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Q: What's the deal with maca powder?

A: Maca is a plant from the Andes that is of the mustard family. It was used traditionally in South America to treat infertility and imbalances in female hormones, and has since made its way onto health food store shelves and eCommerce shops across the world where its flagship benefits of boosting sexual function and vitality in men and women are touted. It is also boasted for being able to alleviate symptoms of menopause.

Despite the aggressive marketing for lots of supplements in this category, the scientific support for these marketing claims generally comes up impotent. [Tweet this fact!] Let's look at what some of the research says about maca.

Maca and Sexual Function

A 2003 study in men found daily supplementation with maca had no effect on any of the sex hormones measured, and research performed three years later also found that when isolated, compounds in maca were not able to bind sex hormone receptors. More recently in 2010, scientists who reviewed the effects of maca on sexual function in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine concluded that maca may be effective at improving sexual function in post menopausal women after six weeks of use. But the quality and rigor of the research studies was brought into question, and the adverse effects (or lack of) were not measured or monitored in these studies.

Maca and Symptoms of Menopause

In 2010 researchers completed a systematic review of the effects of maca on menopause and were able to identify four clinical trials that looked the impact of daily supplementation. All four studies found an improvement in symptoms in study participants in the maca group, however in one of the studies there was a high risk of bias, and in the other three studies the designs were such that it was difficult to attribute the effects specifically to maca supplementation. This is important because improvements in menopausal symptoms have previously been shown to be elicited via a placebo effect. So while at first glance it would seem that maca would help deal with menopausal symptoms, these finding should be taken with a grain of salt.

Getting to the Root of Maca Root

Based on the current research regarding the effects of maca on sexual function and reduction of menopausal symptoms in humans, I do not see any reason to supplement with maca (unless you think you will be susceptible to the placebo effect). Because adverse effects were not consistently monitored (or monitored at all), it is prudent to bring into question the safety of maca supplementation aside from straw man argument that you will hear in the aisle of your local health food store that "people have been using it for centuries so it has to be fine."

In case you needed one more reason to pass on maca, I should tell you that maca root powder tastes horrible and is hard to mask. The only way that I found it somewhat palatable was to add it to a smoothie made with chocolate protein powder and dark sweet cherries.

While maca doesn't seem to provide any benefit in reducing symptoms of menopause, the authors of the maca review make a very good point about maca's use for the treatment of menopausal symptoms that is applicable to supplement use in general: "Many women turn to alternatives such as herbal supplements, which, whether correct or incorrect, are often perceived as natural and therefore free of adverse effects."

If you are turning to a dietary supplement for therapeutic reasons, it is important to recognize that just because it comes from a plant, that doesn't mean it can't hurt you. [Tweet this tip!] Put in your due diligence to make sure that your use of any supplement is safe and appropriate.