Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is a perennial plant that grows in the high plateaus of the Andes Mountains in central Peru, where it’s been cultivated as a vegetable crop and traditional medicine for at least 2,000 years.
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The ancient folk might have been onto something: research shows that this cruciferous vegetable might have several interesting health-boosting properties.
Background and history
Ancient Inca warriors are purported to have used maca, also known as “Peruvian ginseng”, for its ability to increase energy, boost endurance and build physical strength.
Since the 20th century, medical scientists have focused their attention on areas where the pharmacological actions of maca show the most promise. These include:
- Enhancing human sexual drive.
- Increasing overall vigour and energy levels.
- Escalating sexual fertility in humans and domestic livestock.
Although maca is a plant extract and not a drug, it’s one of the most commonly cited “natural drugs” for the improvement of sexual desire, according to a research article by Dr Byung-Cheul Shin published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
The health benefits
In addition to maca root containing numerous naturally occurring beneficial phytochemicals, as well as essential minerals, essential fatty acids, amino acids and polysaccharides, maca is also classified as an “adaptogen” – a natural herb product that boosts the immune system, enhances stamina and supplement the body's ability to deal with stressors such as anxiety, fatigue or trauma.
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With maca root preparations reportedly improving sexual function, it’s no surprise that medical scientists have taken a keen interest in the plant.
Sexual dysfunction is a distressing condition, affecting 20%-30% of men and 40-45% of women, according to 18 descriptive epidemiological studies conducted worldwide.
A review of 17 databases – that included all randomised clinical trials (RCTs) of any type of maca compared to a placebo for the treatment of healthy people or patients with sexual dysfunction – found that two of the RCTs suggested a significant positive effect of maca on sexual dysfunction or sexual desire in healthy menopausal women or healthy adult men.
The review by researchers from the Pusan National University’s Division of Clinical Medicine in South Korea also found that maca showed effects in patients with erectile dysfunction (ED). In addition, recent clinical trials conducted in Peru have suggested significant effects of maca for increasing sperm count and mobility, and improving sexual function in humans.
Although more research is needed to confirm these preliminary results, a growing number of medical professionals believe maca works. One of them, psychiatrist and functional medicine physician Dr Hyla Cass, says she has seen maca “restore hormonal imbalance and related sexual desire and fertility in both men and women”.
How to include maca in your diet
As a starchy tuber vegetable, maca resembles a turnip or radish, even though it tastes more like a potato.
Exported as powder, capsules, pills, flour, liquor and extracts, there are different types of maca that have different colours (yellow, red and black) but with a similar nutritional profile. Raw maca products usually contain a blend of all the types of maca.
Ways in which maca can be eaten:
• Mashed and eaten in roasted or baked foods.
• Blended into a soup.
• Mixed with milk or used to make a fermented drink called maca chichi.
• Dried and ground into a flour-like powder and used in cookies, cakes and breads.
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With a growing variety of products containing maca available online and in health stores, toxicity studies haven’t reported any adverse effects. As millions of Peruvians – young and old – continue to eat maca as part of their staple diet and scientists conduct even more studies, they seem to confirm what ancient Incan warriors knew all along – that many answers lie in the natural world.
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Image: Fresh maca roots or Peruvian ginseng with maca powder from Shutterstock.