Could Maca powder be harming your fertility?

Maca Powder is the fashionable new health product on the market that claims to have a heap of benefits. While it’s true Maca does have some medicinal properties, if you’re not careful this superfood could do you more harm than good.

Maca (Lepidium meyenii) comes from Peru and belongs to the same family as broccoli (the Brassica family). It is a root vegetable which has been touted as one of the best superfoods in the world. Maca has been used for centuries in the Andes with anecdotal, traditional evidence suggesting that it enhances fertility and stamina in humans and animals.I see many women in the clinic who are adding Maca powder to their smoothies or bliss balls. When asked why they often don’t know, or say a friend told them it was good for hormones, or that the packet on the shelf of the health food store said it would give them more energy.

This is so common with the hype that goes on around superfoods and nutrition these days. People are consuming expensive freeze-dried food in the hopes that it will make their diets extra nutritious.

My concern as a naturopath is that Maca powder may have an adverse effect on hormones.

So let’s compare the evidence with the claims – which is what I like to do with any nutrient, herb or food that is gets a lot of press.

The Popular Claims

Browsing through websites of Maca powder suppliers or health “gurus” you’d be forgiven for thinking that this humble root vegetable really can do everything.Some of the claims are pretty massive – treating stomach cancer, tuberculosis and iron deficiency anemia. It’s also claimed to be good at “balancing and optimising the functioning of the hypothalamus and pituitary master glands it also balances and optimises the functioning of the adrenal glands, the thyroid and the pancreas”. Wow – that sounds impressive!

 

The more common claims are around increasing libido in men and women, and enhancing fertility, regulating female cycles, improving immunity and increasing energy, helping stress and making your skin glow.

The Reality

Maca’s nutrient content is described as being superior to all other root vegetables. It does contain some vitamin C, calcium, potassium, a few B vitamins. Its amino acid content is similar to other vegetables. It is not an outstandingly amazing vegetable as far as nutrient status, I would say it is an average veg and you’d have to have 100s of grams daily to get a real benefit, not the 5-10 grams recommended by many producers.

I went hunting through research databases to find out exactly what Maca has been proven to do in scientific studies. There have been a few, many of them are not gold standard research – i.e. double-blind placebo controlled trials – and most of them are either experimental (not on animals or humans) or carried out on mice and rats.

THESE STUDIES DO HIGHLIGHT SOME KEY AREAS WHERE MACA’S BENEFITS TO HEALTH ARE SHOWN:

  • Improved male sexual health including increased libido.
  • Improved sperm quality in men, rats and mice.
  • Reduced perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms in women and  improved bone density, hot flushes, libido and mood.
  • Modestly improved stamina, endurance and energy compared to placebo in athletes.
  • One study showed improved in SSRI (an anti-depressant) induced sexual dysfunction with Maca powder supplementation in menopausal women.

In all my research, I haven’t found any positive or useful studies looking at Maca’s effect on hormones for women trying to conceive.  And that is one of the main areas I see young women self-prescribing Maca powder. (If you know of any I’ll happily correct this statement)

What I did find was evidence of Maca prescribed for perimenopausal and postmenopausal women demonstrating a rise in oestradiol levels. There are a few studies looking at the oestrogenic benefits of Maca in preventing bone loss and osteoporosis in menopausal women. Other studies show little or no change to other important sex hormones.

So we know that Maca is a phytoestrogen. However the studies can’t decide whether this property is the reason it is active on some hormones – or some other constituent that we don’t understand. Others suggest that the reason some studies say there is no oestrogenic effect and other do is the dose – so looking at the evidence you could assume that the more Maca you have the more of an oestrogenic effect it will have.

It is this fact alone that concerns me when I see young women taking Maca daily to help “fix their hormones”. Women I speak with notice a change in their periods once starting Maca, but often don’t attribute it to this root vegetable.

Many conditions of the female reproductive system are considered to be highly oestrogenic, such as PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids, cysts, irregular cycles, painful periods, heavy flow – the list goes on. So women taking tablespoons of Maca powder every day who are concerned about these aspects of their cycle may actually be making things worse.

Slim Pickings On Gold Standard Research

There is a lot more scope for more research to be carried out on Maca. This will lead to more reviews and a greater understanding as to how it works in the body.

 

For now, much research finds similar outcomes, such as this report – that “the results of [the] systematic review provide limited evidence for the effectiveness of maca in improving [male] sexual function. However, the total number of trials, the total sample size, and the average methodological quality of the primary studies were too limited to draw firm conclusions. More rigorous studies are warranted.”When looking at the effects on female hormones, despite tradition Peruvian use of Maca throughout all stages of life, safety in pregnancy has not yet been established in humans, nor for children. This is vitally important, as women taking huge amounts of Maca powder daily need to know if it is safe during pregnancy or throughout conception periods.

There are some positive studies, such asthis onelooking a Maca’s potential benefit for menopausal women. It states, “It appears that Maca-GO may act as a toner of hormonal processes, leading to alleviation of discomfort felt by perimenopausal women, hence, its potential use as non-hormonal alternative to HRT program“. There’s also some evidence which is really exciting on preventing bone loss in osteoporosis.

 

What does this all mean?

Firstly, I advise you to check with your herbalist or naturopath whether or not Maca is the right herb for you to be taking. As it is classified as a food, it does not undergo the same strict quality control and assessment of claims as other supplements do as we have seen with many sports supplements.

Secondly, please never take health claims at face value. So many websites and superfood companies are repeating the same claims that others making. This means the Internet if filled with people touting Maca powder as the best thing ever. The truth is it might not be right for you.

Thirdly, do your own research on sites such as Google Scholar or Examine.com. An enquiring mind solves problems.

Fourthly, Maca may not have negative effects on every single female, for some younger women it may actually be beneficial given the research on it’s bone protection and oestrogenic properties. It absolutely is looking like Maca may be useful for menopausal women as the research is starting to show. But it is best to speak with a professional who understands your individual health concerns.

If you have concerned about your diet, your period or have questions about infertility please get in touch and book your appointment today.

crossmenu