Not to be confused with similarly-named matcha, Lepidium meyenii or maca (maa-kuh) root, also known as the “Peruvian ginseng” is a nutrient-rich, caffeine-free plant that has been trending lately in the health space.
Maca is a dedicated part of the mustard family where you’ll find other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale and cabbage, and has an earthy, nutty, butterscotch-like taste. Maca root is grown in the frigid ground of the Andes mountains thousands of feet above sea level in Peru. Similar to turnips, maca root is slightly smaller and comes in a variety of colors like yellow, red or black (dark purple). The roots also have a distinct flavor and the leaves are edible with a spicy flavor. This popular crop includes a wide range of nutritional and bioactive compounds commonly referred to as a “superfood.”
“Maca root is rich in fiber, essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamin c, iron, copper and calcium,” says Vandana Sheth, R.D.N, C.D.C.E.S, F.A.N.D, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of My Indian Table: Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes. Maca root also contains beneficial plant compounds, like antioxidants including glucosinolates and polyphenols which may be responsible for its medicinal benefits. It was reportedly consumed by the Ancient Incas for centuries, to boost stamina and endurance before going to war. In addition, it was used to enhance or “boost” sex drive and fertility. Thanks to its vastly growing popularity, billions of people around the world are consuming maca today as it has been praised for its said health benefits to combat fatigue, enhance fertility and improve menopause symptoms and cognition. Now it’s widely available at health stores, pharmacy shops or online in all available forms — from capsules to liquid, and as a powder or extract.
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Benefits of Maca
With plenty of anecdotal information about its effectiveness passed down from past generations, “much of the research around maca has been conducted on animals and therefore may not be generalizable to humans,” says Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Eating from Our Roots: 80+ Healthy Home-Cooked Favorites from Cultures Around the World. “More large-scale long-term research is needed to support causation.”
However, there is some science-backed information that confirms the following nutritional and health benefits could ring true.
It may boost energy and mood.
Maintaining positive energy levels can also contribute towards a better mood. If you struggle with staying alert throughout the day and need an energy-boost that is caffeine-free, maca may be worthwhile to incorporate in your daily routine. Anecdotally, many individuals who use maca powder regularly, have reported that it makes them feel more awake and energized shortly after use. In one study, “175 people living in different altitudes found that the consumption of red and black maca over 12 weeks improved mood and energy compared to placebo,” says Feller. It’s not well understood how maca can increase energy, but it might have to do with its possible effects on stabilizing blood sugar balance to help improve mood and energy.
Just like popular and commonly-used plant moringa, maca contains B vitamins which helps sustain long-term energy and supports healthy metabolic processes. Great news is you won’t be left with energy crashes, jitters or anxious feelings, which are common side effects of caffeinated beverages.
It may support fertility.
Maca has been used traditionally for thousands of years to optimize fertility and healthy reproductive systems in both males and females. Nutrition is one of the many factors to consider when supporting fertility. Maca contains nutrients like B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc and essential amino acids, which play a role in reproductive health. Maca is thought to aid male fertility by enhancing libido and sexual function and improving sperm quality and quantity. However, most studies have been conducted on animals.
“While there is some research that suggests that maca may help with some aspects of male fertility (sperm quality), more is needed,” says Sheth. Known as an endocrine adaptogen, the nutrients within maca support hormone production and assists the body in regulating stress. A well-rounded diet is vital to support fertility and the nutritional properties of maca may support a healthy reproductive system.
It may improve menopausal symptoms.
Menopause is a natural part of life for many. The decline in sex hormone estrogen during this time, can cause a range of symptoms like hot flashes, mood swings, sleep challenges which can be very uncomfortable for some. “According to some studies, maca may help alleviate symptoms such as hot flashes related to menopause,” says Sheth.
One study, published in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, suggests that maca root may alleviate SSRI-induced (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women. “Studies have found that maca root may improve sexual function and libido in postmenopausal women, compared to placebo,” says Feller. Hot flashes are at the top of the list for medical visits during menopause as they interfere greatly with sleep and can decrease the overall quality of life of menopausal women. One case report demonstrated that the use of maca, in conjunction with dietary and targeted supplement modifications, appeared to be safe and resulted in the rapid improvements of menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes. Although some studies seem promising, there is not enough evidence to determine the effectiveness of maca for treating menopause symptoms. If you’re looking to try it out, just be sure to get your doctor’s approval first.
It may enhance libido.
Low libido is caused by a number of physiological, emotional and lifestyle factors including high levels of stress, depression and anxiety, lack of sleep and an imbalance in sex hormones. And when it comes to stress, it can negatively impact sexual function by throwing your libido out of whack, increasing cortisol and decreasing the feel-good hormone, dopamine. Sexual function is a complex process that involves the brain, hormones, emotions, nerves and muscles, which are very sensitive to stress. Many plants known to be considered “aphrodisiacs” have long been used to enhance libido — and maca is definitely on the list.
Due to its adaptogenic properties, maca may enhance male and female libido. One small study found that taking 3,000 mg of maca root daily for 12 weeks had a positive impact on sexual function and libido. Another study published in CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics found that maca root may alleviate SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction which includes having a beneficial effect on libido. As there are a lot of factors that impact sexual desire, maca may provide mood-boosting properties that might make a difference in your libido levels, especially for menopausal or postmenopausal women but “more research is needed,” adds Sheth.
How much maca should I take?
First thing is first, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about whether or not maca is right for you and what dosage would be best to follow. As of now, there is insufficient evidence to determine a standard dose of maca root as studies investigating maca root use varying amounts. Adults often use maca root in doses of 1.5 to 3.5 grams daily by mouth for a specific timeframe. For comparison, one teaspoon of maca powder typically yields five grams. It is always best to follow the instructions that are provided with the package the maca came in, whether in the form of a supplement, powder or extract.
What are the side effects of taking maca?
“While maca is considered to be safe for most people, those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, people with liver or kidney disease should be careful and discuss with their healthcare team,” says Sheth. Maca should be avoided in children as it has not been tested for safety in children. You should also refrain from taking maca if you are on hormone treatment as there can be interactions.
Side effects of maca root may include gastrointestinal discomfort and headaches, but they are not very common. Little is known about the safety and risks of the short-term or long-term use of maca. A trusted healthcare provider will discuss the potential interactions with foods, supplements and medications with you. Also, if you have any thyroid problems, it is best to limit intake and speak to a doctor before taking because it contains goitrogens which are substances that can impair thyroid function, especially in those with thyroid issues.
How to take maca:
Maca has an earthy, nutty taste with a hint of butterscotch and can be enjoyed in a number of ways. When it comes to maca root, it can be eaten raw or cooked, whether baked, boiled or roasted. The powder form can expand the many ways you can use maca. “It mixes well into various culinary applications including smoothies, baked goods and cooked grains in its powdered form and has a nutty taste that may pair well with fruits, vegetables, and proteins,” says Feller. To ensure it’s 100% pure maca root powder, you’ll want to buy it from a quality harvester. If you’re looking to enjoy maca with all of its nutritional benefits, try not to involve it with high temperatures as the heating process may diminish the nutrients. Here are the top ways to use maca:
- In overnight oats: Stir maca powder into overnight oats. The earthy and nutty flavor is complementary with ingredients like pistachios, flaxseeds or cacao nibs.
- In a smoothie, milkshake or latte: Replace your coffee with a nutrient-dense smoothie using your go-to smoothie ingredients and a kick of maca powder to keep you energized for your morning routine or add it to a delicious chocolate milkshake or make a vanilla maca-matcha latte.
- In a soup: Chop up maca root and add it to your soup or try adding maca powder to kick up the flavor in a savory soup.
- In baked goods: Add an earthy twist to your baked goods with maca powder. It can be easily added to the dry ingredients of your baked good recipe. From zucchini muffins to chocolate chips, maca will add a flavor you’ll fall in love with.
- In pancakes: Take your pancakes up a notch by tossing maca powder in the batter. Not only are they quick to make, you’ll get a nutritional boost too.
The bottom line:
High in antioxidants and key nutrients, maca root is a nutritious and versatile plant that has been used in phytomedicine and ayurvedic healing for centuries. While the many health benefits of maca root include enhancing sexual and reproductive function, boosting mood and energy and improving cognition, there is not enough evidence to fully support its use due to a lack of human clinical research and small sample sizes. That said, coupled with a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle, adding maca to your diet can add flavor to foods you enjoy while contributing vital nutrients to support your bodily functions. “While there is some research about the potential health benefits, more robust and larger studies need to be done before we can conclusively make recommendations,” adds Sheth. “In the meantime, if you are interested in taking maca, it is important that you discuss with your physician to ensure appropriate dose and safety.”
Valerie Agyeman (she/her) is a women’s health dietitian and the host of the Flourish Heights podcast, where she produces science-driven content covering overlooked nutrition, wellness and women’s health topics. She has over 10 years of nutrition communications, corporate wellness and clinical nutrition experience. Valerie is a trusted expert and regularly appears on networks including ABC’s Good Morning Washington, and she is a contributing expert to publications like Women’s Health, The Thirty and Shape.
Nutrition Lab Deputy Director
Stefani (she/her) is a registered dietitian, a NASM-certified personal trainer and the deputy director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab, where she handles all nutrition-related content, testing and evaluation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. She is also Good Housekeeping’s on-staff fitness and exercise expert. Stefani is dedicated to providing readers with evidence-based content to encourage informed food choices and healthy living. She is an avid CrossFitter and a passionate home cook who loves spending time with her big fit Greek family.
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