Maca: Superfood Superstar, Part I
South America's maca, a hardy cruciferous root vegetable indigenous to the Peruvian high-altitude plateau, is gaining worldwide popularity due to its amazing bounty of nutritional and medicinal benefits. Native Peruvians have used this plant for thousands of years as a staple food crop and for its positive effects on male and female fertility and libido, energy and stamina, menopausal complaints, and stress.
What is Maca?
Related to mustard, this root vegetable grows in one of the harshest farmland climates in the world where virtually no other crop may flourish. The mineral-rich volcanic soil yields a nutrient-dense plant full of essential amino acids, vitamins, fatty acids, fiber, starch and a wide array of trace and macrominerals. In addition it contains nearly 60 different phytonutrients, including glucosinolates, the cancer-fighting compounds for which cruciferous vegetables are famous. Sterols are also present which have the ability to lower cholesterol levels.
Maca's effects on stress, libido and fertility, and hormone balance are the most well-known properties and we will explore each of these areas. Firstly, however, we will look at it strictly as a nutrient-dense food. Maca's mineral content is exceptional, with potassium being most abundant. Potassium is involved in fluid balance in the body as well as regulating heartbeat and helping to calm nerves. Magnesium, sodium, calcium, iron, manganese, copper, zinc, silica and iodine are also present. This rich mineral content helps build and maintain bone density, and may help in preventing and even reversing osteoporosis. Maca is quite high in essential fatty acids, such as linoleic acid. Its Vitamin E content is high and it contains Vitamin C and several B vitamins. Maca is high in fiber, and is easy to digest.
The medicinal, or pharmacologic, properties of maca are diverse, yet interestingly arise from one main effect or pathway. Maca does not contain hormones, is not a phyto-estrogen, nor does it increase hormones per se. It exerts a balancing effect upon the hypothalamus, which is the master controller in the body's endocrine system, responsible along with the pituitary gland for production and release of hormones. The phytochemicals in maca modulate, strengthen and nourish the Hypothalamus/Pituitary Axis (HPA) allowing smooth running, or homeostasis, of the entire endocrine system. This includes the adrenal glands, thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, and testes. With the master gland in proper form, all of the other endocrine glands become balanced, thus regulating hormone production in the necessary proportion.
Maca has joined the ranks of herbs classified as adaptogens. These are plants that help increase the body's resistance to disease and also bring the body back into a state of homeostasis by nourishing and strengthening depleted areas. When the body is under constant stress, physical or emotional, the adrenal glands become depleted, throwing off the delicate balance of hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine. By virtue of maca's effects upon the HPA, the adrenal glands are restored to optimal functioning. The stress hormone cortisol is lowered, thereby normalizing serotonin levels as well. An improvement is seen in many areas including sleep, feelings of well-being, immune function, libido, memory, and energy.
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