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We don’t blame you if you’re a little skeptical of traditional aphrodisiacs at this point. Oysters don’t exactly give them a good reputation, and that’s just a modern example. Go back to some historic methods of boosting libido, and you’ll find a hodgepodge of animal parts ranging from toad skin to chemicals derived from blister beetles (Sandroni, 2001). Despite the unappetizing history, there is one of these libido boosters you should try: maca.
Maca, or Lepidium meyenii, is a plant in the cruciferous vegetable family (like kale and brussels sprouts) known for its purported adaptogenic properties or ability to help your body adapt to and cope with stress. Also known as Peruvian ginseng, maca is grown in the Andes mountains and has historically been used by the Incas (Gonzales, 2012). Most medicine is made from its root, which can be red, black, white, or yellow and resembles a radish or turnip. So what can an herbal supplement dating back to the Incas offer the modern health seeker? Potentially a lot.
- Maca is a plant related to kale and brussels sprouts that grows in the Andes mountains and was used in traditional medicine by the Incas.
- Many of the health benefits of maca only have preliminary studies to support them, so we need more research to say that they hold true in the general population.
- Maca may be able to help with different types of sexual dysfunction, from boosting sperm motility to increasing sex drive in both men and women.
- This herbal supplement doesn’t appear to affect testosterone levels but may act similarly to estrogen in the body, so women with certain conditions should avoid it.
- Maca has a pleasant, nutty, almost butterscotch-like taste, making it easy to add the powder to your daily diet in smoothies and lattes.
Main health benefits of maca
Maca’s got quite a reputation, but we all know those can be misleading. That’s why even though maca is purported to have health benefits like helping memory and concentration, reducing prostate size, and boosting muscle mass and strength, it’s best to wait to see what science will confirm. There’s currently no evidence, for example, that L. meyenii can help you put on more muscle. And its claimed benefits for cognition and prostate health only have animal studies as evidence. But here’s what we do know about the herbal supplement and what it might be able to do in humans.
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May increase libido
You read right: maca was traditionally taken as an aphrodisiac. And science backs up the practice. The herbal supplement successfully increased self-reported sexual desire in men after eight weeks in one 2002 clinical study (Gonzales, 2002). The researchers even had the men take tests to rate their depression and anxiety as well and tested their testosterone and estrogen levels throughout the study. They found that maca increased sexual desire independent of these other factors that could have affected libido.
And it may not just be men that can get a boost from the medicinal root. A meta-analysis that looked at four clinical trials found that maca supplements boost libido in two trials featuring adult men and menopausal women (Shin, 2010). One trial looking at healthy cyclists found no effect, and the final trial found that maca supplementation significantly helped men with erectile dysfunction. There were few studies, and they were small, however, so researchers say we need further testing to be sure of the results. The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database does not currently recognize maca as an effective treatment for sexual performance or dysfunction or sex drive (Medline Plus, 2019).
May increase libido levels
Despite the traditional use, this is where maca is gaining a reputation in modern alternative medicine. Maca is rich in carbohydrates, a primary fuel source for our bodies, particularly our brain and muscles. But researchers believe this medicinal herb may help boost energy beyond replenishing our glycogen stores. Trials are preliminary and mostly involve animals (Yang, 2015) (Li, 2018), so it’s impossible to say the results hold true in humans. Rats were able to swim longer when given maca supplements, one study found (Choi, 2012). Researchers believe maca may lessen the effects of oxidative stress caused by exercise.
One small study has been done in humans, however. Researchers gave trained male cyclists maca extract for 14 days and found that at the end of the period, they could complete a 40 km cycling time trial faster than before supplementation (Stone, 2009). Though the times were significantly higher than the baseline, they weren’t statistically significant in time from the placebo group. (It’s worth noting that the maca group did report increased sex drive not seen in those taking the placebo, though.) More work needs to be done to see if the results found in multiple animal studies possibly hold true in humans.
May increase fertility in men
Maca root may also hold promise for people with different types of sexual dysfunction. One study on healthy adult men found that maca improved sperm concentration and motility compared to placebo even though hormone levels did not change (Melnikovova, 2015). And other clinical trials have reported similar findings. Another study confirmed that while hormone levels did not change, the sperm motility, seminal volume, sperm count per ejaculation, and motile sperm count all increased in participants after four months of supplementation (Gonzales, 2001). Thus, fertility was increased without affecting testosterone levels. A meta-analysis of the available research concluded that while the results of several clinical trials are promising and suggest maca may improve sperm quality, all of these studies were limited in their size, so more research needs to be done to confirm their findings (Lee, 2016).
May alleviate menopause symptoms
Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database also doesn’t recognize maca powder as an effective treatment for symptoms of menopause, but the research looks promising. Pilot studies have looked into this herbal supplement’s effects on both physical and mental symptoms. One small study found that 3.5 g of maca daily for six weeks slightly diminished psychological symptoms, including anxiety and depression, and improved sexual function in menopausal women (Brooks, 2008). Another small double-blind study used similar doses of maca for 12 weeks in participants, which resulted in decreased depression and improved blood pressure in postmenopausal women (Stojanovska, 2014). More research is needed to confirm these findings hold true in the general population.
How to take maca
Maca is readily available and, until recently, could even be found on the shelves of your local Trader Joe’s. (Unfortunately, demand didn’t keep up, so TJs nixed the product.) The most common form you’ll find is maca powder, and its earthy, nutty flavor blends well with steamed milk (like in a latte) or smoothies. (Some people even claim it tastes a bit like butterscotch.) Adding a serving of maca root powder into a morning smoothie seems to be the most popular way to use it. Though scientific evidence is lacking for the claims of energy, some people have reported a “jittery” feeling as a side effect that interferes with their sleep. If you tend to be sensitive to supplements, you may want to use it in the morning to sidestep any potential insomnia.
Maca comes in other forms as well, though they’re not as common. You may also find capsules and liquid extracts. Most supplements on the market are made from yellow maca, and those made from red maca or black maca may offer slightly different health benefits.
But there is a recent rise in a new form of maca: skincare products. Research done in animals suggests that applied topically, maca may be able to protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays thanks to its polyphenol antioxidant content (Gonzales-Castañeda, 2011). Other than causing wrinkles, UV radiation also contributes to skin cancer risk. More work needs to be done to confirm this protective mechanism also works on humans, and it should be noted that these skincare products don’t replace regular sunscreen.
Potential risks and considerations
It is clear at this point that the biggest concern with maca is that the available research is limited. Though the medicinal plant has been used for centuries, research is still catching up. Animal studies and small clinical trials are a start, but their findings do not allow us to say for certain that the health benefits observed, and lack of side effects, actually hold true in humans or larger populations.
Side effects for maca tend to be anecdotal, suggesting that the herbal supplement is generally well tolerated. These self-reported side effects include heightened alertness or a “jittery” feeling that disturbed sleep. But the science just isn’t there to back up the anecdotal evidence. But even if it’s generally considered safe, you should still talk to your healthcare provider before beginning a regimen.
And there are still some groups of people for which it is not suggested. Maca, like cabbage, brussels sprouts, and other related vegetables, contains goitrogens (Bajaj, 2016), substances that could interfere with the normal functioning of your thyroid gland. For that reason, it may more severely affect people with already impaired thyroid function, like people who have hypothyroidism. It’s also not suggested for people with hormone-sensitive conditions like endometriosis, breast cancer, or uterine fibroids since maca may act like estrogen (Valentová, 2006) in the body and make these conditions worse.