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Maca: An Ancient Superfood!

by Jennifer Novakovich

Maca (Lepidium meyenii Walpers) has been used in the Andes for centuries to boost the fertility and health of animals and humans alike. It's only been until somewhat recently that interests have sparked in developed countries. Maca has been shown to boost libido, improve hormone balance, increase immunity, and so much more. Have you been thinking about consuming maca but haven't been sure about its safety or efficiency? Or do you already use maca and swear by its effectiveness? This article will discuss the ins and outs of the current knowledge about maca.

maca_an_ancient_superfood_imageMaca belongs to the brassica family and Lepidium genus. It is grown in cold, sunny, and windy climates and is well adapted to thrive in harsh conditions at high altitudes (3500–4500m altitudes above sea level). Maca was thought to be first cultivated around Lake Chinchaycocha in Peru about 1300–2000 years ago; it is now harvested in many other locations due to demand. Maca grown at lower altitudes and also in lower quality soils has drastically lower secondary metabolites. It seems to grow best in newly cultivated terrains and at higher altitudes.

Maca was used extensively by native Peruvians, who would consume the hypocotyl of the plant (the fleshy edible part). The hypocotyl would be naturally dried, stored (for years!), and often boiled (which seems to enhance secondary metabolites while reducing certain primary ones) before consuming. Later on, Spanish explorers saw that infertile horses they possessed became fertile while eating this plant; the first written account of maca was in 1553 by Cieza de Leon, a Spanish explorer. From then on in, maca has had growing documentation of its medicinal use to promote overall health.

I keep talking about primary and secondary metabolites; what does that even mean? Primary metabolites in maca are the proteins, carbohydrates, fibers, fats, vitamins, and minerals while secondary metabolites relate to the medicinal properties, although exact mechanisms are still largely unknown. The secondary metabolites of maca include macaridine, macaene, macamides, and maca alkaloids, which are only found in the Maca plant. Other secondary metabolites include glucosinolates and sterols.

The secondary metabolite contents vary from harvesting conditions and color types. Colors include yellow, pink, violet, and black varieties. Black seems to be richer with glucosinolates, yellow with macaene, and violet with macamides. Black maca seems to work best on sperm production (yellow works moderately and pink seems to have no effect) while pink has been seen to decrease prostate size (yellow works moderately and black seems to have no effect). Again, the exact mechanisms and information on the secondary metabolites are still largely unknown. More research is needed to see what maca has to offer!

maca_effective_for_repoductive _function_imageMaca has been seen to improve several health aspects, but has been particularly effective for reproductive function. It has been seen to improve libido, fertility, erectile dysfunction, hormones in women with amenorrhea (loss of menses), and has had promising research showing its effectiveness as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy in menopausal women. Maca has also been seen to improve energy levels, stamina, pain, depression, immune response, low bone density, anemia, feelings of wellness, cognitive health, metabolism, etc.

Maca can be taken as a powder, pill, or liquid, and its extract is seen to have the most potent effects. There is little known about long term effects, drug interactions, and side effects, especially from the pill form. To date, there are no reports of adversity from maca in its food form. Furthermore, populations known to consume maca from a young age have been seen to have normal kidney, liver, fat, and sugar control, demonstrating that maca in its food form is most likely safe. Although Native Peruvians suggested boiling maca before consumption, there are also no reports of adversity with fresh maca (although more research is needed). Maca should be used with caution if you are pregnant, on hormone replacement therapy, on a contraceptive, have any kidney problems or on a diuretic, or are sensitive to nightshade plants (e.g. Tomatoes).

add_maca_to_smoothie_imageThe flavor of maca powder isn't the most appealing to many people, so how can you incorporate maca powder if you have an issue with the taste? The flavor can be masked pretty well when added to baked goods or thrown into smoothies. Other people prefer to mix it with a small glass of water and drink it quickly. Personally I don't mind the flavor, and I think it makes a nice addition while cooking.

So that marks the end of the article! Hopefully you either have a better appreciation for maca, if you’re already taking it, or have gained useful information while determining if it’s right for you. Maca is a promising adaptogen with some impressive health benefits. As a result of the growing interest in natural health products and current research, maca has been steadily growing in popularity. Hold on tight because more research is on the way on this amazing plant.

Clement C, Grados D, Acula B, Khan I, Mayer A, Aguirre D, Manrique I, Kreuzer M. (2010) Influence of colour type and previous cultivation on secondary metabolites in hypocotyls and leaves of maca (Lepidium meyenii Walpers). doi:10.1002/jsfa.3896. Gonzales G. (2012) Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands. doi:10.1155/2012/193496. Lee M, Shin B, Yang E, Lim H, Ernst E. (2011) Maca (Lepidium meyenii) for treatment of menopausal symptoms: A systematic review. doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2011.07.017. Smoothie photo credit: Sigurdas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons See this and other articles on Jennifer Novakovich’s website

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