Maca root is a dietary supplement with numerous purported health benefits. Yet, like many supplements, conflicting information exists regarding efficacy. We separate fact from fiction when it comes maca root in this article.
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. They require wind, cold and ample sunlight.
Like many natural remedies, maca root in its original form is an edible vegetable. A member of the crucifer family of plants, it looks like a sandy turnip. Its categorization as cruciferous also means it’s related (distantly) to broccoli, kale, and radishes, among other well-known veggies. 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 and healing properties of each.
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 at the grocery store, you’re not likely to find maca root in your local produce aisle. (Unless you shop in the heights of the Peruvian Andes).
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. Sexual function, both as an aphrodisiac, and libido booster, tops that list. The ancient Incas believed maca root could not only stimulate sexual health, but also improve fertility and help ease symptoms of menopause.
In modern times, people continue to seek out maca root powder for the same sexual health issues. These days, however, the supplement has also been associated with treating a host of other conditions, including: anemia, chronic fatigue syndrome, low testosterone, depression and anxiety, menstrual problems, PMS, and memory impairment.
Evidence-Based Maca Root Benefits
Maca Root for Libido
Since the primary benefit associated with maca root seems to be its enhancement of libido, let’s start there. 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 received 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 14 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. SSRI antidepressants notoriously decrease sexual desire. They also inhibit the 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 issue (3). Subjects on anti-depressants stated their libido improved significantly when they took a high dose (3 grams/day).
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., weighed in. “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).
Maca Root for Men
In addition to jump-starting sex drive, 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. It even boosted their overall sense of well-being (5). Plus, new research holds out hope for would-be dads. A 2016 review indicated that supplementation could improve semen quality in men (6).
The mechanism behind these benefits remains unclear since maca root does not actually appear to interfere with hormones (7). Scientists theorize that organic compounds, called sterols, in the plant may act as chemical triggers for hormone-like changes. However, 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. 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 (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 needed to back up any claims of maca’s effectiveness for fertility—especially in women. As one frustrated journal article author said of the claims around maca and fertility, “It appears 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 try if you’re struggling with fertility? Perhaps. The potential benefits do appear to outweigh unlikely 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. While this makes maca sound like a saving grace for mental health issues, these results were not replicated in other studies with younger subjects.
Many popular websites promote maca root as a remedy to ease PMS symptoms. However, these claims appear 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.”
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. In 2008 the 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!
Side Effects and Safety
Thinking of trying maca out? Though it’s been used for thousands of years, it’s a relatively new product on the U.S. market. New research emerges each year. 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.
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 first.
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 also depends on the content of the supplement. Natural medicine expert Dr. Low Dog states, “Most of the maca root 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 Product for You
The FDA does not regulate herbal supplements in the same way as other drugs. So while supplements must meet manufacturing standards, the government does not guarantee their safety or effectiveness. When purchasing maca root, always shop from a reputable source. 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.
As with most supplements, maca root comes in various forms. Powders, pills, and extracts exist, and each may contain different amounts of actual maca root. Whichever product you choose, pay close attention to the amount in each dose. Take according to package directions. And a quick note about maca in pill form: just like the plant itself needs very specific conditions to flourish in the Andes, it’s 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
Of all the ostensible benefits, 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 helps. Or if you’re a man looking to improve semen quality for fertility, it 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.