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7 Things You Didn’t Know About...Maca

April 7, 2014

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You might have seen maca at your local health food store, or heard someone asking for it in their smoothie at the juice bar. You might also have been asking yourself: what the heck is maca? 

Maca is a leafy plant native to the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia. The root of the plant has been used by indigenous societies for nourishment and healing for thousands of years, and despite its superfood status, I bet there are a few things you don’t know about this special plant:

  1. Maca fights fatigue: Maca provides energy without caffeine, thanks to its B-vitamins, iron, and complex carbs. Try replacing your morning coffee with a maca smoothie, and you’ll find yourself energized without the jitters.
  2. Maca helps you deal with stress: As an adaptogen, maca supports the health of your adrenal system, which controls your body’s hormonal response to stress. When we are under stress, a flurry of hormones is released, leading to all sorts of negative consequences, from weight gain to decreased immunity. One study found that an active ingredient in maca can reduce or even eliminate the fluctuations in hormones and homeostasis that would typically be brought on by stress.
  3. Maca boosts libido, sexual function & possibly fertility: Maca has been called the “Peruvian Ginseng” for its ability to promote sexual function in both men and women. While most of its sexy superpowers are based on personal anecdotes and ancient lore, there is budding scientific research on this aspect of the superfood. One very small study found it can improve sexual dysfunction, while another study found it boosts the libido in men after regular use of 8 weeks or longer. When it comes to fertility,a small study found that maca consumption increased the semen volume, sperm count, and sperm motility in men. While it’s also believed to increase female fertility, there is currently no scientific research to back that claim up.
  4. Athletes love maca: Legend has it that Incan warriors consumed maca before battle, and athletes still turn to it today for strength and endurance. Again, large-scale clinical trials are lacking, but this study on cyclists found that consuming maca significantly decreased the time it took for participants to cycle 40 km, which is promising for athletes who turn to it to improve performance.
  5. Maca is a supermodel favorite: Victoria’s Secret Model Miranda Kerr loves to use maca in her morning smoothies, along with a plethora of other superfoods, instead of drinking coffee. She credits her morning smoothie and overall healthy diet and exercise routine with helping her get the baby weight off quickly. Whatever she’s doing is clearly working!
  6. Maca grows where most plants can’t: Maca didn’t get its super powers from being like all the other vegetables. Like many adaptogens, this plant grows in harsh conditions where most other plants would die. You’ll find maca growing at 12,000-15,000 feet, high atop the Andes Mountains, where it thrives in the cold climate and extremely high altitude.
  7. Maca was used as currency: A root vegetable as precious as gold? After the Spanish colonists arrived in Peru, they accepted maca as payment for taxes (oh how I wish I could pay my taxes with vegetables!). The colonists came to value it so highly after the indigenous people demonstrated how the root boosted the fertility of their livestock.

While you’ll be hard-pressed to find it fresh here in the States, maca powder is readily available in health foods stores and online. You can purchase it in two varieties, raw or gelatinized, which essentially just means the maca root was cooked before it was powdered. Gelatinized is the preferred variety, because it makes the maca both easier to digest and more nutrient-dense. This makes sense, since maca is a tuber, or root vegetable, which are traditionally cooked before eating. 

Note: Maca should be stopped during pregnancy, while lactating, or if undergoing in-vitro fertilization, as it can alter your hormones. Avoid maca if you have any hormone-related cancers, such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or testicular cancer, and also avoid it if you’re currently taking medicine for your thyroid. If you have liver issues or high blood pressure, you should ask your doctor before taking maca.

Wondering how to use maca? Try adding it to smoothies, homemade chocolate, or desserts—get started with some recipes here.

What is your favorite way to use maca? Tell us in the comments!