Maca is a plant that grows high in the Andes mountains of Peru and Bolivia.
This plant is also commonly called Peruvian ginseng, maca-maca, and maino.
Maca was traditionally used as a food source by native populations in Peru. It is now used as a dietary supplement and research shows that it helps support brain health and sexual function.
In this article, we will look at the health benefits of maca, its safety, and, its history.
Table of Contents
- What is Maca?
- Types of Maca:
- Benefits of Maca:
- Maca Safety:
- Gelatinized Maca vs. Raw Maca:
- Maca vs. Other Herbs:
- Naming & Taxonomy:
- History & Traditional Use:
What is Maca?
Maca is known scientifically as Lepidium meyenii, it’s part of the Brassicaceae (i.e. cabbage) family of plants.
Maca root has been cultivated for at least 2,000 years by traditional peoples living in the Andes mountains. As a plant, it grows in high-altitude regions characterized by rocky formations, intense sunlight, strong winds, and extreme weather conditions.
It’s thought that maca is a secondary adaptogen, which means it has the ability to help your body acclimate to stress.
There are three primary varieties of maca and these include:
- yellow maca
- red maca
- and black maca
Each of these types of maca has a unique chemical profile and slightly different benefits for the human body.
Traditionally maca root was eaten as a food. It has a unique flavor and an aroma similar to caramel.
Modern research indicates that maca root may be helpful for improving sexual function, memory enhancement, anti-inflammatory effects, and skin protection. We’ll look more into these maca benefits below.
Types of Maca:
Different colored maca contains different phytochemicals, which provide different health benefits. Below is a quick overview of the main types of maca:
Yellow maca consists of around 60% of all maca harvested in Peru. It’s the most widely used and researched form among all maca products. Yellow maca is said to help increase energy, improve concentration, and balance hormones.
Red maca accounts for about 25% of the annual harvest in Peru. It’s the sweetest and highest in phytochemical levels among all maca powders. Red maca is known as the most effective type of maca for women because it has hormonal balancing effects as well as helping support bone health.
Black maca is the rarest of all maca types, it accounts for about 15% of the annual harvest. Studies have shown that black maca is the most effective form for men, especially for muscle gain, endurance, mental focus, and libido.
Benefits of Maca:
There are many purported health benefits of maca. The top research-backed benefits of maca are listed below.
1. May Support Sexual Function
Clinical research, as well as traditional usage, indicate that maca is helpful for increasing libido and sexual function.
A 12-week double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that maca helped to improve sexual desire in men. In this study, men between the ages of 21-56 years received maca in one of two doses: 1,500mg or 3,000mg or placebo. At the start of the study, the participants establish a baseline level of sexual desire, as well as anxiety and depression levels. The participants re-scored themselves after 4, 8, and 12 weeks of treatment. An improvement in sexual desire was observed in the maca group after 8 weeks of treatment.
Interestingly enough, the researchers found that serum testosterone levels were not different in men treated with maca and in those treated with placebo. This indicates that maca is able to improve libido without influencing testosterone production.
A human clinical trial involving 45 women with antidepressant-induced sexual dysfunction found that a 3g dose of maca helped to improve libido. The researchers noted that the maca was well tolerated and that a 3g dose was better than a 1.5g dose.
A placebo-controlled clinical trial found that maca helped to lower measures of sexual dysfunction in women. It was also found to decrease anxiety and depression scores. Interestingly enough, maca was not found to impact sex hormone production, which indicates that it works via a different mechanism of action than originally thought.
Another clinical trial looked at the libido-enhancing benefits of maca. A total of 175 participants were given 3g of either placebo, black maca, or red maca extract daily for 12 weeks. The researchers found that consumption of red and black maca resulted in improvement in mood, energy, and overall health status. Effects on mood, energy, and CMS score were better with red maca. Black maca reduced blood glucose levels. It was noted that both types of maca were well-tolerated and safe.
Summary:A variety of human clinical trials indicates that maca works to increase sexual desire in both males and females. It should be noted that maca does not appear to increase testosterone levels. Further research is needed to verify the mechanism of action.
2. May Increase Energy & Physical Performance
Maca may help to increase energy and stamina.
A clinical trial was conducted to determine the benefits of maca for athletes. The physical performance of the athletes increased by 10.3% on average, and the maximum value for the increase in oxygen consumption was 33.6%. Based on the results, it is believed that maca provides a physical improvement not only in athletes but everyone.
A placebo-controlled study found that maca increased self-reported energy levels in healthy men.
A small-scale pilot study showed that taking maca over a 14-day period helped to improve performance in a bike time trial. It should be noted that the placebo group had a similar increase in performance after re-testing the time trial.
Summary:Initial studies show that maca may help to increase physical stamina and energy. Large-scale studies are needed to verify these findings.
3. Neuroprotective Properties
Various animal and lab-based studies have indicated that maca may have neuroprotective health benefits.
An animal study found that maca extract improved cognitive function, motor coordination, and endurance capacity in middle-aged mice. The researchers also found that these benefits were accompanied by increased mitochondrial respiratory function and upregulation of autophagy-related proteins in the brain cortex.
Another animal study found that black maca helped to reduce memory impairment in mice. It’s thought that this was due to black maca’s antioxidant properties.
A lab-based study found that maca root extract has the ability to protect neurons. The researchers attributed maca’s neuroprotective effects to its anti-inflammatory, neurotrophic, and synaptic protection properties.
One other test-tube study found that maca had a protective action on brain neuron cells.
Summary:A combination of animal and lab-based studies show that maca has a protective effect on the brain. Human clinical trials are needed to verify these findings.
4. May Benefit Skin Health
Animal-based studies indicate that maca may be helpful for protecting against UV radiation.
An animal study found that yellow maca extract helped to protect the skin of mice against harmful UV rays.
Another study looked at the skin protective effects of maca leaves. The three varieties of maca leaves prevented the development of sunburn cells, epidermal hyperplasia, leukocytic infiltration, and other alterations produced by UVB radiation. The researchers attributed these skin health benefits to the antioxidant compounds found within maca leaves.
Another animal study looked at the impact of red maca on skin wound healing in mice. The researchers found that red maca accelerated wound closure, decreased the level of epidermal hyperplasia, and decreased the number of inflammatory cells at the wound site.
Summary:Animal studies indicate that maca extract may have the ability to increase wound healing time and protect against UV radiation. Clinical trials are needed to verify these findings on humans.
5. May Lower Blood Pressure
Maca may help to reduce blood pressure.
A randomized clinical trial involving healthy men showed that gelatinized maca reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure after 12 weeks of treatment.
A lab-based study found that maca significantly inhibited the hypertension-relevant angiotensin I-converting enzyme (ACE). Researchers speculate that this could be the mechanism for maca’s blood pressure lowering effects.
Additionally, a population study in Peru found that individuals who regularly consumed maca had lower systolic blood pressure as compared to those who did not.
Summary:Research indicates that maca may be able to lower blood pressure. Large-scale human clinical trials are needed to verify these findings.
6. Other Benefits
Other purported health benefits of maca include:
- Anxiety & Depression – A clinical trial found that maca helped to reduce anxiety and depression levels in women who were given maca.
- Osteoarthritis – A clinical trial found that a combination of maca and cat’s claw (Uncaria guianensis) was compared to standard glucosamine + chondroitin treatment for osteoarthritis. Both treatments substantially reduced pain and stiffness and improved joint function in the patients.
While these various other health benefits of maca root are interesting, larger-scale human clinical trials are needed to corroborate these findings.
Summary:Maca root has been tied to a wide variety of health benefits. Human clinical trials are needed to verify these findings.
Safety Class: 1
Interaction Class: A
The Botanical Safety Handbook puts maca in the safety class of 1, meaning it can be safely used when appropriately consumed.
This herb has an interaction class of “A” which suggests that no clinically relevant adverse reactions are expected to occur.
In general, this herb is well tolerated and safe to take for most individuals.
Be aware that you can find both gelatinized and non-gelatinized forms of maca root for sale. For some individuals, taking a non-gelatinized form of maca can cause an upset stomach.
Pregnancy & Lactation:
No adverse effects have been observed on pregnancy or fetal development in animal studies.
The safety of maca during lactation has not been established yet.
Standard dosing for maca is as follows:
Tincture (1:4 or 1:5): 4–6 mL (80–120 drops), three times per day.
Decoction: Add 2 tsp. powdered maca to 10 oz. water. Gently simmer for 15–20 minutes, then steep for ½ hour. Take 8 oz. three times per day.
You can also drink maca coffee.
Capsules: Take two capsules two or three times per day. Capsules can contain maca powder, pre-gelatinized maca powder, or maca extracts. The dose may change depending on what is in the capsules.
Gelatinized Maca vs. Raw Maca:
Gelatinized maca has the starch removed and is supposedly easier to digest.
This process concentrates some constituents (lycopene and sulforaphene), but it decreases others such as vitamin C, enzymes, and glucosinolates.
You can read more here about the differences between gelatinized and raw maca.
Maca vs. Other Herbs:
Maca is often compared with many other different types of herbs. We have put together helpful articles going over the most common comparisons.
Maca is currently a sustainable plant. However, recent surges in the popularity of maca have caused disruptions in the supply chain.
It’s currently grown in Peru and Bolivia at high altitudes. Attempts to cultivate it at a lower altitude in China have produced poor-quality maca.
Currently, there is no sustainability crisis with maca, however, it is becoming increasingly important to buy from a reputable source.
Naming & Taxonomy:
Maca’s scientific name is Lepidium meyenii. It’s a biennial plant that belongs to the Brassicaceae (or cabbage) family of plants.
Maca grows in the ground similar to a radish or beet. It’s classified as a hypocotyl (similar to a carrot). It was traditionally used as a root vegetable.
In 1843, the german naturalist Gerhard Walper gave maca its scientific name of Lepidium meyenii.
This hypocotyl-root is about 10–14 cm long and 3–5 cm wide and constitutes the plant’s storage organ for water. After natural drying, the hypocotyls are dramatically reduced in size to about 2–8 cm in diameter.
Traditional peoples would allow maca to freeze and thaw during the drying process, which was said to help increase the medicinal benefits of the root.
History & Traditional Use:
Various people groups in the Andes have long relied on maca as a nutritious food. It is one of the few foods that thrive at elevations of 12,500 to 14,400 feet above sea level and has been cultivated over the past 2000 years.
People from other regions ate maca root, as it was exchanged for other goods that could only be cultivated at lower elevations.
Inca warriors are said to have consumed huge amounts of the root before battle in order to gain strength and fight many battles. It’s also said that, after the Incas conquered towns, women in those cities had to be sheltered from these maca-powered soldiers since it fostered uncontrollable lust.
The first written description of maca was published in 1553 by Cieza de Leon, a writer who wrote about the Spaniard conquest of Peru. He mentions that the native populations ate the roots for health maintenance.
In 1653, Father Cobo, a Spanish priest, wrote about the uses of maca in his book History of the New World. He noted that this plant is not only nourishing but that it also enhances fertility.
Other accounts state that the Spaniards’ horses could not reproduce in the high elevations of the Andes, but the addition of maca to their diet remedied this problem.
Maca appears to be a safe and well-tolerated herb.
Common usage tells us that this herb is helpful for sexual function and libido. Other research shows that maca may be helpful for brain health and blood pressure.
It also appears that this herb has strong wound healing properties.
It’s worth looking into maca if you are needing support in any of these areas. As always, make sure to consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or adding a new supplement.
Cobo, B. (1653). History of the New World. Madrid, Spain: Biblioteca de Autores Españoles; 1956.
Gardner, Z. & McGuffin, M. (2013). Botanical safety handbook (2nd edition). American Herbal Products Association.
Winston, D. (2019). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Inner Traditions/Bear & Company.