What the Heck is Maca, and Where Do I Get Some?

Maca as a restorative adaptogen.

If you had the opportunity to attend Dr. Steve Nenninger's wonderful lecture last weekend at the Port Jefferson Civic center, you will probably remember that Dr. Steve spent more then a few minutes speaking about the wonderful restorative properties of Maca and other phytonutrient adaptogens. Maca is an herb grown exclusively in the central Peruvian Andes at 12-14,000 feet under harsh natural growing and weather conditions.

Maca belongs to a category of herbs called adaptogens, which are an extremely rare class of herb that modulates the body’s response by supporting systems within the body in deal with stress, anxiety and fatigue. So rare, in fact, that Russian researchers studying the mode of action of over 4000 plants found only 12 true adaptogens amongst them. Other common adaptogenic plants include Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, Holy Basil, Licorice, Rhodiola and Schisandra.

It is important to point out that much of the research appears to demonstrate that adaptogens actually only impact the adrenal glands, thus the increase in energy and improvement in dealing with stress regulating cortisol as an example. However, at no point in the definition of an adaptogen do balancing hormones, increases in bone density, cardiovascular disease, sexual function or many other areas of health actually get mentioned.

These statements have been added since, by companies trying to sell products, or mistakenly added to all adaptogens when in fact research into only one herb (which happens to be an adaptogen) may have demonstrated one of these particular benefits. This is what makes adaptogens so interesting – while they all improve our body’s ability to deal with stress, anxiety and fatigue some have other benefits and maca appears to potentially do the most of all.

Which is why many scientists and doctors were not surprised when research over the last six years actually demonstrated that there are many different phenotypes of maca (Phenotype: the observable physical or biochemical characteristics of an organism, as determined by both genetic makeup and environmental influences) that have different physiological effects on the body.

Maca has a wide range of active constituents including amino acids, glucosinolates, phytosterols, and alkaloids. But rather than trying to break down and standardize individual active constituents within maca, it is more interesting to investigate the full spectrum of active constituents of specific phenotypes and the natural synergies of all the active constituents that exist in the individual phenotype. Research has demonstrated that there are in fact 13 different phenotypes within the species Lepidium peruvianum (maca) that exhibit different colors, have different DNA, different analytical profiles and even in some cases elicit different physiological effects on the body.

Maca for Men's Health:

Recently, there has been some very interesting research regarding different maca phenotypes in relation to men’s health. As an example, his research has demonstrated that while the red maca phenotype will reduce the size of a prostate, other phenotypes won’t, or may even increase the size, while black maca is considered the strongest in energy-promoting properties. Further discoveries by this group show how black and red maca improve bone health, but yellow did not and that black maca is best for influencing memory and learning. Exploration of the differences of concentration of active constituents among the different phenotypes revealed that “Colour type has to be considered in maca production, as colour associates with variations in concentrations of distinct bioactive metabolites.”

Maca for Women's Health:

Maca’s adaptogenic properties represent an alternative approach to managing symptoms of menopause. Researchers theorize that maca stimulates hormonal reserves by strengthening the body’s ability to regain and maintain hormonal homeostasis in the face of stressors. However, while other adaptogens have been used by herbal and alternative practitioners for years, the extent of maca’s effects on the range of menopausal symptoms has not been documented in studies of these other adaptogenic herbs.

To my knowledge, Panax ginseng is the only other adaptogen that has been subjected to research in menopause. Thus, maca may be unique in its adaptogenic menopausal effects. Of particular importance to menopausal women is research done on sex hormones, sex drive, body metabolism, body weight, energy, stress, depression, and memory. Positive estrogenic effects have been documented.

Research on perimenopausal and menopausal women performed by Meissner, et al, using a proprietary maca product (Maca-GO) found that, unlike hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and phytoestrogenic botanicals, maca can increase the body’s production of estrogen—versus simply adding estrogen replacement to the body—and lower levels of cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormone.

What makes this especially interesting is that, from other research conducted on the composition of various powdered preparations of maca root, it appears that the herb does not contain plant estrogen or hormones. It has been suggested that maca’s therapeutic actions rely on plant sterols stimulating the hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal, and ovarian glands, and, therefore, also affecting the thyroid and pineal glands and, thus, improving sleep, mood, fertility, energy, and hot flashes. As such, maca tends to treat menopausal symptoms as a whole; it doesn’t treat any one specific symptom of menopause (such as hot flashes) alone.

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