Maca - the South American superfood

Information, effects, deficiency, dosage, side effects

Maca is the traditional medicinal plant of the South American indigenous people. Even today, the plant, which defies all harsh weather conditions in the Andes is used, among other things, to increase fertility and as an aphrodisiac. Maca is also becoming increasingly popular in Europe and is considered a real superfood due to its versatile spectrum of action and valuable ingredients.

What is maca?

The maca plant is a member of the cruciferous family. The plant, also known as Peru ginseng, is considered the superfood of the Andes. It has been grown there for around 2000 years and used by the local people as a food and medicinal plant.

Use as a food plant

The bulb of the maca plant are mainly used. These taste slightly sweet and are slowly baked or cooked after drying. The region's traditional dishes also include a sweet and very aromatic porridge from Maca, known as mazamorra.

The dried maca roots can be kept for several years. The ingredients are also very stable, but the taste becomes slightly musky with increasing storage.

Not only the bulbs but also the young leaves of the plant are edible. They can be eaten raw or steamed and remind of cress with their slightly pungent taste.

Maca as a dietary supplement

In Peru, maca is particularly valued by the indigenous population due to its high nutritional value and health-promoting properties. That is why they eat the roots of the plant several times a day. The maca root is not available as a food in Europe, but is popular as a food supplement.

As a food supplement, the root is dried and then ground into powder. This is then available in pure powder form as well as a capsule or tablet. There are also maca concentrates and tinctures. These are usually alcohol extracts from the maca root.

Botany

The botanically correct name for Maca is Lepidium meyenii. The plant belongs to the genus of cresses (Lepidium) and to the cruciferous family. Maca is therefore related to watercress, garden cress, rapeseed and mustard.

The one or two year plant has a herbaceous habit and rarely grows to over 20 cm. Each plant has around 20 lying leaves, which spring from 20 cm long stems in a rosette shape at the root. The leaves are pinnate and also slightly lyre-shaped.

In the center of the rosette, panicle inflorescences are formed during flowering, and a shoot can have up to 1000 flowers. These are cream white and four-digit.

The tubers, which are used as food and nutritional supplements, are between 2 and 14 cm long. They are 3 to 5 cm in diameter and resemble a pear in shape. The maca root has a large water reservoir. Depending on the variety, the tubers can be white, yellow, purple, black or red in color. The weight varies as well as the color. The root weighs on average between 7 and 24 g.

Strictly speaking, it is not actually a root, even if the term maca root is common. The so-called hypokytol, which is located between the root and shoot axis, is used. The actual root starts at this hypokytol.

The hypokytol is a storage organ. The growing conditions in the Andes are difficult, so the plant relies on accumulating sufficient nutrients in the hypokytol. This accumulation of nutrients is what makes the maca plant so important.

Natural occurrence and cultivation

Maca grows exclusively in the Andes at an altitude of 4000 to 4500 m. Here the plant is exposed to extreme weather conditions. The temperatures fluctuate very strongly and strong winds blow continuously. In addition, the UV radiation is extremely intense at this altitude. As a result, maca is a very hard and robust plant.

According to the results of the Yunnan Agriculture University in Kunming, maca grows best at an altitude of 2800 to 3500 m and prefers temperatures between 5 and 10 ° C. Today, cultivation still takes place in the Peruvian Andes around Lake Junín. Maca is also now grown in the Chinese province of Yunnan.

Cultivation traditionally begins in the Peruvian spring, which roughly corresponds to the European autumn. The harvest takes place in July and August. Since the plant draws a lot of nutrients from the soil, it can only be sown twice in a row. After that, the cultivation field is idle for around eight years.

Discovery of the Maca

The Junín region is considered the cradle of maca cultivation. Although the plant is native to the entire Andean region as far as Bolivia, it was first grown in Junín. This is still the world's leading growing region today.

People lived in caves on Lake Junín more than 10,000 years ago. Around 1200 to 100 BC, indigenous people settled around the lake. In addition to potatoes and bitter potatoes, maca was probably one of the few plants that could withstand the harsh climatic conditions there.

Even before the era began, the peoples used maca for food and probably also as a medicinal plant. This is evidenced by the remains of ceramics with traces of maca found by archaeologists in this area.

It is believed that indigenous peoples discovered the plant as food through the observation of wild animals such as llamas. Maca shihua, the wild predecessor of today's Lepidium meyenii, is still growing in the Andes.

Maca at the time of the Incas

Under the rule of the Inca king Pachacútec, the Inca empire expanded its boundaries to the BonBon Plateau and Lake Titicaca. In addition to an improved infrastructure, the king also ensured more efficient agricultural production techniques. So he ordered a regional specialization in agriculture. From then on, the Junín region was devoted exclusively to maca cultivation.

At that time, the Inca were using maca as a tonic for their soldiers. Otherwise the tuber was reserved exclusively for the nobility and the upper class. For example, the root was used in sacred rituals to increase fertility.

Discovery by the Spaniards

The Spanish conquered the Andes between 1532 and 1536. Maca was first mentioned in the notes of the Spanish chronicler Cieza de Leon in 1553.

Around 100 years later, Father Cobo documented the name of the plant and its fertility-promoting effects. However, the plant did not get its botanical name until 1843. During the colonial period, which lasted for 200 years, the Spaniards are said to have demanded 9 tons of maca from the indigenous people annually and were often paid for in maca instead of gold.

With the end of the Spanish domination period and the establishment of today's Junín region, the cultivation of the Maca plant almost came to a standstill. Many Indians left the province to go to the cities or found work in mines in other regions.

The rediscovery of the root

It was only in the 1960s that Maca came into focus again and aroused the researchers' interest. Today, the export of maca products has a significant share in the Peruvian economy.

Types of maca

The maca root can be differentiated by the colors of its outer skin. The variations in the ingredients is not that great, but there are differences in the use.

The exact color composition depends on the one hand on the growing region and on the other hand on the soil composition there. In addition to cream and white, there are also yellow, purple, reddish or black tubers. Yellow bulbs are the most common, followed by the purple, red and black color variations.

So-called anthocyanins are responsible for the different colors. The more of this phytonutrient it contains, the darker the tuber appears.

The roots hardly differ in terms of ingredients. Differences are particularly evident in the phytochemicals beta-sitosterol and campesterol. However, depending on their color, the roots influence various physical functions.

Maca yellow

Around half of all Maca roots harvested in the Junín region are yellow. The yellow roots are particularly popular with the local population due to their pleasantly sweet taste. Mixed powder usually contains at least half of the yellow maca. If there is no exact name for a Maca dietary supplement, it is usually also in the yellow form. The yellow maca root is used, for example, to treat prostate problems.

Maca purple

The purple maca is rarely found. Together with red maca, it has the highest potassium content and is also said to have a hormonally balancing effect. The areas of application include menopausal symptoms.

Maca black

Black maca, together with red maca, has the highest and best documented impact on the bone health of all varieties. It also has a positive effect on potency and spermatogenesis, e.g. sperm formation in men.

Maca red

Red maca is considered the "women's maca" because it is used mainly to relieve menopausal symptoms. Studies also document a positive impact on the prostate. Red maca, like black maca, can also counteract osteoporosis (bone loss).

Maca ingredients and nutritional values

The plant's hypokytol contains a variety of nutrients. In addition to amino acids such as leucine, arginine and phenylalanine, these also include minerals such as calcium or iron. Maca also contains various phytochemicals.

Maca primary metabolites

Primary metabolites are products of the so-called primary metabolism. Among other things, they are used to build macromolecules. With a protein content of 13 to 16 percent, the maca root is rich in essential amino acids. The root also consists on average of 59 percent carbohydrates, 8.5 percent fiber and 2.2 percent fats.

Of these around 2 percent fats, the highest proportion is due to unsaturated fatty acids, which are important, for example, for the structure of the cell membrane. An average of 40 percent of the fatty acids are saturated and are good sources of energy.

Amino acids in maca

Maca contains several important amino acids. The body needs these, among other things, for oxygen transport, the formation of different biomolecules and different metabolic processes. The maca root contains the following amino acids (mg/g protein):

  • Leucine: 91
  • Arginine: 99.4
  • Phenylalanine: 55.3
  • Lysine: 54.3
  • Glycine: 68.3
  • Alanine: 63.1
  • Valine: 79.3
  • Isoleucine: 47.4
  • Histidine: 21.9
  • Tyrosine: 30.6
  • Methionine: 28.0

Minerals in Maca

The root also stores numerous minerals. This is also evident from the fact that after two cultivations, the soils are so exhausted that cultivation is only possible again many years later. Maca is rich in (mg/100 g dried root):

  • Iron: 16.6
  • Calcium: 150
  • Copper: 5.9
  • Zinc: 3.8
  • Potassium: 2050

Maca - Secondary plant products

Secondary plant substances are bioactive substances that are not vital for the plant itself, but have a high health value for humans.

Maca contains many of these important secondary metabolites. Some of these can only be found in the maca plant. These include the macaridines, macaenes, macamides and the maca alkaloids.

Other secondary plant substances from the root are:

  • Beta sitosterol
  • Campesterol
  • Campesterol
  • Glucosinolates such as glucotropaeolin

Vitamins B1, B2, C and B3 are also included.

Maca effect

Since its discovery over 2000 years ago, maca has been valued primarily as a fertility agent and aphrodisiac for men and women. But reducing the plant to its fertility-enhancing and libido-enhancing effects alone will not do it justice.

The multitude of health-promoting ingredients is responsible for ensuring that the maca bulb has a fairly broad field of activity. So it can be used for numerous complaints and for health promotion.

Maca against stress

Maca is a so-called adaptogen. Adaptogens are biologically active plant substances that can help the body to cope with stress. They are said to increase both physical and psychological resilience.

Just as the maca plant can adapt to the harsh living conditions in the Andes, it should also help people with the high demands of everyday life. This is due to ingredients that have a balancing effect on the hormonal balance and can thus strengthen the function of organs such as the thyroid or adrenal glands. For example, Maca can lower the stress hormone cortisol in the blood.

Maca for more energy and vitality

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), maca is an energy-producing plant. Maca can also contribute to more energy and vitality from a Western-medical perspective.

The root supplies the body with various essential minerals, including iron. Taking maca in powder or capsule form can increase the level of iron in the blood. An iron deficiency affects oxygen absorption and transport and is one of the most common reasons for fatigue and lack of energy.

Other effects of maca:

  • Contributes to bone health
  • Contributes to bone health
  • Can reduce anxiety
  • Counteracts depression
  • Increases general well-being
  • Can relieve menopause symptoms

Sensation of pleasure and maca

Men and women can suffer from disorders of the sensation of pleasure. If the desire for sex is lacking, both physical and psychological factors can play a causal role.

Possible causes of a libido loss include:

  • Heart and vascular diseases (e.g. arteriosclerosis)
  • Neurological disorders in the context of diseases such as stroke or multiple sclerosis
  • The metabolic disease diabetes mellitus
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Renal failure
  • Depression and antidepressants
  • Occupational and family stress
  • Stress
  • Relationship problems
  • Gynecological diseases such as vaginal dryness or testicular dysfunction with testosterone deficiency

It is not uncommon for those affected to suffer from loss of sexual desire and sexual drive. A loss of libido can also weigh heavily on the partnership. Many people with reduced sensation of desire therefore want effective and natural help.

Increase libido with maca

Maca was already known as a pleasure-enhancing plant among the Incas. Rightly so, as various scientific studies show.

In a study from 2008, the scientists administered 1.5 and 3 g of maca per day to subjects who took selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and therefore suffered from a loss of libido. In particular, the subjects who took 3 g of maca a day reported an improvement in their sensation of pleasure.

Similar results arose in Gonzales et al. research work with healthy men. Men between the ages of 21 and 56 participated in the placebo-controlled, randomized study.

These received either a placebo, 1500 mg or 3000 mg maca. After 8 weeks, the sexual desire of the men in the Maca group increased significantly. However, blood testosterone and estrogen levels remained the same. The increase in the sensation of pleasure does not seem to be due to increased testosterone levels.

Maca and menopause

Menopause is the time before and after the last menstrual period. The menopause begins on average from the age of 50. Menopause is not a disease, but the transition to the so-called senium (age) can still be accompanied by various complaints.

Typical menopause symptoms

During menopause, the female body produces less and less estrogen. Progesterone production is also decreasing. This can cause various menopause symptoms:

  • Hot flashes and sweats
  • Dizziness
  • Depression and mood swings
  • Libido loss
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches and also migraines

Depending on the severity, the menopausal symptoms can severely affect the women concerned in their everyday life. For fear of side effects, many women want to avoid therapies such as hormone replacement therapy (HET) and are looking for a natural alternative to relieve their symptoms.

Maca and osteoporosis during menopause

After menopause, the change in hormone levels increases the risk for women to develop osteoporosis. Osteoporosis, also known as bone loss, is characterized by a loss of bone substance and an increased risk of bone fracture.

In an animal study, rats which had previously had their ovaries removed received an extract from the maca root in a dosage of 0.096 or 0.24 g/kg body weight over a period of 28 weeks. The higher dose of Maca was used to reduce or stop the bone loss caused by the lack of estrogen.

Gonzales et al. suspected an estrogen-like effect, which is largely limited to the bones. The tissues of the uterus and breast, on the other hand, are not sensitive to the estrogen-like effects of maca. This is a positive effect because the accumulation of estrogen in these tissues can increase the risk of cancer.

Red and black maca roots in particular seem to have a positive effect on the bone health of menopausal women. When yellow maca is administered, however, the desired effect is lacking.

Maca stimulates hormone production

A large part of the complaints in the menopause are caused by the lack of estrogens and also of progesterone. Maca, however, can stimulate hormone production during menopause and thus counteract complaints.

In a 2005 study with gelatinized maca, Meissner et al. was able to lower the level of follicle-stimulating hormone (FH) in the blood of the postmenopausal study participants. In contrast, the level of luteinizing hormone (LH) increased, which also increased the levels of estrogen and progesterone in the blood of the test subjects.

A study from 2006 confirms these results. Maca can stimulate the hormonal processes of the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovary-hormonal axis and thus contributes to a balanced hormonal balance in the menopause. The participants in the study reported a significant improvement in their symptoms. For example, hot flashes or night sweats occurred less frequently.

Maca for depression during menopausal

Depression and depressive moods are common symptoms of menopause. Here Maca can also be useful for prevention and relief.

Current studies show that maca can reduce depressive symptoms in menopausal women. Maca can also counteract the fear, which occurs more frequently (unfounded) in postmenopausal women.

Potency and maca

Numerous studies have shown that maca can have a positive effect on libido. Not only the loss of sensation of pleasure, but also erectile dysfunction can severely affect the love life in men.

Potency disorders are referred to in medicine as erectile dysfunction (ED). Erectile dysfunction occurs when a man can't get an erection in two thirds of all cases or can't maintain it. The problems must also persist for a period of 6 months.

While erectile dysfunction is mostly psychological in younger men, physical causes are often present in older men. These include:

  • Circulatory disorders (e.g. due to arteriosclerosis or diabetes mellitus)
  • Testosterone deficiency
  • Testosterone deficiency
  • Testosterone deficiency
  • Nervous system disorders such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease

Maca against erectile dysfunction

Zenico et al. conducted a study in 2009 to find out whether maca can be helpful for erectile dysfunction. They administered 2500 mg of dried maca root or a placebo preparation to men with mild erectile dysfunction over a period of 2 weeks.

Before and after the study phase, the participants answered questions from the International Index of Erectile Dysfunction (IIEF-5), a measuring instrument for the assessment of erectile dysfunctions. After the two-week test phase, the test score in the Maca group improved significantly.

Erectile dysfunction due to an enlarged prostate

An enlarged prostate (benign prostatic hyperplasia) can cause erectile dysfunction. In particular, the red and yellow maca roots can prevent or counteract such prostatic hyperplasia. The so-called benzylglucosinolates are probably responsible for this effect.

Fertility and maca

More and more couples have an unfulfilled desire to have children. The Allensbach Institute for Demoscopy estimates that around 1.4 million Germans between the ages of 25 and 49 are unintentionally childless.

The causes are manifold. Hormonal disorders can affect fertility in both men and women. Changes in the fallopian tubes and uterus, endometriosis or epididymal and prostate inflammation can also prevent pregnancy.

Maca for better sperm quality

In men, infertility is largely due to poor spermiograms. This means that there are not enough intact sperm cells. Men with a poor spermiogram can benefit from taking maca.

For example, a study from 2011 on the relationship between maca and fertility in the male study participants after taking maca over a period of 4 months showed not only a quantitative but also a qualitative improvement in sperm.

The number of sperm cells increased and also the motility, e.g. the mobility, of the sperm improved. This also increases the chances of a natural conception.

It also turned out that the black root had the best effects in terms of sperm quality and quantity. In particular, the improvement in sperm motility could not be achieved with yellow or red maca.

Surprisingly, the number of sperms increased in the tests after just one day. After 7 days, the sperm count in the ejaculate was also increased.

Infertility in women

With regard to the fertility-promoting effects of maca in women, there are only animal studies to date. However, these suggest that maca can have a positive effect on the development of the embryo. For example, the mice pups were larger and stronger when the mothers received maca during pregnancy. The administration of maca also increased the probability of survival of the young animals in rainbow trout.

Scientists suspect that the increased survival probability is based on a progesterone-like effect of maca. Progesterone is also one of the most important sex hormones in humans and ensures the maintenance of pregnancy.

Maca and digestion

The human digestive system provides the body with nutrients and vital substances. If there are problems here, this can only cause unpleasant symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea or constipation, but also lead to deficiency states.

Dietary fiber for healthy intestines

Dietary fiber is a food component that is largely indigestible for the human intestine. Nevertheless, they have an important task. On the one hand, they bind water and thus increase the volume of the food in the intestine. This creates pressure on the intestinal wall, which in turn stimulates peristalsis, e.g. the movement of the intestine. Dietary fiber ensures a shorter intestinal passage and can prevent constipation.

On the other hand, fiber serves as food for the bacteria in the intestinal flora. The intestinal flora includes many useful bacteria, all of which are also referred to as microbiomes. The microbiome is increasingly becoming the focus of scientific research, since it makes a crucial contribution to health.

Maca as a source of fiber

Although fiber plays such an important role in (intestinal) health, most people consume far too little of it. Maca as a fiber-rich plant with a fiber content of around 9 percent can counteract this and thus promote digestion and nourish the beneficial bacteria in the intestine.

Cholesterol and maca

Cholesterol is a fat that the body produces itself. But it is also ingested through food. The fat molecule is not only a component of the cell walls, but also the basic building block of various hormones.

There are three main types of cholesterol: HDL, LDL and total cholesterol. HDL and LDL are so-called lipoproteins because they contain cholesterol itself as well as other fat molecules and proteins.

Increased cholesterol levels

Cholesterol is therefore essential. It becomes problematic when there is too much cholesterol in the blood. A disturbed relationship between HDL and LDL can also cause health problems. There is an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases especially when the "bad" LDL cholesterol is increased and at the same time there is too little of the "good" HDL cholesterol.

HDL cholesterol can absorb cholesterol from the blood and also remove cholesterol already deposited in the vascular walls. It prevents arterial calcification. If there is too much LDL cholesterol in the blood, on the other hand, it is deposited in the vessel walls. Over time, plaques form that constrict the vessels and thus restrict blood flow. If an additional blood clot forms and completely covers the already narrowed vessel, this can result in a heart attack or a stroke, depending on the location.

Regulate cholesterol levels with Maca

Maca is able to help normalize blood lipid levels. Maca presumably acts as a ligand for PPRα. These peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors in the liver, heart and skeletal muscles promote, among other things, ketone body synthesis. Medicines such as fibrates to lower blood fat levels work in a similar way.

Animal experiments have also shown that maca can lower both total blood cholesterol and LDL levels in particular. At the same time, Maca also increased the activity of antioxidants such as glutation in the body. As a result, the Andean superfood can prevent cardiovascular diseases from developing in two ways.

Maca and concentration and performance

Peruvian school children in the Andes often receive Maca to improve their school performance. The application in this area is based solely on experience, but current research also suggests that maca can improve concentration and performance.

The black maca root in particular has an effect on the ability to learn and remember. A dose of 0.5 or 2 g / kg body weight significantly improved the memory performance of mice in animal experiments. The animals were also more capable of learning.

Maca and metabolism

A functioning metabolism, also called metabolism, is the basis of all vital processes in the human body. All biochemical processes that take place in the body cells are part of the metabolism.

These metabolic processes can only run smoothly if sufficient nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and trace elements are available. Hormones and enzymes are also important for the metabolic processes in the body.

Metabolic disorders and maca

A metabolic disorder is always present when individual nutrients cannot be processed properly. A well-known metabolic disorder is, for example, the diabetes mellitus type 2.

This metabolic disorder is characterized by increased blood sugar levels. The reason for this is insulin resistance in the body cells. In contrast to type 1 diabetes mellitus, there is sufficient insulin, but the body's cells no longer respond to the hormone, so that more sugar remains in the blood.

The disease develops gradually, so that the first symptoms appear late and are also non-specific. However, the consequences of the permanently elevated blood sugar level are serious. This leads to damage to the small and large blood vessels with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, eye diseases up to blindness or severe kidney damage.

Maca can help regulate blood sugar levels. In a study from 2018, the researchers were able to use black maca root in hamsters to inhibit gluconeogenesis and glycolysis and thus lower blood sugar levels.

The thyroid gland as an important metabolic organ

The thyroid gland is an important, if not the most important metabolic organ in the human body. It produces the thyroid hormones T3 and T4, which regulate the metabolism and the basic metabolism of the body cells.

Accordingly, hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism have clear consequences. While hypothyroidism is accompanied by symptoms such as increased weight, tiredness and sensitivity to cold, hot flashes, weight loss, hair loss and irritability indicate an overactive thyroid.

Maca seems to have a balancing effect here. In animal experiments with rats that had their ovaries removed, the TSH concentration rose to a normal level with the administration of Maca. The T3 concentration in the blood also increased after taking Maca.

However, this effect could not be replicated in other studies. Further human studies would be desirable to prove that maca can be used (supportively) in the treatment of thyroid disorders.

Muscle build-up and maca

Maca was already used by the Incas as a tonic for the soldiers of the army. Even today, maca is part of numerous supplements for building muscle and increasing performance.

The maca root contains various essential amino acids, trace elements and valuable omega fatty acids and vitamins. Athletes can benefit from these nutrients.

In addition, maca, especially the black maca root, seems to have a positive effect on testosterone production. For example, a 2015 study in rats given a maca extract showed an increase in the capacity of the Leydig cells in the tests. These are responsible for the testosterone production. As a result, serum testosterone also increased in the test animals.

Testosterone can increase protein synthesis and thus promote muscle growth. Testosterone also affects fat burning. The higher the lean body mass, the more defined the muscles are.

Maca also helps improve energy metabolism and reduce oxidative stress in athletes. Just three weeks of maca can increase endurance and promote rapid regeneration.

Who benefits from maca?

The maca root can be used in many ways. Especially people who:

  • Suffer from loss of libido
  • Suffer from loss of libido
  • Have fears
  • Want to increase their potency
  • Have digestive problems such as constipation
  • Can’t concentrate well
  • Want to improve their memory
  • Want to build muscles
  • Want to lower their cholesterol and improve their blood lipid levels
  • Suffer from the metabolic disease diabetes mellitus
  • Have an unfulfilled desire to have children and want to increase their fertility
  • Want to improve their general well-being and do something for their health

Dosage

There is no general dosage recommendation for the maca root. The exact dosage depends on one's own state of health and on the desired result. Depending on the body weight, the standard dose is between 5 and 40 g of raw powder per day. It is advisable not to start directly with the highest dose, but to increase it slowly.

Side effects and interactions

Maca is considered a fairly safe food supplement. Side effects are very rare with high doses. In animal experiments, doses of up to 17g/kg body weight did not produce any toxic effects. Even rats that received 1 g/kg body weight over a period of 84 days had no side effects.

Occasionally, stomach pain, diarrhea and nausea can occur while taking Maca. It usually helps to temporarily reduce the dosage.

Little is known about the interaction of medication and maca. If you are taking medication and would like to take a maca dietary supplement, you should discuss this with your doctor first.

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