If you asked the ancient Incas their go-to superfood it would be maca. In Peru, the magic of maca – to balance hormones and invigorate – has been known for thousands of years. Found on top of the Andes Mountains in Peru, maca looks a bit like cross between a turnip and a parsnip. Not only is it a hormone superfood in Peru it is planted amongst root veggies to repel pests and parasites.
Maca is a tuber, which means it grows underground. It is a cruciferous vegetable and loaded with hormone goodness including:
Fatty acids, plant sterols, vitamins A, C, B2, B6 and niacin (B3).
It also contains the minerals – calcium, magnesium (a woman’s essential. Magnesium is one of the most important elements in our body, being involved in over 300 enzymatic reactions. Women need it for hormone balance, muscle function, healthy bones, helps us to make protein, supports muscle and nerve function, blood glucose levels, blood pressure and energy production and help cope with stress); phosphorus, selenium (great for the thyroid and hormone balance), zinc (immunity and sperm health) potassium (for electrolyte balance and heart health) and copper (energy production, cardiovascular, serotonin production and oestrogen metabolism). Without these essential nutrients we are unable to effectively communicate & regenerate
A recent study done in America showed that 48% of the population have inadequate intake of magnesium
Maca for energy and adrenal stress:
Like licorice, Holy basil and ginseng, the maca root is one of the plants classified as an ‘herbal adaptogen’. This means it stimulates hormones to help you adapt to stress and illness . Your endocrine (hormone) system is in the front line when it comes to handling the effects of stress on your body. When it is alarmed it kick starts a cascade of stress hormones including cortisol & adrenaline which affects everything including fertility, hormone balance, the nervous system, immunity, kidney function, metabolism, digestion and mood. Being alarmed and working under pressure is part of life these days but not so good long term and causes hormonal chaos. I see many clients displaying symptoms of burn out & adrenal fatigue (disturbed sleep, nightmares and insomnia, chronic fatigue, anxiety, depression, digestive disturbance, menopause symptoms by the dozen, weight gain and sub-fertility / infertility and sexual dysfunction) to name but a few symptoms.
So back to maca – the alkaloid and polysaccharide components of the plant root support the hypothalamus/pituitary gland and reproductives. In the past warriors would take maca root before going into battle to boost stamina and strength. As we generally are not going into direct battle these days we can use it as a “pick me up” when we need some adrenal support.
Unlike caffeine maca gentle stimulates and energises but can be eaten and drunk at any time of day because it doesn’t interfere with sleep
Maca helps balance hormones
Due to its ability to influence the reproductive system, this great root supports hormonal balance in both men and women. It has been shown to
Elevate energy levels
Improve libido & sexual stamina in men and women
Increase sperm count and sperm motility
Reduce anxiety and mood swings
Reduce peri-menopause symptoms such as hot flushes
Boost the immune system
Promote balance within the body
Reduce painful menstrual cramps
Improve PMS symptoms
Enhance concentration and mental clarity
Help us cope with stress
Reduce food cravings
Support bone health
Maca is high in fibre which improves gut health. As we already know choosing correct foods and a healthy lifestyle is essential to achieve hormone balance. Fibre is an effective tummy filler, which can reduce hunger between meals and also helps reduce constipation (an issue for many women who suffer with stress and/or cyclic hormonal surges)
Maca powder also contains between 11% to 18% protein. Your body needs protein to build healthy cells, muscles, endometrium & support ovarian function. Nine amino acids are considered ‘essential’ to your health and maca contains 7 of them. It also helps you to feel full!
Maca for Sex and Libido
Though its aphrodisiac affects are not scientifically understood entirely it’s ability to stimulate sexual sensation and desire, reduce erectile dysfunction, increase sperm count, and increase sex drive is helpful to say the least. Scientists think it’s amazing effect on the hormones and the pituitary gland, including its stress relieving properties are caused by maca’s unique long chain fatty acids which have yet not been found in any other plant. They have been shown to increase sexual activity and correct erectile dysfunction in animals. They are also similar in structure to endocannabinoids, chemicals that stimulate hedonistic hotspots in our brain, triggering pleasure. For whatever reason maca has been used for centuries in Peru to boost libido and virility.
Maca for Liver and Enzyme Support
Maca is a cruciferous vegetable, so it contains glucosinolates. In nature, glucosinolates are stored in cells of plants and act as natural pesticides to protect the plant. When we digest maca the glucosinolate properties change into health-boosting chemicals. Sulfur (also found in garlic and onions) helps your body produce a master antioxidant called gluthionine. This is an amazing hormone boosting and detoxifiying enzyme which supports liver function (essential for hormone balance, detoxification and anti-ageing).
Optimising liver function is absolutely essential to maintain hormonal balance and oestrogen health conditions like the menopause, acne, vaginal atrophy/dryness, polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, luteul phase misfunction, recurrent miscarriage and much more. I wrote an article about the importance of the liver ages ago and also offer seasonal health programmes and workshops to support liver health
Maca for PMS Relief
As we have already established Maca is a herbal adaptogen. This means we can use it to help menstrual mood madness. At the start of the menstrual period, there is a very low level of oestrogen, but by mid cycle it has increased 10-fold before steeply plummeting again. For some women this hormonal rise and fall causes MOOD SWINGS, FLUID RETENTION, BREAST TENDERNESS.
Maca for the Peri- and Menopause
Like Fennel, maca may be a great alternative to HRT. Unlike some herbs and phytoestrogens (e.g. soy) maca does not try to mimic oestrogen in your body. Yet it can actually increase the body’s production of oestrogen if your levels are too low. And unlike HRT, which may cause a rise in cholesterol, such as triglycerides, maca has been shown to help lower unhealthy HDL cholesterol and increase healthy HDL cholesterol in menopausal women.
Research found that after taking maca for only four months, peri-menopausal women enjoyed a range of health benefits including weight loss, lower blood pressure, increased iron levels and good HDL cholesterol.
An Australian research project trialled women in early menopause. They were given two 500mg capsules off Lepidium Peruvianum Chacon maca twice a day for four months. Results demonstrated – increase in oestrodial, progesterone and luteinizing hormone (which stimulates ovary function) but reduced the stress hormone cortisol. The ladies explained that their symptoms of hot flushes, night sweats, nervous tension, anxiety and depression were all reduced plus concentration and sleep levels all improved. Why is this? Well, It is thought that the plant sterols in maca stimulate changes in the action of the HPA axis which supports the adrenal, ovarian, pineal and thyroid glands.
Maca for Beauty
Hormonal imbalances including polycystic ovaries and the menopause leave many women acutely aware of changes to the health of their skin. Some suffer with dryness or thinning hair whilst others develop hair growth in places where it shouldn’t! Others suffer with spots, pimples and acne.
Hormonal surges are often reflected in skin health (we see this during puberty, PCOS, acne rosacae, menstruating, menopause and pregnancy) but as maca helps to stabilize hormonal changes it is easy to understand why so many women report skin improvements after using it.
We usually consider maca as creamy/yellow in colour but actually there are 13 different types of maca. Research is still ongoing for the different maca colours and benefits but this is what has been established so far:
Yellow: shown to help protect against UV radiation from the sun when applied directly to the skin in a liquid form
Red maca appears to be good for bone strength.
Black: has been shown to promote bone strength and improve brain function, such as memory and cognition. In men, it can help increase sperm count and reduce issues like enlarged prostate in men.
My recommendations are
Buy the best you can! Some is raw and some has been gelatinised. This is a process breaking down the starch in maca. Just for you information traditionally it is always cooked before eating which removes the starches and fibres that make it hard for some people to digest
Don’t over dose: If you start a dose that’s too high it could make your symptoms worse so I would recommend you start with half dose. Begin with half a teaspoon of maca daily for one week. Then take a week off. The following week take 1 teaspoon per day for a week – then a week off. MACA is powerful and dosage will vary dependent on YOU!
Take with food.
Remember – we are all individual. Everyone reacts differently to nutritional supplements and food. If you experience side effects from maca then your particular system may be too sensitive to tolerate it. Side effects include stomach bloating, cramps, nausea (or a gurgling tummy) and also heart palpitations or the jitters. Please note that people with thyroid issues should use maca only with the support of their health professional due to the glucosinoates and iodine levels. It is possible that Maca may stimulate the body to produce more oestrogen in some ladies. If you suffer with oestrogen-sensitive conditions such as oestrogen receptor positive breast, ovarian or uterine cancers, endometriosis or uterine fibroids or if you know you are oestrogen dominant use maca with caution! (I recommend personalised nutrition programmes and functional lab test analysis).
Justine Evans ND is a Hormone Alchemist and and fertility doula. She is a degree qualified nutritional therapist and registered naturopath (ND). Passionate about female health Justine integrates a mind/body approach to women’s health using cycles, seasons and moon energy but also integrates functional medicine. Justine is the founder of Creation Fertility and it’s products. Justine can be contacted on 07747 133170
Disclaimer: This article has been written as personal opinion and guidance only and should not be construed as medical advice. I am not a medical doctor.