Maca Root: Research-backed Benefits and How It Works

Key takeaways:
~Maca root is a cruciferous vegetable with adaptogenic properties used as a supplement.
~ Dried maca extract balances hormone levels, making it helpful for menopausal symptoms. It also may help with muscle building.
~ Discover the benefits of maca root, the potential side effects, and the possible interactions with your genes.

What is Maca?

Maca root (Lepidium meyenii) is a cruciferous vegetable native to the high Andean mountains of Peru.[ref] Maca is a member of the Brassicaceae plant family, which also includes broccoli, turnips, and cabbage. Used as both a food source and traditional medicine for centuries, maca is gaining popularity as a natural supplement.

Research Studies on Maca Root:

While you’ll find a lot of stories on Facebook and Reddit about individual reactions to maca, I’m going to stick with peer-reviewed research studies here. Keep in mind that what studies show is the average response for a group.

Balancing hormones (women): Maca for perimenopause and menopause

Maca has traditionally been used for centuries in South America for infertility and female hormone balance. It is considered an adaptogen, meaning it can help increase resistance to stressors (physical or emotional).

During perimenopause and at the start of menopause, fluctuations in hormone levels can cause discomfort (irritability, mood changes, hot flashes, etc.).

Generally, at the start of menopause, follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone rise while estrogen and progesterone levels drop. Maca may act on these hormone changes as well as impact mood.

What do the studies show?

  1. In a study of women with early menopause, 500 mg of maca twice a day showed positive effects for hormone balancing. After two months of maca supplements, estrogen (E2) increased, and FSH was suppressed. It also helped alleviate menopausal symptoms.[ref]
  2. Another study using 2g gelatinized Maca root powder per day in women in early menopausal years showed decreased FSH along with the increased luteinizing hormone. The maca supplement caused both E2 estrogen and progesterone to increase.[ref]
  3. In a study of perimenopausal women, maca supplements for eight weeks increased E2 (estrogen) levels. It also helped with insomnia.[ref]
  4. An analysis of 4 high-quality randomized placebo-controlled trials showed that Maca has favorable effects for women with menopause symptoms. All the studies showed that maca positively affected menopausal symptoms compared to placebo, as measured by the Greene Climacteric Scale and the Kupperman Index.[ref]
  5. Another study found that maca decreased depression symptoms and blood pressure (slightly) in menopausal women. The study participants took 3.3 g/day of Maca or placebo for six weeks each. This study did not find a statistically significant change in hormone levels after six weeks.[ref]

Maca for sexual dysfunction:

Maca has been shown in several placebo-controlled studies to be effective at high doses for sexual dysfunction side effects from medications such as antidepressants. The effective dose was 3g/day in the clinical trials.[ref][ref]

Talk with your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions about medications, supplement interactions or side effects.

Testosterone in men:

When reading about maca root on the web, you may get the impression that it is an instant, miracle powder for older men. However, research shows it isn’t as simple as taking some maca root to boost your testosterone production instantly.

Animal studies have shown that maca root may impact male hormones. A study showed that testosterone increased due to increasing testicular mRNA level of HSD3B1 (3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase). HSD3B1 is involved in the production of a precursor for testosterone, and it is also involved in progesterone production.[ref] Note – I’m not sure how this male animal study applies to women, but the link to increasing an enzyme precursor for progesterone is interesting.

Another animal study found that the positive effects on testosterone levels in aging came after long-term feeding of maca root extract. The maca root seemed to stop the declines normally seen in aging.[ref]

A trial of maca root (1.5g or 3g/day) found no hormone changes were seen in adult men. The study tested estrogen, testosterone, prolactin, LH, and FSH.[ref] Another study found that maca was not superior to placebo in increasing sperm count or testosterone in male infertility.[ref]

A placebo-controlled clinical trial using 1g of maca 3x/day for 12 weeks showed statistically significant improvements in prostate scores and the Aging Male Symptoms score.[ref]

Maca for muscle building:

Animal studies examine how and why maca may be helpful for someone trying to increase muscle mass.

The studies show that maca enhances strength and endurance in mice. Furthermore, the maca helped to alleviate exercise-induced metabolic stress by upregulating NAD+ /NADH.[ref][ref] Other animal studies also show that maca may help prevent muscle atrophy, which is a problem in aging.[ref][ref]

Lacking here are good human clinical trials showing that maca is effective either for improving muscle mass or preventing muscle loss in aging.

Altitude Sickness

A trial with 175 participants tested the effects of maca on altitude adaptation. The participants received 3g of either red or black maca root or 3g of a placebo. Both the red and black maca root groups had improvements in mood, energy, and mountain sickness scores at high altitudes.[ref]

Side Effects of Maca and Safety Studies

There aren’t a lot of safety studies on Maca, but the randomized, placebo-controlled trials note no significant side effects. The study on altitude sickness was a safety study, and it found that 3g/day of black or red “maca extracts were well tolerated and safe.”[ref] Of note here is that maca has been used traditionally as a medicinal food or drink for centuries.

My opinion (not a doctor!):
The hormone changes warrant caution regarding using maca if you have a hormone-linked cancer, such as breast or ovarian cancer, or a strong family history of breast cancer. One cell culture study did note that maca increases metastasis in breast cancer cell lines.[ref]. Talk with your doctor if you have concerns about cancer and maca (or any supplement).

How does Maca root work?

So what’s in maca root that brings hormonal benefits to premenopausal women and alleviates sexual dysfunction side effects?

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About the Author:
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. Fascinated by the connections between genes, diet, and health, her goal is to help you understand how to apply genetics to your diet and lifestyle decisions. Debbie has a BS in engineering and also an MSc in biological sciences from Clemson University. Debbie combines an engineering mindset with a biological systems approach to help you understand how genetic differences impact your optimal health.

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