Vitamins and Supplements

Maca Is Supposed to Majorly Help Your Energy and Sex Life…but Does It Have Any Side Effects?

Beth Anne Macaluso

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What if I told you that there was a food that could help you fight stress and depression, boost your energy, and possibly make your sex life mind-blowing—with almost zero side effects? If you’re feeling a little skeptical…yeah, you should.

That’s essentially what people are saying about the superfood maca (no, not matcha), a cruciferous vegetable native to Peru that’s classified as an adaptogen—one of those buzzy herbs that are said to help your body fight stress and achieve homeostasis. People roast it, add the powder to smoothies, or make it into a fermented beverage called “maca chicha.” But there’s one catch…

There hasn’t been that much research on maca, period, including its benefits, and a 2014 review of maca benefits found that more clinical study is needed to definitively know and understand the root’s perks. Many of the studies that do exist have been really small (as in, only performed on a handful of people) or were only performed on mice or rats (meaning the results can’t necessarily directly relate to people, since our bodies are very different). So all of that is to say: While maca has some promising benefits, take all of the below with a grain of salt.

Keeping reading for the purported benefits of maca—and to see how the science stacks up

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1. It may boost your libido (and help with fertility)

Maca shows a lot of promise in the bedroom. Researchers from the psychiatry department at Massachusetts General Hospital, for example, tracked a group of 45 women who experienced sexual dysfunction after starting SSRIs (a common side effect of this type of antidepressant). After 12 weeks, the group of women taking maca as a supplement reported improvements in their levels of desire, with postmenopausal women reporting the most success. This echoed the findings of a very small 2008 pilot study, where people on SSRIs who took 3 g of maca a day reported improvement in their libidos. Additional research has shown that maca may improve both sperm mobility and semen quality in men, even if they struggle with infertility.

However: A 2010 review of maca-focused studies found that there is “limited evidence” that the root can improve sexual function in both men and women (although the review’s authors acknowledge that “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”).

2. Maca may increase your stamina during workouts

Good news if you’re looking to make a new PR: In one small study, eight male cyclists completed a 40-kilometer timed trial, were given maca extract over a 14-day period, and then asked to repeat the trial. According to the study’s authors, maca extract supplementation “significantly improved” the participants’ times. (They also reported increased sexual desire.)
Another study published in the journal Pharmaceutical Biology tracked the impact of maca extract on mice during a swim test. The swimming times of the group of mice given the highest dose of maca were “significantly prolonged,” the researchers wrote (basically, they could swim for longer without getting tired), indicating that maca may play a role in combating fatigue during physical activity.

This is a mouse study, so the results aren’t proven to translate directly to humans. But still, it’s pretty exciting stuff, especially if you’re looking for something natural to help you go harder at the gym.

3. It may reduce depression symptoms

A 2015 study conducted by a group of researchers at Victoria University in Australia found that maca consumption decreased levels of depression in study participants (a group of 29 Chinese postmenopausal women). By the end of the study, the women taking maca also showed improved blood pressure compared to the placebo group.

4. It could help with some of the more annoying menopause symptoms

According to a 2017 review of maca-focused clinical trials, the plant shows promise as a remedy for women dealing with hot flashes, night sweats, and other unpleasant symptoms associated with menopause. However, the review’s authors are careful to point out that there “have been very few rigorous trials of maca for menopausal symptoms…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.” So again, more research is needed for a conclusive answer.

5. It may help with your memory and concentration

A handful of studies suggests maca may aid cognitive function—at least in mice. In one study conducted by Peruvian researchers, mice were given a dose of ethanol to get them drunk, then tasked with completing an obstacle course they had already mastered during training sessions. Without maca, the tipsy mice struggled to find their way; but the drunk mice who were given maca extract had no trouble completing the challenge, suggesting, the researchers write, that maca essentially “reversed the effect of EtOH [ethanol].” Translation: The maca appeared to totally counteract some of the memory-impairing side-effects of booze in mice. Sweeet.

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However, maca may have some side effects

In nearly every maca-focused study, researchers note that the root is usually well-tolerated by subjects (human and mouse alike). But again, maca is not super well-researched, and it may not be for everybody. As is the case with other supplements, maca isn’t regulated by the FDA, and there’s little information about the safety of long-term maca consumption. You’re probably already on it, but if not: Talk to your doctor if you’re considering taking maca as a supplement, and avoid it altogether if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. And look out for these potential maca side effects:

1. “Jittery” feelings and insomnia

One online supplement store has received complaints from customers who reported feeling “jittery” and having trouble sleeping after they began taking maca. That said, there’s no scientific research to back up the customers’ claims that their troubles were related to their maca consumption—just that anecdotal evidence.

2. Altered thyroid function

If you have a thyroid condition, don’t take maca until you get the go-ahead from a medical professional. As an adaptogen, maca impacts the endocrine system that rules your body’s hormones. So if you have a thyroid disorder, adding an adaptogen like maca into the mix might not be the best idea without your doctor weighing in.

Plus, some research suggests that eating too many cruciferous vegetables (remember, maca is a member of the family), may cause hypothyroidism (a condition where the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone) in people who are iodine-deficient. You likely have to be way overdoing it on maca to have this happen—a small study found that people who ate up to five ounces of Brussels sprouts a day didn’t have thyroid issues—but still, good to keep in mind.

3. Hormonal changes

Speaking of hormones, experts caution that maca extract may act like estrogen once it enters the body, and advise people dealing with hormone-sensitive conditions to avoid it entirely. So if you’re being treated for breast cancer, uterine fibroids, endometriosis, or ovarian or uterine cancer, it’s best not to chance it—there are plenty of other superfoods that are totally safe for you to use with the blessing of your doctor.

Speaking of maca benefits, here are some great things it may do for your hair and skin. And if you want more superfoods to try, check out these delicious cacao nib recipes.

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