Maca, the Peruvian herb, generates lots of buzz about its reputed ability to boost libido.
It is revered in the ancient Incan culture for its many medicinal purposes. According to folk belief, it is a plant known for its legendary ability to deliver energy and mental clarity and enhance sex drive for more than 2,000 years.
Does Maca Live up to its Reputation?
Maca is an herb with plenty of anecdotal information about its usefulness passed down from generation to generation. But scientific evidence on its effectiveness is limited.
There are only a few randomized control studies showing some benefit. Researchers are looking at how it may help men and women with low libido. Some studies suggest it may improve semen quality, relieve symptoms of menopause, and reduce enlarged prostates.
A few animal studies have found maca is an aphrodisiac, but major studies are lacking on humans. A review of maca in the journal Current Sexual Health Reports concluded "there is no strong medical evidence to support its use for female sexual dysfunction."
Georgetown University Medical Center professor Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, says, "Maca might have a positive effect on sexual dysfunction. Yet there are so many psychological and social aspects when measuring sexual healing that it is hard to be conclusive." Berman is the author of 5-Minute Herb and Dietary Supplement Clinical Consult.
Claims that maca is a highly effective aphrodisiac may be exaggerated, Berman says. "Some claims are over the top -- compared to a placebo, maca only slightly enhanced sexual desire. The strongest evidence is that it may increase sperm count and improve fertility in certain men," she says.
Berman, who co-authored The National Women’s Health Network’s The Truth about Hormone Replacement Therapy, says there have been no clinical trials done on women regarding reduction of menopausal symptoms.
Although the evidence may be lacking, psychiatrist and functional medicine physician Hyla Cass, MD, says maca works. "In my practice, I have seen maca restore hormonal imbalance and related sexual desire and fertility in both men and women."
Chris Kilham, author of Hot Plants, says, "Maca enjoys a very long history of successful medicinal use for menopausal discomfort, infertility, and sexual healing. The question is not whether it works -- because we know it works with certainty -- but how it works."
A Staple in Peruvian Diet
Maca is an Andean root, referred to as an herb. It's a starchy tuber that resembles a radish or a turnip but tastes more like a potato. Like other starches, maca contains carbohydrates, protein, fats, and dietary fiber. It is also rich in plant sterols and a good source of iron, magnesium, selenium, and calcium.
In Peru, out of necessity, maca has been a staple in the diet of men, women, children, infants, pregnant and lactating women, elderly, and the infirm. Only two crops grow in the higher elevations in Peru: potatoes and maca.
Maca can be cooked and mashed; mixed with milk; and dried, ground, and powdered into something that resembles flour that is used in breads, cakes, and cookies.
In the Andes, people typically eat about half a pound of maca daily, Kilham says.
Is Maca Safe?
A growing demand for maca has resulted in a wide variety of products both online and in health food stores promoted with claims of sexual health and stamina-enhancement. Maca claims, however, like claims for other dietary supplements, are not reviewed or approved by the FDA.
Kilham says the safety of maca is evidenced by the millions of people who subsist on a diet of it without side effects.
Berman agrees that it is probably safe since there have been no reports of adverse effects from eating maca.
Maca may be a natural product, but talk to your doctor before taking any supplements. There are always potential side effects, including those from processing.
Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.