The Root of Better Sex?
A root vegetable, maca (Lepidium meyenii) has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years in the highlands of the South American Andes, as well as in Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
Because maca is about 11% protein, it is a highly nutritious staple of South American cuisine. It can be baked, roasted, prepared as porridge, and even made into a fermented drink. However, natives of the Andes consider fresh maca to be harmful, so they only consume this vegetable after it has been dried and then boiled to rehydrate it.
But maca isn’t just valued for its culinary potential.
See, South Americans have used the root to help enhance fertility in both animals and people. Not long after their conquest in South America, the Spanish found that their livestock were reproducing poorly and local Indians recommended giving maca to the animals. The Spanish found the results so remarkable that they chronicled the effects.
Maca was popular for other reasons, too. Inca warriors are said to have used maca to increase their energy and vitality – but they were prohibited from consuming it after battle, supposedly to protect women from their increased impulses.
Perhaps it’s tales like these that have helped foster maca’s reputation as an aphrodisiac. Indeed, today maca is available in a variety of supplemental forms, including powder, capsules, and tonics. It’s marketed as a way to improve function in both men and women, as well as increase fertility.
The folklore is certainly intriguing. But how does maca measure up in scientific research?
A Libido Letdown…
Laboratory research has identified a number of potentially important compounds in maca, including macaene and macamide, fatty acids that some investigators believe may improve performance. However, the actual effect of these substances is still unclear.
Despite the impressive claims for maca, most of the evidence for this supplement comes from animal studies. For example, one study of male rats found that those given maca experienced enhanced function. Studies have also looked at the effects of maca on male and female fertility in animals, but results are mixed.1
As for human clinical trials, there appear to be just two that have examined maca for sexuality. The first, a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of men aged 21 to 56, investigated the effects of 1,500 or 3,000 mg of maca or a placebo on the men’s libido.
After 12 weeks, the researchers found that men taking maca did experience an increase in desire, although the supplement did not affect levels of testosterone or other hormones.2
But there’s a problem: Most men who experience sexual issues do so because of impaired function (such as impotence), not because of decreased desire. So while this study had a positive outcome, it does nothing to support the widespread claim that maca acts like a “natural Viagra”.
Another small study of just 9 men found that taking either 1,500 mg or 3,000 mg of maca daily for 4 months was associated with increased sperm count and sperm function. Yet this trial did not use a control group and is not considered a gold-standard study.3
Meanwhile, there are not yet any human studies of maca’s purported benefits for female fertility or function. And the supplement does not appear to increase levels or testosterone or any other hormones in people.4