The root of the maca plant (Lepidium meyenii) has been a staple food crop of the Incas, high in the Andes Mountains, for centuries. With a rich mixture of minerals, vitamins, fatty acids and phenol compounds, it has also attracted a great deal of interest in recent years for its potential to improve human reproductive health and for its possible beneficial effects on hormonal balance. Traditionally, this small biennial plant has been grown in a limited area of the arid, high-elevation fields around Lake Junin in central Peru, where its small roots (often described as being similar to a radish or turnip) are valued for their sweet taste.
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Although the maca plant is present in the wild, it is also grown by farmers, who find that the plant’s tolerance for drought conditions and ability to resist insect damage (it is often grown in the same fields as sweet potatoes for that reason) make it a reliable crop. It is unusual for other reasons as well: Although the lighter-colored variety is cooked in soups and stews or ground to make flour for bread, there are also red, purple and black types of the maca root. The darker versions have more of a bitter taste, perhaps reflecting their higher iodine content and concentration of copper, manganese and zinc. The roots are also rich in calcium and potassium (although low in sodium), along with uridine, malic acid and 22 phenol compounds.
Maca root has been part of the Incan pharmacology for many generations. Ethnographic studies have reported its traditional use as a therapy for depression, cancer, menstrual symptoms and sexual dysfunction. Early European explorers – particularly soldiers – have also described how Incan warriors feasted on maca root before battle, in the belief that it would increase their strength and prowess. In more recent times, maca root has been used to make beer and the black variety has been used as the basis for a liquor.
Reports of the traditional medicinal use of maca root led medical researchers to investigate its potential as a health supplement. Several investigations, including human trials, have been conducted into the effect of maca root on sperm count and motility. The results showed some promise, but are not considered scientifically conclusive. There have also been tests into the effects of maca root on premenstrual symptoms in young women and adverse menopausal symptoms, as well as how it can improve emotional balance in women after menopause; however, there is no scientific evidence to support that maca root directly affects hormonal balance. Maca root is available as a supplement, either as powdered root in tablet form or as a liquid derived from the gelatinized root.
Since maca root has been used as a food plant for many generations, it is not considered to be toxic, but it has not undergone testing for its effects on pregnant and breastfeeding women. The root contains glucosinolates which, if consumed by someone with low levels of iodine in their system, can result in the growth of goiters. Women who are pregnant, may become pregnant, breastfeed, or anyone with a thyroid condition, should consult with a physician before beginning the use of maca root supplements.
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