Maca – Yay or Nay?
Maca is a cruciferous root vegetable native to Peru. It looks somewhat like a turnip and ranges in color from yellow to black to purpose. While it’s not new to Peru (it’s been used as a medicine for thousands of years), it is a new “superfood” for many of us.
As an adaptogen, it helps the body naturally adapt to stressors like a busy schedule, demanding job or illness. Additionally, it has many micronutrients and antioxidants, and it has been studied for its ability to improve sexual health, balance hormone levels, and improve energy, mood, and memory.
However, is Maca right for you? Well, that depends on your specific hormonal issue. (Hormones include reproductive, stress and thyroid hormones.)
For women with low estrogen leading to low libido, vaginal dryness, or due to overtraining (too much or too intense exercise for too long), Maca can be helpful.
Maca was studied in postmenopausal women and shown to improve psychological symptoms, including anxiety and depression, and reduce measures of sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women (without affecting estrogenic and androgenic hormone levels directly). Other studies have demonstrated reduced blood pressure and depression – also in postmenopausal women.
Maca can be a great supplement for perimenopausal to postmenopausal women (generally ages 35 and older) and who need support with depression, anxiety, low libido, and reduction of menopausal symptoms, like hot flashes.
However, if you are “estrogen dominant” or have endometriosis, ovarian cysts, and fibroids, Maca may exacerbate those issues. Some women report very tender breasts and aggravating PMS with use of Maca.
One of the main theories is that the plant sterols in Maca stimulate changes in the action of the Hypothalamus – Pituitary – Adrenal (HPA) axis (the stress axis) and also, the adrenal, ovarian, pineal and thyroid glands. While many people with an under-active thyroid can take Maca, without any problems, women with overactive thyroid issues may find it causes side effects. This may be due to the glucosinolates. Glucosinolates are stored in cells of plants and act as natural pesticides to protect the plant. When you chew and digest them, they change into health-boosting chemicals.
Some people believe that glucosinolates block the body’s uptake of iodine. But the enzymes that might cause any problems are destroyed by cooking and also leach into cooking water. So if you have thyroid issues, you may still be able to tolerate Maca without problems. Make sure you avoid the raw Maca and choose a form of Maca that has been pre-gelatinized.
On the flip side, the iodine levels in Maca can be very beneficial for optimizing thyroid function in some women. Helping the body cope with stress may indirectly change hormone levels – and this is the dynamic which researchers believe Maca works.
Some people cannot tolerate Maca, reporting gastrointestinal side effects. This may have to do with the species of plant, how it was grown and manufactured and whether it was gelatinized, making it easier for our bodies to break down the starch and increase the nutrient bioavailability.
So the answer to whether or not you should take Maca is – it depends!
While it may help with symptom relief, it doesn’t solve health challenges at the individualized, root cause level – which is what functional health is all about. So if you decide to try it, I encourage you to work with someone who digs deep into your health, your symptoms and goals – and understands the biochemical processes going on in your body to help you integrate it successfully as part of a larger health restoration plan.
Have you tried Maca? What have your results been?