Peruvian Maca, The Nutritional Powerhouse

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Maca or Peruvian Ginseng, as it is frequently marketed claims to be the world’s answer to a natural energy boost and anti-fatigue supplement, but what else does it have to offer?

What is Maca? Where does it come from?

Maca originates from the treacherous mountain sides of the Andes. For this it’s recognised as one of the most hardy plants in nature. The Andes has a changeable and ever-shifting climate with periods of sunshine, powerful winds and freezing temperatures. Moreover, it grows and thrives at an altitude of 8000-14500ft, with incredibly low partial pressures of oxygen.

The Latin name for Maca is Lepidium Meyenii, and is a native Peruvian plant. Maca is part of the Brassicacae family, also known as the cabbage and mustard family, but it demonstrates a chemically similar make-up to mustard. Maca forms a low growing mat-like web of plant which inhabits the ground. It produces small white flowers and bulbous roots. The roots are white/yellow in colour and are extensively used in Peruvian culture.

According to historical writings Maca was founded and grown by the Incan Civilisation. It was given to Incan soldiers as it was believed to provide them with strength and help them prosper well in battle. In addition, Maca was seen as a native Peruvian cure-all and was highly sought after. Historically, Maca was used as a form of currency, swapping it in a market place for rice, corn, vegetables and beans. [1] Father Cobo (Padre Cobo) was the first to break ground with his written recordings on Maca, and reach wider audiences. He wrote,

“This plant grows in the harshest and coldest areas of the province of Chinchaycocha where no other plant for man's sustenance could be grown.” [3]

Yet, it took until 1843 and a German scientist by the name of Gerhard Walpers to provide Maca with its scientific name of Lepidium Meyenii.

How is it used in today?

Today, Maca is still widely used in Peru, but mainly for food and beverages rather than medicine. The root of the Maca plant has a characteristic flavour similar to butterscotch, but is sweeter and more tangy. In Peru, it’s custom to eat Maca as a dessert, roasting it in ashes, or making it into Maca Chica, a sweet traditional drink. [1]

What are Macas health benefits ?

Maca was the chosen medicinal source of the Incan people, this is due to its nutritional and chemical components. Nutritionally speaking Maca is nutrient powerhouse, containing high levels of carbohydrate, protein, starch, fibre, potassium, iron and iodine. Upon extensive investigation Maca has been found to contain the chemical P-methoxybenzyl Isothiocyannate, a powerful aphrodisiac[1]. Even more of its active ingredients are alkaloids, trypterphene, phenols, flavonoids, tannins and free amino acids[2].

Maca as an Energy boost

Studies have shown that Maca not only provides a boost of natural energy, but it helps to  stabilise mood and feelings of anxiety[4]. It does so by acting on the axis of the hypothalamus and pituitary structures in the brain. It also acts upon the adrenal glands causing them to release active hormones that lead to the feelings of energy and vitality.[5] In addition, an animal based study was used to show how and why Maca was effective as an energizer. They found that the rats in the Maca administration group had high levels of glucose circulating in their blood. This has paved the way for Maca being considered as a natural sports supplement [5]

Maca, Menopause, fertility and hormone balance

Maca is seen to be beneficial particularly for women in their menopause [5]. In menopausal women it acts by balancing hormones, decreasing stress, depression, and energy. One study by Meissner (2006) found that Maca seemed to increase bone density, reduce menopausal symptoms (night sweats, hot flashes) and balance hormones [5]. Notably, fertility problems have thought to have been managed using the traditional Peruvian ointment of Maca. It’s thought that the alkaloids in the Maca root has a fertility inducing affect on the sex organs of mammals.[6] Hence, why they are regularly used on cattle and other frequently reproducing animals.

Maca as an antioxidant

Antioxidants can be hugely beneficial to our health. Everyday we are bombarded both internally and externally by particles called free radicals. These accumulate in the body and cause damage to DNA, lipids and proteins, reducing cell integrity, and function [7]. A free radical is described as a reactive atom that has one or more unpaired electrons [8]. One study showed that Maca has significant and powerful effects in preventing lipid oxidation, helping to reduce the levels of damaging VLDLs, LDLs and total cholesterol. [9]

Dosage

A standard dose of Maca is 1500-4000mg/day, to achieve the advantageous health benefits it can provide. There is not enough evidence to support its use during pregnancy. However, due to its nutritional status, high levels of iodine and iron, it may be advisable for Maca to be taken at very low doses, but please contact a health professional before doing so. [1]

Although more research is required, there is a multitude of convincing evidence to demonstrate the beneficial health effects that Maca can provide for you and your health.

  1. Taylor, L. (2005). Maca. In: Weiser, E The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs. New York: Square One Publishers. Pg. 388-344.
  2. RealRawFoods. (2000). Maca History and Info. Available: http://realrawfood.com/maca-history-info.
  3. Gonzales GF (2012) Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii(Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM. doi:10.1155/2012/193496.
  4. Gonzales.GF, et-al. (2009). Lepidium meyenii (Maca): a plant from the highlands of Peru--from tradition to science.. Forschende Komplementärmedizin. 16 (6), Pg. 373-380.
  5. Meissner. HO, et-al. (2006). Hormone-Balancing Effect of Pre-Gelatinized Organic Maca (Lepidium peruvianum Chacon): (I) Biochemical and Pharmacodynamic Study on Maca using Clinical Laboratory Model on Ovariectomized Rats. International Journal of Biomedical Science. 2 (3), Pg.260-272.
  6. Chacon RG. PhD Thesis. Peru: Univ. Natl. Mayo de San Marcos; 1961. Phytochemical study on Lepidium meyenii; pp. 1–46.
  7. Mercola.J. (2016). The Ultimate Guide to Antioxidants. Available: http://articles.mercola.com/antioxidants.aspx.
  8. Merriam Webster. (2016). Free Radical Definition. Available: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/free%20radical.
  9. Vecera.R, et-al. (2007). The influence of maca (Lepidium meyenii) on antioxidant status, lipid and glucose metabolism in rat.. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition. 62 (2), Pg. 59-63.

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