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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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Is Maca an Aphrodisiac?

And finally, what about maca as an aphrodisiac?

When researchers gave maca to lab rats, they observed increased sexual activity. As to the effect this may have had on their relationships or quality of life, the rats were, sadly, unavailable for comment.  

Exactly how maca might work in the body is still a bit of a mystery but we know that it does not affect hormone levels in men or women. 

Studying the effects of alleged aphrodisiacs on humans is more complex. On the one hand, it's always easy to get volunteers! On the other hand, it can be difficult to interpret the results. Human sexual response involves a complicated mix of physiology, psychology, and social dynamics and it's pretty hard to control all of those variables. Not to mention the fact that our experience of sexual arousal is very subjective--and quite suggestible. Often, the mere idea that a substance will rev up your libido is enough to do the trick.

A few small studies in humans suggest that taking maca may indeed increase desire and sexual well-being. Not surprisingly, subjects reported improvements in their general well-being as well.  Of particular interest was a study that looked at the effect of maca on people taking anti-depressant medications. Reduced sexual desire is a frequent side effect of anti-depressants and subjects who took maca noticed a significant improvement in this problem. Fortunately for the subjects (but unfortunately for science), all of the subjects in this study were given maca, so there was no way to assess how much of the improvement might have been due to placebo effect. 

So, how much of maca's aphrodisiac powers are all in your head? Who cares? To borrow a memorable phrase from Yogi Berra, 90% of sex is half mental! 

Is Maca Safe?

There's nothing wrong with taking advantage of a good placebo response...as long as the substance in question isn't harmful, And fortunately, maca has a very long history of use and appears to be quite safe. Exactly how maca might work in the body is still a bit of a mystery but we know that it does not affect hormone levels in men or women. 

The only potential concern is for folks with thyroid problems. Like other members of the brassica family, raw maca contains nutrients that could suppress thyroid function. As is the case with other foods in this category, this is unlikely to be problem unless your diet is also deficient in iodine. Conveniently enough, maca is a good natural source of iodine--particularly the red, purple, and black varieties of maca. 

See also: Are you at Risk of Iodine Deficiency?

 

So, if you're curoius about maca, there would appear to be little harm in giving it a try--but I suggest you temper your expectations. My gut instincts tell me that, like many herbal preparations, maca may have some beneficial effects, but they are probably more subtle than the marketing hype would suggest.  

Keep in Touch

Thanks to Betty for suggesting today's topic. If you have a question, comment, or an idea for a future show, post it below or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.

Additional Research

Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands, Gustavo Gonzales. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3184420/

Maca powder and menopause images courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

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