One of the most exciting aspects of the Paleo movement is rediscovering overlooked foods from the past and using them for better health today.
The maca root is one the latest finds popping up online and in health food stores far and wide.
This humble plant, isolated in South America for most of its long history of use, has some pretty cool effects on your health. Let’s see what the latest research says about maca – and assess its place in a healthy lifestyle.
What Is Maca Root?
High on the harsh, windswept plateaus of the Peruvian Andes, the maca plant thrives where little else can grow. Intense sunlight, freezing temperatures, and relentless winds make for an unlikely habitat. But for thousands of years, maca has served as a staple food for the equally hardy people who live at these dizzying elevations (11,000-14,000 feet)!
Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is actually a cruciferous vegetable in the same family as broccoli and cabbage. It comes in a variety of colors; the most common are yellow, red, and black. Similar in size and shape to a turnip or radish, it doesn’t look that special. But the Peruvians caught on to its nutritional and medicinal value long ago, making maca one of the original “superfoods.”
Traditionally, Peruvians turned to maca for anything from increasing energy and stamina to boosting the libido, improving memory, and treating a host of other conditions.
Peruvians eat maca root raw, boiled, or roasted much like we eat other vegetables. It’s also often dried and ground into flour for baking and making porridge. Most people eat the root, which grows underground, but even maca leaves find their way into salads and are cooked as greens.
Maca Root Nutrition Facts
Recent scientific research has shown that maca’s benefits extend well beyond Peruvian legend. Many of maca’s therapeutic properties stem from its robust nutritional makeup.
Just one ounce of maca powder contains:
- 133 percent the daily value (DV) of vitamin C
- 84 percent the DV of copper
- 23 percent the DV of iron
- 16 percent the DV of potassium
- 16 percent the DV of vitamin B6
- 11 percent the DV of manganese (1)
That single ounce of maca powder offers all those nutrients at just 90 calories. Like other cruciferous vegetables, the vast majority of the maca root’s calories come from carbohydrates. The fat and protein content is extremely low. If you’re on a low carbohydrate diet, be aware that just one ounce of maca contains 20 carbs. You might want to avoid – or seriously limit – your intake if that’s the case.
Maca Root Health Benefits
Maca has been cultivated for centuries, but researchers have taken nearly just as long to start studying its health properties seriously.
Bottom line: it will take plenty more research for us to fully understand this plant’s true potential. And while there are many more animal studies available, there are a decent number of published human trials – and more every day.
Here’s a rundown of the key benefits that have already been explored:
Maca Heightens Libido and Fertility
Maca isn’t called “Peruvian Ginseng” or “Nature’s Viagra” without good reason! Of all its beneficial properties, the libido and fertility boosting effects, seem to be the most thoroughly studied.
Peruvians often turned to this plant for these very purposes, and the scientific research confirms you can do the same today. A review of four clinical trials published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found a positive effect on sexual dysfunction or sexual desire in both healthy menopausal women and men (4).
Another study gave participants, all of whom experienced SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction, maca and noted a positive effect on sexual function (5). The effectiveness appeared to have a dose-related effect.
Maca might even come in handy if you’re trying to have a baby. In a four-month-long study, researchers gave healthy adult men maca supplements and noted increased seminal volume, sperm count, and sperm motility (the ability to move spontaneously) (6).
Maca Alleviates Menopausal Symptoms in Women
Both traditionally in Peru and around the world, many women claim maca offers relief from cramps, hot flashes, night sweats, and other menopausal symptoms.
A systematic review published in the journal Maturitas searched 17 databases for all randomized clinical trials that compared maca to a placebo for treating menopausal symptoms. The researchers concluded larger studies should be done, but in the trials that met their inclusion criteria, maca “demonstrated favorable effects” on menopausal symptoms (7).
The potential consequences of menopause can also be psychological. Fortunately, maca can be beneficial in those situations as well. Researchers gave postmenopausal women maca supplements and, as a result, found reduced anxiety, reduced depression, and healthier sexual function (8).
Maca May Improve Memory and Learning
Modern life means ridiculous levels of stress and an aging population. That combination can wreak havoc on our ability to remember things – or learn new ones.
Maca may help counter these effects. This plant is actually considered an adaptogen, a special group of plants, herbs, and other all-natural substances that help our bodies handle stressors (9).
Natives in the Peruvian Andes regularly give maca to schoolchildren, as they are confident it boosts academic performance. Several experimental animal studies put this hypothesis to the test. Different group of researchers compared the effect of several maca varieties on mice and found that black maca had the most beneficial learning effects (10, 11).
We desperately need some human clinical trials here to corroborate this, but the research so far has been promising.
Maca Boosts Energy and Stamina
Whether you’re an elite athlete looking to perform better or simply want to jump out of bed in the morning with a spring in your step, maca may offer the lift you’re looking for.
Research published in the journal Natural Products divided healthy men into two groups and found the participants who received maca felt more energetic than those who only received a placebo (12). A small study compared two groups of healthy cyclists and found those who took maca extract for 14 days improved their 40-kilometer cycling time trial performance (13). Animal studies noted similar increases in endurance (14).
These effects are probably related to maca’s role as an adaptogen. With a better ability to handle stressors, we feel more energetic and can reach peak performance.
Maca Lowers Blood Pressure
Maca might even improve cardiovascular health. One study of healthy men found that maca reduced both systolic and diastolic blood pressure after 12 weeks of treatment (15).
Other research took it even further. A comparison of a population that consumed maca regularly and one that didn’t found the maca-consuming population tended to have lower systolic blood pressure (16).
There is plenty of scientific support that chronic stress leads to hypertension (17). Because maca is an adaptogen, it can help us handle the stressors better – before our blood pressure skyrockets. Maca is also a decent source of potassium, a key mineral needed to avoid hypertension (18).
Maca May Shrink the Prostate
As men age, their prostate glands tend to grow. This effect (known as benign prostatic hyperplasia) is extremely common.
While BPH is technically harmless, it can certainly be annoying. The biggest challenge is continuing to urinate properly. Because the enlarged prostate obstructs the tube through which urine flows, older men find themselves waking up countless times during the night to rush to the bathroom – only to feel like they never empty their bladder fully.
Maca might help. Several studies found that red maca in particular reduced the prostate size and weight of rats with BPH (19, 20). Researchers suspect the polyphenols found in the maca might be responsible.
Again, this is a topic where we really need some human trials to be sure. But the evidence so far is intriguing.
How to Use Maca Root
Adding maca to your diet is simple. You have a lot of options here.
The easiest way to get started is to pick up some maca powder (the most readily available form) and try it on things you’re making already, like overnight oats or homemade energy bars. The biggest obstacle for some people is the taste. Maca has a nutty, slightly sweet taste – kind of like cinnamon or nutmeg.
If you don’t like how maca tastes, you can find it in capsule or liquid extract forms as supplements. These will allow you to still take advantage of the health benefits.
It’s also easy to add maca powder to smoothies, juices, and other drinks. The slightly sweet flavor goes nicely with many vegetables and fruits.
Here a few recipes to get started:
Chocolate Maca Monster
- 2-3 t raw maca powder
- 8 oz. almond milk
- 8 oz. purified water
- 1 cup strawberries, blueberries or acai berries
- 2 T honey
- 2 T raw chocolate powder
- Blend and enjoy cold.
Hearty Maca Oatmeal
- 1 T raw maca powder
- ¾ cup raw milk or almond milk
- ¾ cup water
- 3 T coconut flour
- 2 T finely shredded coconut
- Dash salt
- 2 T pecan or walnut pieces
- 2 T raisins or dried cranberries
- Dash cinnamon
- Combine milk, water and salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat, uncovered.
- Just before the liquid boils, stir in the oatmeal, nuts and dried fruit, and reduce heat to medium-low. Set timer for 8 minutes.
- Stir occasionally throughout the 8 minutes to mix well and prevent the oatmeal from boiling over or sticking to the pan.
- After 8 minutes, remove pan from heat and cover. Set timer for 4 minutes.
- After 4 minutes, uncover and stir in maca powder and cinnamon.
- If desired, sweeten oatmeal with honey or maple syrup and add raw milk or cream to taste. Enjoy hot!
Why Can’t I Find Maca Root Anywhere?
One of the biggest questions I had about maca was this: With maca’s exploding popularity, why is it so hard to find the root itself?
In my case it wasn’t just hard. It was impossible. None of the grocery stores I go to had it. So I dug into it and discovered it’s actually illegal under Peruvian law to export raw unprocessed whole maca (21)! While powder and extracts are perfectly okay, exporting maca plants in a viable form (a state in which the buyer could plant and grow them elsewhere) is a big no-no.
This hasn’t stopped “biopirates” worldwide (many of them in China) from going around the Peruvian government and approaching local farmers directly. Maca smuggling has become a significant concern as it continues to gain popularity. (22).
This explains why powder, capsules, and liquid maca extracts are so abundant – and the roots are nowhere to be found. Fortunately, those forms offer all the benefits described above. Look for 100 percent organic, Peruvian-grown maca to ensure you get the highest quality.
Potential Side Effects of Maca Root
Maca root (in all of its forms) has been used by Peruvians for thousands of years and is generally considered safe among scientists today (23).
That said, in some situations it’s best to proceed with caution. The biggest potential concern is maca’s effect on hormones. This drives some physicians to recommend against it if you’re taking hormone-altering medication, like treatment for cancer or thyroid issues. If you have any major health issues, play it safe and run it by your doctor first.
We don’t have enough data at this point to confirm maca is safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Because consuming the plant affects hormones related to fertility and libido, you’re best off avoiding maca if you fall into either of those groups.
Maca is a safe, all-natural way to spice up your Paleo diet. Not only does it help you pack in more nutrients for optimal health; its unique flavor also adds variety to your favorite dishes.
There’s a lot we have yet to learn about maca’s potential to improve our health. But the evidence so far has been promising. If you’re curious, pick up some powder and give maca a try today.
Do you enjoy maca? If so, what’s your favorite way to use it? Leave a comment below and let us know!
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