefits of maca root, some are backed by more research than others. If you’re looking for a supplement to get your motor running in the bedroom, the evidence is pretty strong that maca can help. Or if you’re a man looking to improve semen quality for fertility, maca may very well be your solution. For most other conditions, given its apparent safety at low doses, maca root could be worth a try, especially as an alternative to traditional medical approaches. Just keep in mind that results may vary. And even though maca has been used for at least 3,000 years, we might just have to wait a little longer for the research to confirm all it can and cannot do for our health.