Long used as an herbal medicine and food by the native people of the Andes Mountains of Peru, the benefits of maca quickly came to the attention of the early Spanish settlers in South America. The Spaniards were told of maca’s reputation as a fertility increasing substance and used it successfully with their livestock. This same reputation has made the herb increasingly popular as a dietary supplement. The most widely touted benefits of maca today are the herb’s purported abilities to increase libido and provide energy.
Maca, Lepidium meyenii, grows at altitudes of 8,000 to 14,500 feet (2,400 to 4,400 meters) above sea level in parts of the Peruvian Andes. The traditional medicinal use of maca root includes increasing fertility in both humans and animals. In addition, modern herbalists in the region utilize the plant to treat female reproductive disorders, anemia and stomach cancer. Dried root preparations are being marketed in many areas of the world as a solution for hormonal imbalances, to increase physical stamina and sexual performance, and as an aphrodisiac. The benefits of maca are the subject of scientific studies being conducted to determine the specific actions of the herb.
Research studies of the benefits of maca have shown that although maca has been used traditionally in the Andes to enhance sexual desires and increase fertility, it does not alter the hormones associated with sexuality in men. On the other hand, clinical trials have found that maca does have a positive effect on self-reported sexual desire. One study found that in a group of healthy men, those receiving maca rather than a placebo had improved sexual desire after eight weeks of treatment. In a study of postmenopausal women, researchers found that no hormonal changes occurred with treatment using maca. They did find that anxiety, depression and sexual dysfunction were significantly reduced in the group receiving maca when compared to a group receiving a placebo.
Animal research into the benefits of maca indicates the herb may decrease the size of the prostate gland. The effect was found in treating rats with red maca. Other studies using rats concluded that maca decreased the negative effects of high altitude on sperm production. There is some evidence that increased doses in animal studies increased sexual activity. As it is traditionally eaten in large quantities in the Andes, the amount of maca found in dietary supplements is very small by comparison.
Maca has been used for thousands of years as a major source of nutrients and as a medicine in the Peruvian Andes. Traditionally, its roots have been eaten as a fresh or dried food. Its use as a highly nutritious staple food suggests its safety. There are no known side effects, other than the possibility of intestinal gas or insomnia with large doses. The herb also has no known interactions with other herbs or medications.