What is Maca Root and Why is It a Superfood?

maca-root-benefits

What is Maca?

Maca root (Lepidium meyenii) is a radish-like tuber similar to a turnip in size and color and is native to the harsh, dry climates of the South American Andes mountains.

This strong and hardy root has been a traditional food and medicine plant utilized by the people of the Peruvian Andes for centuries.

It is well known and rejoiced for its super-tonic effects, energy-instilling properties and supremely nutritious attributes that help to provide strength and endurance for physical activity at these high elevations.

Maca is one of the world's highest-altitude growing crops, naturally prolific at between 9,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level. Distant descendants of the Incas, the Quechua people, still continue to grow maca today in these high mountainous locations. 

Raw Vs. Cooked or Gelatinized

Heating adaptogens, especially roots, is in part necessary to release some of their medicinal qualities and is actually the traditional way to use this hardy root vegetable. 

Many people do not realize that Peruvians, who have been using maca for thousands of years, always cook it first. This is customarily done by either boiling or roasting (called huatia) the whole root, like a potato, or dry powdering it raw then boiling it to make a porridge-type food.

Way back when maca was first sold here in the West, you could only get "raw" powdered maca.  Today, maca has been proven more digestible when its longer chain starches have been broken down and gelatinized. This is a process unique to maca, but because it employs high heat temperatures it is less suitable for those adhering to a raw vegan diet.

Raw maca powder contains some components that can inhibit its digestion and cause gas or bloating in certain individuals. In addition, because maca is a cruciferous vegetable the raw root does contain quite a bit of goitrogen content.

We have personally never experienced digestive upset from consuming maca in its raw powdered state and feel that its powerful health effects are still very apparent. However, if you do consume raw maca on a regular basis, we recommend taking it with some digestive enzymes to help your body break down the nutrients more efficiently.

What is Gelatinized Maca?

Today, we enjoy the gelatinized version that is now widely available. This is maca root that has gone through an "extrusion process", using heat and pressure to separate the starches and remove the tough root fiber as well as the goitrogens. This concentrates the active ingredients and creates a highly digestible top superfood powder.

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Types of Maca Root

There are three main types of maca that are distinguishable by the color of the root when it is harvested.

1) Yellow Maca
2) Red Maca
3) Black Maca

Eighty percent of the crop is usually yellow maca and the other twenty percent is a combination of red and black. Each of these maca varieties offer slightly different effects and health benefits. 

Most maca powders are a mixture of all three, but recently they are being sold by the individual types, with red and black maca qualifying as a higher grade over yellow in most cases.

Interestingly, when you buy the red, yellow or black root they are all pretty much the same in color with just slight shade variation.

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Maca Root Benefits

Maca root has a number of benefits to the body as a natural energizer known for its supportive influence at increasing libido, balancing hormones, improving fertility rate, regulating immune response and building muscle and strong bones.

Health Enhancing Effects as an Adaptogen

Maca is an adaptogen root that has itself "adapted" to poor soils and colder climates that exist at high altitudes. Adaptogens help the body "adapt" to stress and are substances specifically known to affect one or more areas that include sexual virility, athletic stamina, heightened energy and physical beauty.

They generally can allow the body to naturally regulate itself by normalizing over-activity or under-activity of the organs and glands.

Many refer to maca as "Peruvian ginseng" for its often energizing effects as a natural stimulant.  Like ginseng, maca is also an aphrodisiac and has a reputation for its ability to significantly boost the libido, just to warn you. This is also a result of the chemical called p-methoxybenzyl isothiocyanate, which is present in high concentrations.

Maca can be particularly good for athletes to boost stamina and endurance levels required for high-intensity workouts or competitions. As a building tonic, it is likewise an often recommended superfood for body builders to help build muscle mass.

The raw or gelatinized heat processed powder can be added to tonic herb brews utilizing a combination of other adaptogenic Chinese herbs like astragalus, goji, jujube dates, rhodiola and ginseng.

Hormone Balancer, Supportive to Endocrine System?

Although maca is well-known for its effects as a "hormone balancer", to date this affect in not complete understood according to scientific research. It has been identified that pre-gelatinized varieties don't "contain plant estrogens or any other phyto-hormones", but their actions are believed to be due to the plant sterols. These are compounds that may work together with the pituitary to naturally stimulant the endocrine system which can support normal hormonal activity. (Source)

One can also take into consideration that, because maca is an adaptogen, it tends to encourage the best hormonal response for each unique situation. This rule, however, is not set in stone.

Since there are many different individual scenarios and health conditions to take into account, if you are someone who has hormone issues, it is best to seek the advice of a qualified Endocrinologist for further analysis and treatment.

While maca root has been shown to be beneficial for menopause, peri-menopause, PMS, infertility, adrenal exhaustion and cognitive disorders, again, it is best to err on the side of caution if you are new to consuming it or have hormonal abnormalities.

In some double-blind research, it has been demonstrated that organic gelantized maca has a hormone-balancing effect on women just entering menopause. In addition, more studies on mice identified black maca's potential antidepressant activity. (*)

Potential Side-Effects on the Thyroid Gland

Because maca is a cruciferous vegetable, it can cause problems with the thyroid when used as a raw powder, which is known to contain goitrogens which are not recommended for an under-active thyroid.

In such cases, it is best to use "gelatinized" maca root that has the starch and goitrogenic compounds removed, if you wish to experiment.

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Maca Root Benefits and Libido

Often referred to as "nature's answer to viagra", maca is well-known for its ability to significantly boost libido, sex drive and reproductive functions. We already mentioned its actions as a powerful aphrodisiac, but there are also other reasons for this unique libido-influencing feature.

In the research of Dr. Gloria Chacon de Popovici, a Peruvian biologist, it was established that maca works specifically with the hypothalamus, a major gland of the brain often considered the sex-hormone center.

In a study conducted on sexual dysfunction in women, it was discovered that maca's sexually stimulating properties were also due to two unique compounds called the macamides and the macaenes, giving it restorative qualities that make you feel "potent with the seeds of life." 

This quality it also backed by well-known legends in Incan history describing maca's ability to build tough and muscular warriors with a strong sexual virility.

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May Be Helpful for Healthy Skeletal Structure

Maca is naturally high in calcium as well as potentially normalizing to the endocrine system, two important attributes supportive to healthy skeletal structure.

In research on rats evaluating Lepidium meyenni usefulness for postmenopausal osteoporosis, maca extracts were shown to be "effective in the prevention of estrogen deficient bone loss." (*) In addition, both red and black varieties have been identified to "have protective effects on bone architecture in ovariectomized rats." (*)

Maca Root Nutrition

One Ounce of Maca Powder
(Daily Values based on a 2000 calorie diet)

  • Vitamin - C 133% DV
  • Copper - 84% DV
  • Iron - 23% DV
  • Potassium - 16% DV
  • B6 - 16$ DV
  • Calcium - 7% DV
  • Manganese - 11% DV
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How to Use

Maca is available as a raw or gelatinized powder, a freeze-dried powder, in capsule form or as an liquid extract.

The only maca we personally consume these days is the gelatinized powder.  Our favorite is gelatinized black maca for its specific effects at helping to increase bone density, encouraging healthy joints and teeth.

Maca has a strong malty flavor that most people either love or dislike. We are big maca fans and have been using it for many years in mostly hot tonic drinks using other superfoods like shilajit and chaga.  These two, when blended with maca and a natural sweetener, taste like a "butterscotch coffee."

We use it in many of our website recipes like our:

Maca powder is usually consumed in doses between 1t-1T, depending on your level of daily activity and other factors. If you are new to consuming it, start with small amounts and increase over a period of time.

Precautions:

Consult your physician, endocrinologist or qualified healthcare provider when using maca root if you are pregnant, nursing, have a thyroid condition, have a serious medical condition or are taking prescription medications.

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