Can the ancient Peruvian plant, maca root, boost mood and energy levels?
In the 1990’s, maca root gained a reputation as a “superfood” with attributed health claims including increased energy and libido in men and women, and alleviating symptoms of menopause in women.
Personally, I enjoy adding a touch of maca root powder to my matcha morning tea for its potential in helping with perimenopause and menopause symptoms and because it adds a sweet vanilla-like flavor.
But, does it really work? In this article, I dive into the interesting history of maca, the available research (much more is needed), and what to look for in a maca supplement if you'd like to try it yourself.
What is Maca?
Maca root is a part of the cruciferous family, which also includes broccoli, cauliflower, and kale. The root of the plant, which is most commonly used, contains fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. The vitamins and minerals identified in maca root include iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, iodine, and vitamin C. It also contains active phytonutrients, including some fancy named ones like, macamides, macaridine, alkaloids, and glucosinolates. They're worth mentioning because these phytonutrients are thought to be responsible for maca’s medicinal benefits.
Maca root resembles a radish in appearance. Its' colors vary from reddish-purple, yellow-white, and black, with greens growing out of the top.
Maca is also classified as an adaptogen. Adaptogens are active compounds in certain plants and fungi (mushrooms!) that help the body stay in balance by physiologically adapting better to stress, anxiety and fatigue. Other common adaptogens that might be familiar to you include turmeric, matcha tea, and ginseng.
The History of Maca
Evidence indicates that maca was first used by indigenous people of the Peruvian Andes, where maca was originally cultivated, over 2000 years ago. Indigenous Peruvian people first observed maca's potential benefits in their livestock, when it became evident that the livestock gained more energy and fertility from maca root.
Since then, maca has been used by native people of Peru for hormonal imbalances, menstrual irregularities, fertility, and menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and loss of energy, libido and depression.
There are also reports of maca helping with fertility in the 1500's when maca was said to increase energy and stamina, as well as boost fertility and libido. Maca is mentioned throughout many Spanish chronicles when the Spanish sailed to Peru in 1533. They fed it to the horses and livestock for energy and fertility and shipped it back to the kings of Spain as a form of tax payment. Clearly, it had lots of value to them!
Because of a shift in diet in the 1900's, maca root almost became extinct until families in the Peruvian mountains carefully cultivated seeds and dedicated their efforts to preserving the ancient root. Now, maca root is grown on over 10,000 acres in the Peruvian mountains and consumed up to three times a day by local Peruvians, from athletes to the elderly. Because maca root is traditionally grown in the cold and at an elevation of 12,000 feet, no chemicals are needed to grow maca. Also, the glacier-ice melts and rainfall act as natural irrigation. (However, keep reading to learn how maca root was recently smuggled into China, where it's also now grown, but with pesticides.).
In Peru, maca is traditionally consumed in food in a fermented beverage or porridge or as a tea. In the United States, it’s more likely found in powder form or as a capsule or tincture.
Potential Benefits of Maca Root
The most common reason why maca root is consumed is to boost libido and fertility. While evidence supporting the libido-boosting benefits of maca root is limited, there are some promising anecdotes and research studies demonstrating maca root’s potential.
It’s especially promising as a potential adaptogen for postmenopausal women experiencing hormonal imbalance and menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, decreased libido, and symptoms of depression.
One study, looking at 45 women who were experiencing sexual dysfunction as a result of taking antidepressants, found that taking 3 grams of maca root daily for 12 weeks significantly improved sexual function and libido compared with a placebo.
Another study looked at 1.5 grams and 3 grams of maca root daily on women with depression and antidepressant-related sexual dysfunction. They found that 3 grams of maca root daily alleviated sexual dysfunction and possibly improved libido. They did not see a difference with the 1.5 grams a day dose.
A review of four randomized clinical studies found that maca may improve libido after consuming 1.5–3 grams a day for six weeks.
And, for my male friends, just so you're not feeling left out, one study found that men who consumed 1.5 or 3 grams of maca powder daily experienced an increase in libido, compared to men given a placebo. Another found that maca root may also help with erectile dysfunction (ED) and fertility issues in men when men with mild ED took 2.4 grams of maca daily for 12 weeks.
Improve Symptoms of Menopause
A natural decline in estrogen occurs in women during menopause. The decline in estrogen can cause sleep disruption, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and mood swings (sometimes leading to depression).
One study found that postmenopausal Chinese women who took 3.3 grams of maca root a day had improved blood pressure and symptoms of depression, without affecting hormonal levels.
Other studies in menopausal women show that maca may help to balance hormones and alleviate symptoms, like hot flashes, mood changes, and vaginal dryness, and may be effective as a non-hormonal replacement therapy.
A 2011 review that included four high quality studies found some evidence that maca treatment has favorable effects on menopause symptoms, however the researchers concluded that larger studies should be conducted before recommendations are made.
Maca root is an adaptogen, meaning it adapts to individual stressors and has a normalizing effect on the body. It works when taking it over a period of time and individual doses for each person may vary. For women experiencing menopause, it's best if they discuss the option and proper dose of maca with their primary healthcare provider if they're considering it as a replacement for or adjunct to hormone replacement therapy.
Of note, another small study, looking at 34 women in early postmenopause, found that 2 grams of maca daily balanced hormones, alleviated menopausal symptoms, and also increased bone density markers. The bone benefits are an extra added potential bonus!
Boost Mood and Energy Levels
A 2016 study in 175 people living at either low or high altitudes demonstrated that taking 3 grams of red or black maca per day for 12 weeks improved mood and energy scores compared with a placebo.
As mentioned above, a 2015 study in 29 postmenopausal Chinese women found that treatment with 3.3 grams of maca per day for 6 weeks reduced symptoms of depression compared with a placebo treatment.
Another study with 175 people showed a connection between maca and energy. Individuals who took 3 grams of maca for 12 weeks experienced more energy boosts than those who didn't consume maca.
While research is promising, more studies need to be done to confirm the connection between maca and mood. The decrease in depression and boost in energy may be due to maca’s adaptogenic qualities in that it may help you be more resilient to stress and handle day-to-day stressors more easily.
How to Take Maca Root if You're Considering It
Some experts suggest starting with 1 gram of maca a day and gradually increasing up to 2 to 5 grams a day based on the current studies available.
While the research supports 1.5–3 grams of maca a day, studies are limited with a small number of subjects. More well-designed research with larger subject numbers is needed before determining an effective maca dose and the frequency of dosing to reach therapeutic effects. One teaspoon of maca root powder is approximately 5 grams.
Look for maca that has been grown in the Peruvian Andes, where it has been traditionally cultivated. This ensures you’re supporting ethical practices since there are reports of maca being smuggled out of the Andes Mountains and grown in China, where maca has gained wide popularity. Purchasing maca from the Peruvian Andes will also ensure nutritional integrity as maca’s nutritional characteristics may change depending on how and where it is grown.
When choosing a maca supplement, look for the following:
source from the Peruvian Andes
As I mentioned above, Peruvians enjoy maca in their beverages and porridge. If you purchase maca in the powdered form, you can add it to smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, and lattes (the way I personally enjoy it most!). I add about 3/4 teaspoon of maca powder to my morning matcha latte daily. I find it offers a vanilla or caramel-like flavor and mixes easily with a whisk.
Who Shouldn't Take Maca
Maca root has a number of potentially significant health benefits and is generally considered safe. However, maca hasn’t been studied in children or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, therefore, it's not recommended for these individuals. Also, since maca may affect hormones, it’s important to discuss it with your healthcare provider before taking it if you experience any underlying hormonal issues, such as hypothyroidism or endometriosis.
Do you take maca root? What's been your experience? Please share below!