Stressed Out & Frazzled? Maca Root Could Help!
Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is a plant native to the Andean highlands of Peru and Bolivia. It's part of the Mustard family (Brassicaceae / Cruciferae) and resembles a cross between a red radish and a turnip plant. The leaves are edible, having a classically pungent mustard taste, and the root* is used as food or medicine.
Maca root looks gnarly and wrinkled—similar to the konjac corm (which I will discuss in a future blog). The varieties differ in root colour, which ranges from creamy yellow to red, purple, and black. Traditionally, small creamy yellow roots were preferred as food because they're sweeter and more tender, while the bitter-sweet black root was used more often as "scarcity food" and medicine.
In the late 1500s, Spanish colonialists documented the local medicinal importance of this plant but few other naturalists and early ethnobotanists mentioned this herb in their accounts of South American herbology. This is probably because the endemic range of maca covered a cordillera that was rarely visited by non-indigenous peoples.
Maca grows wild in harsh environmental conditions—at high elevations where the temperatures are very cold, the ecosystem is relatively barren, and few plants and animals inhabit. These treeless plateaus are known as puna regions of the Peruvian Andes and maca is one of the few plants that thrive here. As a result of its impressive resiliency, maca was revered and depended upon by the local Indigenous Peoples for food and medicine.
Maca Root Helps You Adapt to Stress
Maca is now cultivated because it has gained international fame as an adaptogen. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, the plant's incredible resiliency to environmental stress suggests it could contain compounds that confer a similar resiliency to people. A spate of scientific studies conducted over the past few decades support this contention.
As an adaptogen and overall body tonic, maca root helps govern the synthesis and release of certain hormones, especially adrenal and sex hormones. Because it also supports reproductive organ health, maca root is often used to improve fertility, help alleviate menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and osteoporosis, correct menstrual irregularities and allay premenstrual syndrome (PMS), reduce the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers including prostate cancer, and increase libido.
The exact mechanism of action for the adaptogenic activity of maca root is still unclear. It contains various compounds that could act as hormone mimics (such as sterols that have estrogen-like properties), but most likely it works in multiple ways including directly influencing the activity of various endocrine glands as well as the associated nerve networks or tissues that naturally regulate those endocrine glands.
In Part 2 and Part 3 of this blog series, I review how maca impacts reproductive organ health in men and women.
Notes & Definitions:
*The below-ground part of the maca plant that is used medicinally and as food is technically not a root. It's a combination of root and hypocotyl together. The hypocotyl is an extension of the primary stem of a plant and it grows underground, between the above-ground part of the plant stem and the primary root. Not all plants have a pronounced hypocotyl, and maca is exceptional in this characteristic. Maca has a swollen hypocotyl that serves as a storage organ for the plant in much the same way tubers, such as potatoes, serve as a source of stored energy for the potato plant.
Adaptogen: An agent, classically a medicinal herb, that supports the body (especially the adrenal glands and other endocrine organs, as well as the central nervous system) during periods of stress. Adaptogens improve whole body resiliency and recovery during and between periods of physical and psychological stress.
Doctrine of Signatures: A hypothesis rooted in various traditional systems of medicine, and in particular among herbalists, that proposes the medicinal properties of a plant can be surmised based on its morphology and/or ecology. This philosophy proposes that a plant resembling a specific body part, tissue, or fluid can be used as a remedy, tonic, or prophylactic for ailments associated with that body aspect and/or a plant that is adapted to a particular ecological niche can confer or promote similar adaptations when it's taken regularly as an herbal tonic. For example, whole Korean red ginseng (Panax ginseng) root from a mature plant is shaped somewhat like a person (notably a torso with four limbs) and therefore it has been traditionally used as a whole body tonic. In the case of maca root, its resiliency to environmental stress suggests it can be useful as an adaptogen. Some researchers suggest that in some cases, the Doctrine of Signatures has been adopted post-hoc as a mneumonic for remembering the use and benefits of certain herbs and foods.
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