What Is It?
Maca is a Peruvian vegetable exported in concentrated form as an energy tonic, aphrodisiac, and fertility-enhancer. Used for thousands of years by the native peoples of Peru, maca is cultivated for the nutritional and medicinal value of its fleshy root. It’s grown in the harsh, barren high plateaus of the central Andes; few other plants–including corn–can prosper at such an elevation, nearly a mile up into the atmosphere.
Maca, a tuber, looks something like a diminutive brown turnip. It’s strong-smelling (many say unpleasantly so) but so nutrient-packed that Inca warriors reportedly consumed it to energize themselves for battle. It was also used by the general population of the high mountains to stay healthy and well-nourished.
In addition to its use as a nutritious vegetable and all-around energizer, maca has also had mystical fertility properties attributed to it by traditional healers, and it was long a part of sacred fertility rites.
The first records of the Herb were made by Spanish settlers after they arrived in Peru in the 1500s. Still, it was only in the 1840s that maca was given a proper scientific Latin name: Lepidium meyenii Walp. Nearly a century later, in the 1960s, scientists (primarily in Peru) set about examining the true healing properties of the plant.
Maca is traditionally prepared by boiling the tuber before it is consumed, a method similar to that used for sweet potatoes and other tuberous vegetables. Today, maca is available in other parts of the world in capsule or other pill form, either as freeze-dried whole herb or as an Extract.
Maca is often sold with other herbs touted for enhancing sexual desire. And it’s also called “Peruvian ginseng,” in a nod to its apparent vitality-enhancing properties.
The list of ailments for which traditional herbalists recommend maca is extensive–from lubricating stiff arthritic joints to easing respiratory illnesses. Yet the actual evidence that it works for most uses is rather sparse. The herb seems most allied with the famed energizer and stress-adaptor, Siberian ginseng. However, maca simply has not undergone the rigorous testing that Siberian ginseng has.
For example, though research is on-going, there is little to substantiate claims that maca can raise sperm counts in men. A clinical trial done in Lima, and published in 2003 in the Journal of Endocrinology, found that the herb was no more effective than a Placebo in altering hormones such as testosterone, or boosting Hormone reproductive levels in healthy adult men.
Specifically, maca may help to:
- Counter fatigue and energize the body. Spanish chroniclers describe Inca warriors consuming boiled maca root before battle as well as using it to bolster their reserves for endurance sports activities. Today, many sources tout maca as a fatigue-fighter and general tonic to counter lethargy, memory loss, and other ills that can result from depleted energy stores. Recent analyses indicate that the root is rich in calcium, Protein, iron, phosphorus, fiber, and Mineral salts–all nutrients that may have been in short supply in diets of another era.
- Treat impotence and boost sex drive. Much has been written about the purported frigidity-countering and aphrodisiac qualities of the maca plant for men and women alike, but only recently has the plant been studied in any systematic way for these uses. It remains unclear exactly how the plant works to affect sex drive; some sources say it relates to the plant’s sterols, which can act to normalize steroid hormones like testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen.
A 2000 animal study, which was reported in the journal Urology, indicated that male mice given maca extract were more likely to mate with female mice than were males not given the extract. And in a recent widely publicized but notably small clinical trial at La Molina National Agrarian University in Peru, maca produced an increase in sex drive among men who took it (as opposed to a placebo). The effect was reportedly seen within two weeks, in some cases dramatically stimulating the drive. The investigators measured hormone levels and administered a series of psychological tests.
More research and larger trials are needed to confirm whether these findings, which were presented (as opposed to accepted and published in a medical journal) in 2001 and funded by a Peruvian pharmaceutical company (Hersil), can be replicated.
–The root is used as a food and source for dietary supplement material.
–Extract forms of maca are available; it remains unclear which extract form is best to take, however.
–Maca can be eaten as a food, although the root may be difficult to find in the United States.
For most ailments: The usual dose of maca (in Standardized extract form) is 300 mg three times a day.
Guidelines for Use
There is no evidence so far that maca can treat erectile dysfunction, even though it is often erroneously touted as a cure for this condition.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with the use of maca.
Possible Side Effects
No side effects were mentioned by the participants in the recent clinical study done on sex drive increases among men taking maca. Also, foods tend not to generate side effects unless they are highly concentrated or an allergy has developed.
Although maca has long been consumed as a food (boiled and eaten much like a sweet potato), little is known about the potential adverse effects of taking it in a concentrated pill form or at much higher dosages than customarily recommended for traditional use.
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