More women are turning to the Peruvian herb maca for greater well-being.
By Lisa James
Sometimes the most powerful healing agents come in the most unlikely packages. Take maca, for example. Used as food and medicine for thousands of years in the highlands of Peru, maca (Lepidium meyenii) looks like a humble turnip. But appearances can be deceiving: Maca has long been revered for its ability to promote fertility and healthy intimacy among both men and women in addition to enhancing strength and energy. In fact, the ancient Peruvians thought so highly of maca that they used it as currency.
Today maca has come down out of the mountains and into the herbal mainstream. It is often found in supplements designed to help women deal with hormonal ebbs and flows brought about by midlife changes.
Throughout each monthly cycle during a woman’s reproductive years her body maintains two hormones, progesterone and estrogen, in delicate balance. At menopause levels of these hormones begin to fluctuate, resulting in discomforts such as hot flashes, night sweats, mood changes, insomnia and changes in skin tone.
Maca does not supply female hormones directly. Instead it helps the body produce its own natural hormones by acting on the pituitary gland, a small organ underneath the brain that serves as the body’s master hormone controller. In laboratory studies, maca has shown the ability to counteract depression, memory and cognition problems, and bone loss associated with menopause.
For many women one of menopause’s more distressing signs is a dropoff in libido. Maca’s hormonal effects help explain its traditional use in promoting female sexual health, a usage supported by published research (CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics Fall 08, Menopause 11-12/08).
Abundant energy helps make a healthy sex life possible along with fueling athletic endeavors and elevating overall well-being. Inca warriors are reported to have used maca centuries ago for strength in battle and other activities that require great endurance. Today we refer to maca as an adaptogen, a substance that helps the body cope with physical and mental stress.
The nutrients found in maca help account for its energizing abilities. The herb’s iodine content promotes proper function of the thyroid, a gland crucial to energy regulation. Maca also contains iron, which helps correct a fatigue-causing condition called anemia, along with B vitamins, required for efficient energy production.
In addition, maca supplies protein building blocks called amino acids along with calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, fatty acids, vitamins C and E, and a number of health-promoting substances known as phytonutrients. In one lab study, maca was able to lower cholesterol levels while normalizing blood sugar (Plant Foods for Human Nutrition 6/07).
Maca works best when combined with complementary herbs and nutrients. These include L-arginine, an amino acid vital to proper blood flow, and L-histidine, which supports healthy nerve function; damiana, an herb traditionally used to enhance intimacy; dong quai, a Chinese remedy that helps balance hormone levels and improve complexion; ginger, which helps soothe inflammation; and an herbal formula from India’s Ayurvedic tradition called alanzeebium.
If you suffer from symptoms of menopause—and the intimacy problems it can cause—maca may help you find your youthful self.