Herbs, roots, and plants naturally help us build our health and wellness in ways that science is just starting to understand. Native cultures have turned to plants for centuries to address symptoms, but we are just starting to understand their magic. Maca, the Peruvian plant traditionally grown at high altitudes in the Andes, is a nutritional powerhouse and boasts a host of other benefits including helping to ease menopausal symptoms and acting as an adaptogenic herb creating balance in the body.
Maca is a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli, cauliflower, watercress, mustard, cabbage, and kale. We usually consume just the root. Traditionally Peruvians boiled the root and made tea with maca. However, the root is also ground into a powder that can be added to smoothies, baked goods, and beverages, or taken in capsule form as a supplement.
There are many varieties of maca that are now grown in different places around the world. It grows in several different colors including yellow, black, and red. Maca contains 19 different amino acids, the building blocks of protein. It is also rich in fiber and contains vitamins C, B6, niacin, riboflavin, and the minerals copper, iron, manganese, and calcium. Clearly, this little root is nutrient-dense, but that is not all it can do.
Easing Menopausal Symptoms
In addition to all of the nutrients in maca, maca contains secondary phytonutrients (plant compounds) that can help ease menopausal symptoms including decreasing the intensity and frequency of hot flashes and night sweats, supporting energy and libido, reducing vaginal dryness, and regulating mood.
Unlike soy, maca does not contain phytoestrogens (plant estrogens), nor does it contain hormones. Instead, it stimulates the endocrine system, which is where we produce and release hormones, to maintain our hormonal balance. Too much maca can overstimulate hormones, but it is hard to get too much maca from food. Consuming too much is usually associated with over-supplementing.
The Greene Menopause Index (sometimes known as the Greene Climacteric Scale) and the Kupperman's Menopausal Index are questionnaires that doctors give to their patients to help measure how bothered women are by different menopausal symptoms. These tools help women rate anxiety, depression, difficulty slipping, fatigue, hot flashes, night sweets, irritability, loss of libido, and other symptoms.
Multiple research studies of women at different points along their menopausal journey use these tools and others to measure symptoms before and after taking daily maca supplements. Most studies on maca show promising results when maca is taken regularly over a period of months.
While we may not yet understand the mechanisms behind the reduction in symptoms, multiple studies show that maca helps decrease anxiety, irritability, and depression results in fewer hot flashes and night sweats, decreases muscle and joint aches, and increases libido when women continue taking maca over a period of time. Some longer-term studies showed benefits in blood sugar balance, bone health, and cardiovascular health too — all conditions women start to see declines in after menopause.
Supporting the Stress Response
And there is more. Adaptogens are herbs that help support the adrenal glands so the body can better deal with both physical and mental stress. Adaptogens boost and sustain energy without the jittery feeling or sleeplessness coffee or other forms of caffeine can create, and at the same time, if needed, maca can be calming, but not cause sleepiness, when our bodies are feeling the effects of chronic stress.
Hormones are like a symphony. If one instrument is not tuned, the whole orchestra is off. When one hormone is out of balance, the other hormones are affected. Cortisol is our main stress hormone. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal gland. It is the hormone that gets excreted when a car pulls in front of us, we slam on the breaks, and our heart starts racing. The body does not differentiate between different kinds of stress and cortisol also gets released when we are experiencing low doses of chronic stress over time such as managing a big project, caring for an ill or aging family member, not sleeping well, managing with a chronic health condition …
In menopause, women produce a small bit of sex hormones in the adrenal glands instead of in the ovaries. When the body interprets stress, it will prioritize making cortisol over sex hormones, which can lead to even more menopausal symptoms.
Managing our stress response becomes even more important after menopause. Maca has been shown to help our bodies better adapt and rebalance when we are experiencing chronic physical and emotional stress. While we may need to practice other stress management techniques (think mediation, mindfulness, exercise, being with supportive friends and family …) as well, maca is an amazing tool in our toolbox.
An Important Tool In the Menopausal Toolbox
Maca is a complicated and unique plant with many functions that we are still learning about. Maca is unique in that it offers support for women along many different pathways and throughout the entire menopausal journey.
Maca is rich in nutrients, protein, vitamins, and minerals, helps balance hormones, and supports our stress response in the way our body best needs it. Studies show that maca is generally safe and well tolerated over time. It can even be supportive when women are taking hormone replacement therapy. When we think about which tools we want to reach for during the menopausal journey, maca is one of those that is at the top of the list.
* The advice in this blog is not considered medical advice. If you are considering supplementing with maca, please check with your health care provider before starting on supplements.
Want to try Maca for yourself? It's included in every Bossa Bar.