Maca - A divine Peruvian gift or a marketing hype?
Lepidium meyenii, also known as Maca root, is an ancient plant growing at a high altitude between 4000 – 4500 m above sea level in the Peruvian Andes. Historically it has been used as an aphrodisiac and a natural remedy for fertility & sexuality. It is said that Inca populations have used Maca in soups and meals before going into the battle or before rituals as it has invigorated their senses. Many marketing claims are being made about the beneficial properties of Maca, most of which have no basis in any research; however, in this article, we will go through some of the known studies and towards the, and you can form your conclusion based on these. I will also provide a short summary towards the end. Without further ado, let’s go straight into it.
LIBIDO & SEX HORMONES
In a small Peruvian study from Lima, a 12-week trial on 57 people (aged 21-56) divided the participants into 3 categories receiving: 1500mg, 3000mg and placebo; men taking 1500mg Maca for 12 weeks had significantly increased self-perceived sexual desire and libido compared to men taking placebo (neither group knew whether they had placebo or the real herb).
A parallel study running alongside the one above (same authors and same participants) looked specifically at the effect of Maca on testosterone, oestrogen, luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and prolactin (P) ( all 3 are important fertility hormones in men) looked further at the effects on Maca on the reproductive health of men. The researchers once again put the same group into several categories, some of which received 1.5g, some 3g and some placebo. No change in testosterone, prolactin, LH, FSH or oestrogen has been noticed even after 12 weeks regardless of the dose.
Based on this small trial, we could make an assumption that Maca does seem to positively impact male libido; however, the effects are not caused by the increase of testosterone as is commonly thought. It appears the mechanism behind this has to be linked to something else. So far, though, we have no clear indication of what it is Maca really does. At the same time, we have to point out that men in this study had normal levels to begin with and that they were healthy. When testosterone levels are “normal”, increasing it beyond this point has no effect on libido, and in fact, increasing testosterone besides normal levels (such as taking anabolic steroids) may be a risk factor for the development of prostate cancer due to excessive production of more powerful dihydrotestosterone (DHT) a powerful driver of prostate hypertrophy.
SSRI-INDUCED SEXUAL DYSFUNCTION
Up to 50% of patients treated with SSRI (selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors) type of antidepressants experienced some form of sexual dysfunction. The standard treatment for this is Viagra which can cost up to $900 per month, so it is natural some people are interested in alternative remedies instead. A small study on 20 patients put on SSRIs (17w/ 3m) has found that those receiving the highest doses of Maca (3g/d), had the best results and highest increase in sexual function. This was, however tiny study, so larger trials would be needed to confirm for sure. That being said, Maca may still be a nice alternative to men who lose their libido while on antidepressants and who do not feel like using Viagra.
OSTEOARTHRITIS A small study of 95 people with medically diagnosed osteoarthritis (a degenerative inflammatory condition that results in wearing down of cartilage in the knee or hips) has split up participants into 2 groups. First group took Glucosamine, a popular supplement for osteoarthritis management and the other a herbal product called Repargen containing a blend of Maca and Cat’s Claw.. In this study, both groups had a significant reduction of inflammation and perceived pain. While Glucosamine is well tested for osteoarthritis, the effect of Maca & Cat’s claw is a relatively new finding. It should be noted that an advisor to a company making Repargen was involved in this study; however that does not technically mean a conflict of interest, it is just something we should be mindful of when interpreting results.
WHAT ABOUT ALL THE OTHER MARKETED BENEFITS?
If, like me you are interested in natural medicines you may be surprised at the small size of this article. We have all heard the amazing benefits of Maca from marketers but frankly, when we look at the studies conducted on humans and that are of decent quality and include some sort of structure, we are left with very few trials. There are few studies on postmenopausal women which I have not included because they are outside of scope of my audience and these were more related to female hormonal health.
At the same time we have to mention that absence of studies does not mean absence of positive benefits.
In scientific & academic circles, personal stories are not of any value unless they are accompanied by a rigorous scientific process that includes randomization (splitting groups randomly) and blinding (participants and researchers don’t know who gets placebo and who gets the real thing). However personal anecdotes and stories are what makes up a large portion of efficacy when it comes to natural medicines. Certain knowledge has been passed down through verbal recollection, and these cannot be discounted just because there was no scientific process. Also, there is a reason why Maca has become so popular and behind every marketing hysteria for natural remedies, there is a bit of truth that stems from original usage by the first people who have cultivated these plants hundreds of years ago.
As a form of my personal anecdotal story, I feel that when I take Maca in a blend with some berries and banana 30-45 minutes before the workout, my performance improves. I get the best effect when I drink this on an empty stomach. When I perform running up the hill on a particular hill that has become my testing ground, I noticed I ran a bit further before getting winded. I have also beat my 5K record and my 1-mile record on the run I took 3 times, twice without and once with Maca. It may be a placebo effect, may be coincidence and maybe 50 other things but for me it seems to do something and it gives me a little bit of physical boost that feels different to that of caffeine. I do not have any studies to back this up, and it does not work like this all the time, but then any scientific research always starts and ends with a human experience and this is how we learn anything.
Due to the small amount of research that is mostly focused on sexual dysfunction and libido, we don’t have a lot of information on the other benefits of Maca. It may definitely be helpful for men who experience erectile problems, lack of sexual desire or even osteoarthritis. From my personal experience, Maca gives me a slight gentle physical boost but this is a fully personal anecdotal story. The best way to try is to test it for yourself and see. I suggest starting with 1 teaspoon and blending it with some fruit 45 minutes before a workout. The taste of Maca is quite gross, so you may need to hold your nose if you're just mixing it with water.
If you end up trying it, let me know in the comment below or join our Facebook and post your success story for others to see.
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Shin, B. Lee, M.S. Yang, E.J. et al. (2010). ‘Maca (L. meyenii) for improving sexual function: a systematic review
’BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 6.pp.44.
Dording, C.M. Fisher, L.F. Papakostas, G. et al. (2008). ‘A double-blind, randomized, pilot dose-finding study of maca root (L. meyenii) for the management of SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction’, CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 14 (3), pp.182-191.
Gonzales, G.F. Cordova, A. Vega, K. et al. (2002). ‘Effect of Lepidium meyenii (MACA) on sexual desire and its absent relationship with serum testosterone levels in adult healthy men’,Andrologia, 34 (6), pp.367-372.
Gonzalez, G.F. Cordova, A. Vega, K. et al. (2003). ‘Effect of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a root with aphrodisiac and fertility-enhancing properties, on serum reproductive hormone levels in adult healthy men’, Journal of Endocrinology, 176 (1), pp.163-168.
Mehta, K. Gala, J. Bhasale, S. et al. (2007). ‘Comparison of glucosamine sulfate and a polyherbal supplement for the relief of osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomized controlled trial’, BMC complementary and alternative medicine