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Wednesday, September 28 2016 @ 06:53 AM CDT

The Truth About Maca


By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Maca, the Peruvian herb, has been generating lots of buzz about its reputed ability to boost libido.

It is revered in the ancient Incan culture for its many medicinal purposes. According to folk belief, it is a plant known for its legendary ability to deliver energy and mental clarity, and enhance sex drives in Peruvians for more than 2,000 years.

Does Maca Live up to its Reputation?
Maca is an herb that has plenty of anecdotal information passed down from generation to generation, but scientific evidence on its effectiveness is limited.

There are only a few randomized control studies, the gold standard of studies, showing some benefit. Researchers continue to study how it may help men and women with low libido. Some studies suggest it may improve semen quality, relieve symptoms of menopause, and reduce enlarged prostates.

A few animal studies have found maca is an aphrodisiac but major studies are lacking on humans. A review of maca in the journal Current Sexual Health Reports concluded “there is no strong medical evidence in support of its use for female sexual dysfunction.”

“Maca might have a positive effect on sexual dysfunction, yet there are so many psychological and social aspects when measuring sexual healing that it is hard to be conclusive” says Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, Georgetown University Medical Center professor and author of 5-Minute Herb and Dietary Supplement Clinical Consult.

Claims that maca is a highly effective aphrodisiac may be exaggerated, Berman says. “Some claims are over the top -- compared to a placebo, maca only slightly enhanced sexual desire. The strongest evidence is that it may increase sperm count and improve fertility in certain men” she says.

When it comes to reducing menopausal symptoms, there are no clinical trials done on women, says Berman, who co-authored The National Women’s Health Network’s The Truth about Hormone Replacement Therapy.

Although the evidence may be lacking, psychiatrist and functional medicine physician, Hyla Cass, MD, says maca works. “In my practice, I have seen maca restore hormonal imbalance and related sexual desire and fertility in both men and women.”

“Maca enjoys a very long history of successful medicinal use for menopausal discomfort, infertility, and sexual healing – the question is not whether it works because we know it works with certainty, but how it works” says Chris Kilham, author of Hot Plants and self-described medicine hunter.

Maca a Staple in Peruvian Diet
In Peru, maca has been a staple in the diet of men, women, children, infants, pregnant and lactating women, elderly, and the infirm -- out of necessity. Only two crops grow in the higher elevations in Peru: potatoes and maca.

It is prepared in various ways: cooked and mashed; mixed with milk; and dried, ground, and powdered into something that resembles flour and is used in breads, cakes, and cookies.

In the Andes, people typically eat about half a pound of maca daily, Kilham says.

Maca an Herb and a Food
Maca (Ledpidium meyenil) is an Andean root, referred to as an herb. It's a starchy tuber that resembles a radish or a turnip but tastes more like a potato.

Like other starches, maca contains carbohydrates, protein, fats, and dietary fiber. It is also rich in plant sterols and a good source of iron, magnesium, selenium, and calcium.

Ideal growing conditions for maca are at high elevations in the Andes.

Is Maca Safe?
Kilham says the safety of maca is evidenced by the millions of people who subside on a diet of it without side effects.

There have not been reports of adverse effects of eating maca, so Berman agrees that it is probably safe.

Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements because even though maca is a natural product grown in the Peruvian highlands, there are always potential side effects, including those from processing.

A growing demand for maca has resulted in a wide variety of products online and in health food stores boasting sexual health and stamina-enhancing claims. Maca, like other dietary supplements, are not reviewed or approved by the FDA.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

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