Maca: Benefits, side effects, dosage, safety, uses

The world of nutrition and wellness is filled with numerous superfoods, each with unique properties and health benefits. One such nutritional powerhouse that has gained attention is the maca root, a plant native to the Andes mountains in Peru.

Often termed the “Andean superfood,” it’s popularity spans centuries, with its roots firmly planted in the ancient practices of the Inca civilization.

Traditionally used for its medicinal properties, maca is now globally recognized as a health supplement, with extensive research supporting its potential benefits. It’s versatile benefits cater to various health needs and goals, from energy production to hormone balance. 

But what makes this superfood stand out from the crowd? This comprehensive guide will unveil the science behind maca, its health benefits, potential side effects, who should consider incorporating it into their diet, and much more. 

Whether you’re new to maca or looking to expand your knowledge about this Andean gem, this guide is for you.

What is maca?

The maca root, scientifically known as Lepidium meyenii, is a cruciferous vegetable, a relative of broccoli, kale, and cauliflower [1]. Grown in the Andean mountains at altitudes of 13,000 feet or higher, maca thrives in extreme conditions that few other crops can endure. This resilience is believed to contribute to its potent health properties.

Maca’s nutritional composition is impressive. Packed with vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids, and phytonutrients, it rightfully earns its superfood status. Each spoonful of maca root powder serves as a rich source of Vitamin C, copper, iron, potassium, and bioactive plant compounds that work in unison to promote health and wellness.

Its power doesn’t stop at nutrition; it’s also known for its adaptogenic properties. Adaptogens are natural substances that help the body adapt to stress by restoring its physiological functions to balance. By bolstering the body’s resilience to physical, environmental, and emotional stress, maca supports the body’s natural ability to regain equilibrium.

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But how exactly does maca deliver its beneficial effects? The answer lies in its ability to influence the endocrine system – the network of glands in our body that produce hormones. Hormones are like the body’s chemical messengers, playing crucial roles in various bodily functions, from mood regulation to energy production. 

It is believed to influence the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, often called the “master glands” as they control other glands in the body, thereby playing a crucial role in hormone balance.

Why maca is deemed a superfood?

Superfoods are a unique category of foods rich in nutrients and associated with numerous health benefits. They are known to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, improve longevity, and support overall health.

Maca has undeniably earned its spot in this category with its impressive nutritional profile and diverse health benefits. Here’s why it is considered a superfood:

Vitamins and minerals

Maca is a nutritional powerhouse packed with numerous vitamins and minerals. It’s particularly rich in Vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that aids in boosting the immune system, and essential minerals like iodine, calcium, iron, and potassium [2]. 

Copper and iron are vital for maintaining healthy red blood cells and preventing anemia, while potassium helps regulate heart rhythm and muscle contractions.

vitamins and minerals
Photograph: tenkende/Envato

Essential amino acids

Maca contains all eight essential amino acids – the building blocks of proteins our body cannot produce independently. Amino acids are crucial for various bodily functions, including tissue growth and repair, immune function, and nutrient absorption.

Bioactive plant compounds

Maca is a good source of bioactive plant compounds like glucosinolates and polyphenols, which have been linked to various health benefits, including reducing inflammation and oxidative stress.

Adaptogenic properties

As an adaptogen, maca helps the body naturally cope with stressors like a busy schedule, demanding job, or illness, returning it to a state of balance. It supports the adrenal glands, which manage the body’s hormonal response to stress and fatigue.

Balancing hormones

Maca is renowned for its ability to support hormonal balance. Influencing the hypothalamus and pituitary glands can help regulate the production of hormones that control various bodily functions, from mood and energy levels to reproductive health.

How does maca work?

To understand how this works, it’s important to recognize that its effectiveness comes from its nutritional value, distinct bioactive compounds, and how they interact with our bodies.

Influence on the endocrine system

At the heart of maca’s functionality is its effect on the endocrine system, the body’s network of hormone-producing glands. It is believed to stimulate the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, often known as the body’s “master glands,” as they control other glands in the body. 

This influence helps regulate the production and release of hormones, from sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone to stress hormones like cortisol. By helping balance these hormones, it can contribute to improved energy, mood, growth and development, and sexual health.

Adaptogenic properties

Maca is classified as an adaptogen, a category of herbs and roots known to help the body naturally cope with stress. Adaptogens support the adrenal glands, which manage the body’s hormonal response to stress, anxiety, and physical exertion [3]. 

It can improve adrenal health, increasing the body’s ability to handle stress and maintain balance even during challenging times.

Nutrient absorption

Maca’s high concentration of bioavailable nutrients plays a crucial role in its functionality. Bioavailability refers to how well a nutrient can be absorbed and used by the body. 

The minerals it contains, like iron, zinc, and calcium, are particularly bioavailable, making it an excellent way to support general nutrient intake, especially for those deficient in these minerals.

Antioxidant activity

Maca is rich in antioxidants—substances that help defend the body’s cells from potential damage caused by free radicals. These unstable molecules can damage cells when their levels become too high. 

This antioxidant activity contributes to its potential benefits for skin health, mental health, and overall well-being.

It has multiple functions, including regulating hormones, managing stress, supplying nutrients, and acting as an antioxidant. This harmony of actions makes it a potent superfood capable of supporting various bodily functions and promoting overall health and wellness.

Health benefits of maca

With its diverse nutritional composition and unique biological properties, it has been linked to various health benefits. While research continues to delve deeper into these potential benefits, many have been backed by scientific studies and long-standing traditional use.

1. Energizes the body

One of its primary benefits is its ability to boost energy and endurance [4]. Maca is rich in complex carbohydrates, the human body’s primary energy source. 

It also contains B vitamins essential for the body’s energy production process. People who regularly consume it often report increased energy levels and improved physical performance.

2. Supports men’s and women’s health

It plays a vital role in their health due to its hormone-regulating properties. For men, it may help improve libido and sexual health, and it has been associated with improved sperm production, sperm mobility, and semen quality [5]. 

For women, it can relieve symptoms of menopause, like hot flashes, mood swings, and insomnia. It has also been suggested to help with conditions like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), which is linked to hormonal imbalances.

3. Improves mental health

Maca can positively affect mental health. It has adaptogenic properties, helping the body cope with stress, and contains flavonoids, natural compounds reported to improve mood and reduce anxiety [6]. Some studies have shown that it may also improve learning and memory capabilities.

4. Promotes skin health

Antioxidant-rich maca is known to support skin health [7]. It can protect the skin against oxidative stress and UV radiation, reduce skin sensitivity, and improve collagen production, which promotes skin elasticity and firmness.

As with any natural supplement, results can vary from person to person, and these benefits should not replace professional medical advice.

Who should take maca?

As a nutrient-rich superfood, it can be a beneficial addition to almost anyone’s diet. However, its unique properties make it particularly well-suited for specific individuals:

1. Fitness enthusiasts and athletes

Given its natural energy-boosting properties and ability to support endurance and recovery, it is popular among athletes and those with an active lifestyle.

2. Menopausal women

Maca can help balance hormone levels and alleviate common symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes, mood swings, and insomnia.

3. Stressed and anxious individuals

The adaptogenic properties can help the body respond to stress more effectively, making it a helpful supplement for those dealing with high stress, anxiety, or related conditions.

4. People looking to boost their immunity

Rich in vitamins and minerals, it supports the immune system and can help fend off colds, flu, and other illnesses.

5. Those seeking to improve cognitive function

Early research suggests it could improve learning and memory performance, potentially benefiting students, professionals, and older adults concerned about cognitive health.

6. People with sexual health concerns

Maca has been traditionally used to boost libido in both men and women and improve fertility, particularly in men.

Despite these benefits, not everyone should take it. People with thyroid issues should be careful, as it contains goitrogens, which could interfere with thyroid gland function. 

Pregnant or breastfeeding women should also take caution before starting this supplement. As always, speaking to a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen is best.

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Potential side effects, specific considerations and interactions of maca

While it is generally safe for most people, it’s important to be aware of possible side effects. As with any dietary supplement, how one’s body responds to maca can vary based on individual factors such as age, overall health, and genetic makeup.

1. Digestive issues

Some people may experience mild digestive issues when taking maca, including bloating, gas, and upset stomach [8]. These effects are usually temporary and can often be mitigated by starting with a lower dose and gradually increasing it.

2. Allergic reactions

While rare, allergic reactions have been reported. But if you have a known allergy to plants in the Brassicaceae family (e.g., mustard, turnips, Brussels sprouts), you may be more likely to have an allergic reaction to maca. 

Symptoms may include rash, hives, itching, and shortness of breath [9]. If you experience these symptoms after taking maca, seek immediate medical attention.

3. Hormonal changes

Maca’s impact on the endocrine system can be a boon for many, but it may pose problems for others. Since it may act like estrogen in the body, it could potentially affect conditions sensitive to hormones.

Taking it may worsen conditions like breast, uterine or ovarian cancer, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids. Always consult a healthcare provider if you have a hormone-sensitive condition before starting any new supplement regimen.

4. Effects on thyroid function

Since maca belongs to the cruciferous vegetable family, which contains substances known as goitrogens, which may interfere with the normal functioning of the thyroid gland, particularly in people with thyroid conditions.

Those with thyroid conditions should approach it cautiously and always discuss this with their healthcare provider before adding it to their diet.

5. Interaction with other drugs

If you’re taking medication for liver disease or high blood pressure, consult your doctor before taking Maca. It may alter the efficacy of these medications, so it’s crucial to check with a healthcare professional before combining these substances.

6. Pregnancy and breastfeeding

There is insufficient scientific data to determine whether maca is safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding. As a precaution, avoiding use during these periods is generally recommended unless a healthcare provider advises [10].

If you’re considering adding it to your diet, talk to your healthcare provider first. They can provide guidance based on your health profile and ensure that it is a safe and beneficial choice. It’s always wise to listen to your body and notice any changes or reactions when starting a new supplement.

How much maca should you take?

Determining the right dosage can depend on several factors, including your overall health, age, and what you hope to achieve. However, you can follow some general guidelines:

  • Standard dosage: A daily dose of 1,500 to 3,000 milligrams of maca is typically recommended [11]. This dosage can be adjusted based on individual response and tolerance.
  • Starting dosage: If you’re new to taking maca, starting with a lower dose and gradually increasing it is generally a good idea. Doing this can help your body adjust to the new supplement and minimize potential side effects.
  • Form of maca: It comes in several forms, including raw powder, capsules, liquid extracts, and even added into foods. The form you choose can affect the dosage. For example, if you’re taking a concentrated extract, the recommended dose may be much lower than raw powder. Always check the instructions on the product label.
  • Timing: You can take it at any time, but some people find it gives them an energy boost and prefer to take it in the morning or early afternoon.

How to incorporate maca into your daily diet 

Maca’s sweet, nutty taste can make it an enjoyable addition to various foods and beverages. Here are some creative ways to incorporate this superfood into your daily diet:

1. Smoothies

One of the easiest ways to consume maca is by adding it to your morning smoothie. Whether you prefer a green smoothie, a protein-packed post-workout drink, or a fruity blend, just a teaspoon can boost your drink’s nutritional profile.

2. Energy balls

You can combine maca powder with oats, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit to create nutrient-rich energy balls. These are great for a quick snack on the go or a mid-afternoon energy boost.

3. Oatmeal and cereals

Add a sprinkle of maca powder to your morning oatmeal or cereal. It pairs well with cinnamon, nutmeg, and other warm spices, making it a delicious addition to your breakfast.

4. Baked goods

Add maca powder to your favorite muffin, cookie, or bread recipes. Just remember that high temperatures can degrade some of its nutrients, so use it in recipes that require minimal baking time or are cooking at lower temperatures.

5. Coffee or tea

Add a spoonful of maca to your morning coffee or herbal tea for an extra energy kick to start your day.

6. Soups and stews

Although not as common, you can add maca to savory dishes. It can add a depth of flavor to hearty soups and stews.

7. Salad dressings

Mix maca powder into homemade salad dressings for a nutrient boost that won’t alter the flavor of your greens.

salad dressings

How to choose a quality maca supplement?

Choosing a quality maca supplement can be challenging, given the numerous options available. Here are some factors to consider to ensure a quality product:

1. Origin

Look for maca sourced from its native origin, the Andean region of Peru. Maca grown in this area is known for its superior quality due to the region’s optimal growing conditions.

2. Form

Maca is available in several forms, including raw powder, gelatinized powder, capsules, and tinctures. Raw powder retains all its nutrients but may be harder to digest for some people.

Gelatinized maca is easier to digest as the starch is removed, but it also loses some nutrients during the process. Choose the form that best suits your needs and digestive tolerance.

3. Color

Maca comes in three primary colors: yellow, red, and black. Each color has a slightly different nutrient profile and health benefits. Yellow is the most common and is typically cheaper, while red and black maca may have additional health benefits but tend to be more expensive.

4. Processing

Choose a supplement that has been minimally processed to ensure it retains as many of its original nutrients as possible. Avoid supplements with additives, fillers, or preservatives.

5. Certifications

Look for third-party testing or certification. This helps ensure the supplement is pure, contains the ingredients it claims to, and doesn’t contain contaminants.

6. Brand reputation

Research the brand before making a purchase. Look at customer reviews and testimonials. Brands with a strong positive reputation are more likely to produce high-quality products.

Closing thoughts

Maca’s versatility and unique nutrient profile make it an excellent choice for many individuals looking to improve their overall health. Incorporating it into your daily regimen can offer various benefits, from boosting energy and endurance to balancing hormones and enhancing cognitive function. 

But as with any supplement, it’s crucial to understand what it is, its potential benefits, side effects, and how to use it safely and effectively.

And while maca is a nutrient-packed superfood, it’s not a substitute for a healthy diet and lifestyle. 

So, are you ready to experience the potential benefits of maca? Remember, quality matters. Be sure to choose a high-quality supplement that’s minimally processed and comes from a reputable brand. 

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FAQs

What is a maca good for?

Maca is a superfood that can boost energy, mood, and cognitive function while supporting hormonal balance and sexual health.

Does maca really work?

Studies have shown potential health benefits of Maca, with users reporting improved mood, increased energy, and hormonal balance. However, seek advice from a healthcare provider before incorporating new supplements into your routine, as individual experiences may differ.

Can I take maca everyday?

Yes, Maca can be taken daily and many people do so to reap its potential health benefits. However, consult a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regimen to ensure it’s safe for your health profile.

What are the side effects of maca?

Maca may cause mild digestive issues like bloating and gas. Consult a healthcare provider before adding it to your diet, as it can also cause allergic reactions and interfere with hormone-sensitive conditions and thyroid function.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lepidium_meyenii 
[2] https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-diet-maca-root
[3] https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-diet-maca-root
[4] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322511 
[5] https://ro.co/health-guide/benefits-of-maca/ 
[6] https://www.forbes.com/health/body/maca-root-benefits/ 
[7] https://ph.iherb.com/blog/maca-health-benefits-energy-skin-mood/1675
[8] https://organicandwholesale.com/knowledge-base/are-there-any-adverse-or-side-effects-to-taking-maca-root-powder/
[9] https://healthfully.com/negative-side-effects-of-royal-maca-6751625.html
[10] https://www.webmd.com/diet/health-benefits-maca
[11] https://www.gaiaherbs.com/blogs/seeds-of-knowledge/maca-dosage

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