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What Is Maca and Can It Help with Menopause?

Anecdotes abound, but what does science have to say about maca and menopause? Nutrition Diva dives into ancient Incan tradition to find out more about this potent plant.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
December 17, 2013
Episode #264

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Having spent the last two weeks focusing on nutrition and fertility, let's turn our attention to the other end of a women's reproductive span. Nutrition Diva listener Betty wants to know:

"What is maca and can it really help with menopause?"

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What Is Maca?

Maca is a plant native to the high mountainous regions of Peru and has long been cultivated as both a food and medicinal plant. Maca belongs to the cruciferous family of plants--so it's a relative of broccoli and Brussels sprouts. But, interestingly, it's not the leaves, stalks, or flowers of the plant that are of interest. Rather, it's the part that grows underground.

The fleshy tubers of the maca plant can be cooked in a variety of traditional ways (even brewed into a sort of beer!) and provide some protein, fiber, and minerals along with a fair amount of starch.  But most of the maca that is harvested these days is dried and ground into a powder for use as a supplement or herbal medicine. As Betty notes, maca is being promoted as a natural remedy for menopausal symptoms. But maca's reputation extends to various other aspects of sexual function as well, including male and female fertility and prostate problems. It's even said to be an aphrodisiac! (More on that later...)

Most of this is based on ancient Incan folk medicine. Traditional herbal medicine, which developed long before the days of the double-blind, placebo controlled experiment, often includes a good bit of superstition, as well as beliefs that have since been disproven. But millenia of observation and trial-and-error have also yielded a lot of wisdom, including remedies that have not only stood the test of time, but have also withstood scientific scrutiny. So, what does the science have to say about maca? 

Does Maca help with Menopause?

Maca does not seem to help with hot flashes--but it may have other benefits.

To date, there have only been a handful of controlled experiments looking at the effects of maca on menopause symptoms and each of these involved a relatively small group of women. So far, however, it appears that menopausal women taking maca experience fewer symptoms than women taking a placebo. In particular, it appears to reduce anxiety and depression.

Unfortunately, I didn't see anything to suggest that maca helps with those pesky hot flashes--which is the symptom that many women find the most troublesome. 

Does Maca Improve Fertility?

For those of you who haven't yet gone through menopause, maca is also said to boost fertility--in both men and women. And the existing research suggests that this may, in fact, be true, especially if you are a mouse or a rainbow trout. There haven't been any fertility studies involving human women yet. One very small study, involving just 9 human men, found that maca improved sperm count and quality. That's too small a finding to go to the bank on, but certainly enough to warrant further investigation.

Animal studies also suggest that maca reduces prostate inflammation. Given how common (and uncomfortable) this condition is, I'm surprised that we haven't yet seen trials to test this effect in human males. Then again, maca appears to reduce prostatic inflammation in mice as effectively as the leading prostate drug...so I can imagine why the pharmaceutical industry is not rushing to fund this line of research!

See also: Can We Trust Industry Funded Research?

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