Every region of the world has its signature superfoods, and the Andes is no exception. Already known for the gluten-free hero quinoa, the rugged mountains of central Peru are also the source for maca (Lepidium meyenii), a root used for thousands of years to treat sexual ailments and endocrine imbalance. Considered a “lost crop” of the Andes that was once in danger of extinction, maca is now being resurrected primarily for its impressive energy-boosting properties.
What is Maca, anyway?
A root vegetable in the mustard family that looks like a large radish, this low-growing plant thrives only in the rocky highlands of Peru and Bolivia. It was an important trade item for the Inca at least two centuries ago and collected as tax by the Spanish to then be used by royalty (those ancient kings truly knew what was good). Introduced to the developed world in the 1960s, maca didn’t really catch on until the late 1990s but its newly discovered status as an adaptogen suggests that we’ll be seeing a lot more maca supplementation going forward.
Maca for internal balance
Adaptogens are a small number of plants from around the world with the ability to help the body restore balance and resist disease. Like others in its class, maca doesn’t have one specific effect but works rather like a thermostat: allowing the body to restore homeostasis in the face of various kinds of stress. It does this primarily by enhancing endocrine function; it supports the endocrine glands in producing the hormones that control everything from digestion to the nervous system to reproduction.
The upshot is that maca leaves you feeling better overall, even when working hard, without the side effects of stimulants. Inca and Spanish soldiers ate huge quantities of the stuff to boost energy, stamina, and ferocity in battle, which makes it equally useful for attacking your gym workout and firing your muscles without the nasty jitters associated with too much coffee.
Traditionally, maca was used in the Andes to treat sexual dysfunctions—increasing sperm production and fertility in men, and treating symptoms of menstruation and menopause in women. It does this not by adding or creating estrogen, testosterone, or other hormones, but by delivering the nutrients needed by the glands to produce the necessary hormones in amounts regulated by the body. (See? Maca = the great equalizer.)
Unlike artificial stimulants the energy boost in maca poses no danger of stressing your adrenal glands or giving you jitters. Instead, maca works precisely by nourishing the adrenal glands and helping them regenerate. Like other adaptogens, maca leaves users feeling energized and upbeat, possibly because it supports the pituitary gland. Consequently, some people report mental benefits like improved focus, clarity, and memory.
Other health benefits
Not only does maca help to balance the adrenals, it’s also highly nutritious. Rich in protein, fiber, carbohydrates, calcium, magnesium, iron, and plant sterols (a natural treatment for high cholesterol)—as well as other plant compounds like glucosinolates and isothiocyanates — maca is undoubtedly a superfood. It also has relatively high levels of vitamins C, B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin) and B6, as well as zinc, copper, manganese, potassium, amino acids, and free fatty acids.
How do I get me some?!
Most commonly you’ll find maca that’s been dried and ground into a powder that can then be readily mixed into food or drink. The taste is tangy and nutty, with an aroma of butterscotch that some like and others...not so much. It’s also becoming more common to find maca in mixed supplements and pre workout powders.
Although maca is considered safe, it’s advised that people with thyroid issues or endocrine-sensitive cancers consult first with their healthcare practitioner. Pregnant or nursing women and people with high blood pressure should also consult with their doctor before taking maca. Otherwise: consider incorporating maca into your daily routine and begin reaping the benefits!