Maca, The Peruvian Ginseng

By on August 18, 2014
Screen shot 2014 05 25 at 1.23.42 PM 300x336 - Maca, The Peruvian Ginseng

Ethnobotanists believe that tubers and roots were amongst some of the earliest domesticated crops around the world.  Easy to cultivate, prepare and preserve, it is believed that tubers were more of a staple in the diet for ancient people than grains.  In Africa, it was the yam, in China the arrowroot and in South America crops, such as the potato, ulluco and yacon.  One such root vegetable with a fascinating history of traditional use is maca.

Native to the Andean highlands of Peru, it has been a part of the traditional diet for thousands of years and has been revered for its ability to increase stamina, libido and energy. Maca (Lepidium meyenii) thrives in the unique harsh climate of the barren, rugged plateaus of the Andes at high altitudes up to 14,000 feet about sea level.  A member of the Brassica family, maca roots resemble turnips or radishes.  They grow what is known as a fleshy hypocotyl.

As the germinating seedling sends out its initial shoot into the soil, known as the radicle, this primary root takes around 7 months to grow into a large storage organ known as a bulbous hypocotyl.  The roots can range in size anywhere from a small walnut to a large turnip. Nutritionally speaking, maca roots contain a unique profile of active constituents.  In addition to minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc, maca roots contain phytosterols such as beta-sitosterol, brassicasterol and erogosterol as well as glucosinolates, alkaloids and alkamides.  Being a root vegetable, maca contains a considerable amount of carbohydrate (at over 50%), protein at roughly 10% and 2% lipids.

After being dried, the roots are best consumed gelatinized so that the starch is removed, facilitating easier digestion and a greater concentration of the beneficial compounds. Evidence suggests that maca was cultivated as early as 1,600 BCE. Traditionally, it was consumed as both a food and a medicine as part of the diet in many preparations.  Fresh or dried roots would be roasted, boiled in milk and mashed to create a savory porridge, grated into a condiment or used to make a fermented beverage known as maca chicha.

Even the green, thin frilly leaves that grow above ground are consumed in salads. It is no doubt that maca gained its reputation as a libido tonic from folkloric tales of Incan warriors only being allowed to consume Maca before battle so as to protect the women and from accounts of the Spanish conquistadors noting an increase in energy and fertility amongst livestock.  These anecdotal accounts of maca’s legendary aphrodisiac and strengthening effects have been substantiated by a small number of animal studies showing in fact that maca does increase libido, improve performance and sexual function, sperm count and motility as well as fertility.

A unique class of compounds known as alkamides specifically macamides, macaenes and several more that have recently been discovered, are highly active in the central nervous system.  Alkamides are structurally very similar to the neurotransmitter anandamide known as the “bliss molecule” and as such may play a role in memory enhancement, mood and pain alteration, depression and fertility. One animal study does in fact show that black maca improves memory and learning capacity. Additionally, maca has been shown to attenuate the symptoms of menopausal women using as little as 3.5 grams (just under one teaspoon) of powdered Maca for 6 weeks showing significant changes in anxiety levels, depression and sexual function.  In another study at just 2 grams a day, women saw a reduction of hot flashes, nervousness and insomnia.

Additionally, red maca has been shown to reduce prostate size in rats. Knowing what kind of maca to use can be somewhat confusing as there are many concentrations and varieties available.  While all three varieties: Yellow, black and red-purple maca roots are beneficial, the dark colour of the black and red-purple roots is indicative of a higher concentration of protective antioxidants known as anthocyanins.  Maca should be certified organic, gelatinized if purchased in a powder and in a higher concentration for more therapeutic benefits.  Look for a 6:1 or a 12:1 concentration of black and red-purple roots in powder form or liquid tinctures that offer the darker roots in concentrations of 10:1 to 25:1.  You will be amazed at the results in just 1 teaspoon a day. It is no wonder that this amazing tuber has affectionately been called the Peruvian ginseng.  As an adaptogen able to bring the body into a state of balance and ease, while providing increased performance, stamina and energy, it is undoubtedly a necessary addition to one’s daily diet.

Renita Rietz is a health and nutrition writer and speaker who educates on the phytotherapeutic potential of indigenous foods and plants for prevention and regeneration.  

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