In Part 1, I introduced the traditional medicinal and nutritional uses of Maca (Lepidium meyenii) root. In Part 2, I'll explain how, in addition to being an effective adaptogen, maca is impressively effective in regulating the synthesis and activity of sex hormones.
Traditional ethnobotanical knowledge and recent scientific studies suggest that maca is a tonic for the reproductive organs and adrenal glands for men and women. Considering that the incidence of reproductive disorders including infertility is on the rise, maca might be worth a try for anyone facing these issues.
Maca Root & Women's Complaints (Gynaecological Conditions)
In traditional medicine, "women's complaints" were considered classic symptoms associated with various aspects of a woman's reproductive health. Gynaecological conditions include menstrual disorders*, infertility, discomfort during peri-menopause, and reproductive cancers. Maca can be effective in alleviating many of these imbalances.
Although the exact mechanism of action isn't yet fully understood, some studies suggest that maca helps to balance the release of two important hormones synthesized by the (anterior) pituitary gland in the brain: luteinizing hormone (abbreviated as LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (abbreviated as FSH).
In women and men, LH and FSH primarily influence the activity and health of the reproductive organs. In women, this means that LH and FSH are instrumental in orchestrating monthly cycles of menses, regulating fertility, and influencing peri-menopause. They do this by acting directly on the ovaries and uterus, in turn affecting circulating levels of estrogen and progesterone.
LH and FSH are required for maturation of ova and eventual ovulation. When their synthesis or function is disrupted, ova remain immature and/or atrophy, and this most often leads to infertility.
LH and FSH also impact non-gonadal cells including those of the placenta, brain, adrenal glands, skin, mammary glands, urinary bladder, and immune system. In these tissues, LH and FSH have different effects including influencing the synthesis of steroid hormones, regulating the cell cycle, affecting cell metabolism, and impacting cell communication.
Maca appears to influence the pituitary gland and balances secretion of LH and FSH. By helping to coordinate the function of these hormones, maca exerts a concerted, systemic effect on all tissues that are sensitive to LH and FSH (that is, the cells that express LH and FSH receptors).
This makes maca safer and more effective than conventional treatments such as hormone replacement therapy (abbreviated as HRT) because maca helps strengthen tissues and restore balance within the organs and body as whole. On the other hand, HRT can exacerbate systemic imbalances and/or create dependency on exogenous hormones because it simply replaces the missing hormone(s) without addressing the root problem.
Studies have shown that the regulatory action of maca can be helpful for alleviating symptoms associated with peri-menopause including hot flashes. This justifies the traditional use of maca for hormonal imbalances, menstrual irregularities, fertility, and peri-menopausal symptoms, vaginal dryness, loss of energy, decreased libido, and depression.
Maca Root & Men's Virility
In men, LH and FSH also regulate the synthesis of steroid hormones, notably androgens. Therefore, these hormones influence the development, function, and health of male reproductive organs as well as other androgen-sensitive tissues.
LH and especially FSH directly stimulate the development and maturation of healthy sperm. When circulating concentrations of either hormone are low, male infertility could result. Maca root can therefore be an effective natural remedy for preventing decreased sperm count, supporting healthy sperm formation, and promoting male fertility.
One study showed that supplementing men's diet with red maca significantly increased semen volume, total sperm count, motile sperm count, and sperm motility. In a more recent study on rats, supplementation with red maca also supported prostate health and reduced prostate mass in rats with induced benign prostate hyperplasia (abbreviated as BPH).
Maca ~ The Herb of Love
If I could personify maca, I'd say it's a rather clever herb. Its effects are comprehensive: it helps people chill out, it cranks up libido and sexual receptivity, and it also ensures that the organs of fertility are healthy and ready for reproduction. It supports overall body health, which would ensure healthy offspring with healthy parents to raise them. It seems maca might have an interesting (albeit possibly unintended) "agenda" in promoting the health and persistence of mammal populations!
In Part 3 of this blog series, I'll discuss the other benefits of maca (yes, the story doesn't end here!) and I'll give you ideas for delicious ways to add maca to your diet.
Notes & Definitions:
*Menstrual disorders are common and often not pathological if they are immediately corrected. They most often result from endocrine imbalances, which can be resolved with adjustments to diet and lifestyle, and use of therapeutic agents such as medicinal herbs. Regular practice of traditional arts and therapies such as acupuncture can also be very helpful and effective. Menstrual disorders include dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation), metrorrhagia (unusual and irregular uterine bleeding between periods), menorrhagia (unusually long and heavy periods), oligomenorrhea (abnormally light and infrequent menstrual cycles), hypomenorrhea (unusually light periods), and amenorrhea (absence of menses).
Pituitary Gland: Also known as the adenohypophysis and often referred to as the "master gland", the pituitary is a tiny lobe of the brain that regulates systemic endocrine and neural processes. It is regulated by the hypothalamus (a brain structure that regulates homeostasis) and affects the secretions and activity of every major endocrine organ (such as the adrenals, thyroid, and reproductive organs) as well as non-endocrine tissues.
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