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 used by the people of the Peruvian regions for over 2,000 years.
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 worlds 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 regions.
Heating adaptogens like maca root is in part necessary to release some of its 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 wanting to consume a 100% 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 effectively.
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.
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.
Maca root has a number of benefits to the body as a natural energizer known for its effects at increasing libido, balancing hormones, improving fertility rate, regulating immune response and building muscle and strong bones.
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 allow your body to naturally regulate itself by normalizing over-activity or under-activity of the organs and glands.
Many refer to maca as the "Peruvian ginseng" for its energizing effects
as a natural stimulant. Like other adaptogens, maca is also an
aphrodisiac and helps to boost the libido significantly, just to warn
you. This is also a result of the chemical called p-methoxybenzyl
isothiocyanate, which is present in high concentrations.
Maca is particularly good for athletes to boost stamina and endurance levels for physical competitions. It is great as well for body builders to help build muscle and can be used as an alternative to anabolic steroids.
It also encourages mental clarity and
helps with memory loss. The raw or gelatinized heat processed powder can be added to tonic herb brews using Chinese herbs like astragalus, goji, jujube dates, rhodiola and ginseng.
Maca is well known for its effects as a "hormone balancer." It doesn't create hormones, but its plant sterols act as precursors to support normal hormonal activities. (*)
It works primarily with the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which are the two "master" glands responsible for regulating the entire endocrine system. This promotes the healthy function of corresponding organs and glands such as the pancreas, the thyroid, the adrenals in addition to the reproductive glands.
Because maca is an adaptogen, it tends to encourage the best hormonal
response for each unique situation.
Maca root is beneficial for a variety of conditions associated with proper endocrine function such as menopause, PMS, infertility, adrenal exhaustion and cognitive disorders. Regular use of the powder can help to reduce or eliminate hot flashes as well as menstrual cramping by balancing estrogen and progesterone levels.
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. We advocate the use of "gelatinized" maca root that has the starch and goitrogenic compounds removed.
This form of maca is beneficial to the thyroid and is processed in a way that increases its effects as an adaptogen, which can be helpful in cases of hypothyroidism.
Maca does also contain natural amounts of iodine, but is not as concentrated in the heated gelatinized powder.
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 feature.
In the research of Dr. Gloria Chacon de Popovici, a Peruvian biologist, it was established that maca works specifically with the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the major gland of the brain and considered the sex-hormone center, which correlates with its effects as a libido enhancer.
In studies conducted, 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." Legends are well known in Incan
history for maca's ability to build tough and muscular warriors with a
strong sexual virility.
In addition, studies show that hormone balancing properties of maca enhance male semen quality and increase female fertility. Maca is believed to be able to indirectly increase testosterone levels by lowering the hormone prolactin and raising amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Clinical studies are now showing the benefits of gelatinized black maca root on increasing bone density. Maca is naturally high in calcium, in addition it regulates hormones and normalizes the endocrine system which can be helpful in supporting the skeletal structure.
Yacon root syrup also has the potential to help increase bone density by improving the uptake of calcium and magnesium. Maca and yacon can be used together to influence an increase in bone health.
In the study published in The Journal of Ethnopharmacology maca was shown to improve bone mass and its potentially useful effects for conditions like osteoporosis.
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 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."
It has a malty taste and is especially wonderful in protein shakes, energy balls, cacao recipes and raw desserts. (Try it in our cheesecake recipe.)