As legend has it, pre-Incan farmers in what is now known as Peru noticed that a particular plant made their herds more fertile. That plant was maca root, which is sometimes consumed as a vegetable and is in the same family as mustard, cabbage and broccoli.
Eventually, people began eating maca root for the same results -- and other benefits, such as improved memory and energy. The practice was common in the Andes region (where it grows exclusively) and continued through numerous civilizations. Today, maca root -- also known as Peruvian ginseng -- is famous around the world for its ability to improve conception chances. But just how does it work?
For starters, maca root is believed to be an aphrodisiac. Theoretically, something that increases the frequency of sexual intercourse would likely have an impact on fertility. Maca root does contain certain prostaglandins and sterols that may influence sexual desire [source: Hermann, et. al]. Unfortunately, reports of the mood-enhancing effects of maca root are largely anecdotal [source: Zelman].
There are other ways that maca root may increase fertility. Chemical analyses and tests on rats have given scientists insight into how the plant may effect male and female fertility in humans. Keep reading the following pages for more information on why maca root has been used for millennia by pregnancy-seeking couples.
Maca Root and Male Fertility
Since maca (known scientifically as lepidium meyenii) is a plant, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with its features when learning about its fertility benefits. The top of the maca is a combination of mat-like stems, scalloped leaves and white flowers.
While this creates a lovely ground covering, it's the part of the plant below ground that has all of the benefits. The maca root is a tuber that looks a lot like radish. At the very top of the root is a feature called hypocotyl. The hypocotyls of macas come in different colors, but researchers have found that those with black hypocotyls have a greater impact on male fertility.
A study in which rats were given maca root originating from macas with black hypocotyls (also known as black maca) found that sperm count was increased within one day of treatment [source: Gonzales, et. al]. This confirmed an earlier study of Peruvian men in which maca root improved sperm production and sperm motility [source: Gonzales, et. al].
And those aren't the only effects maca root has had on male fertility. Another study that looked at infertility in rats found that maca root prevented spermatogenic disruption related to lead exposure [source: Rubio, et. al].
So, if you consider maca root's sperm-augmenting qualities, as well as its potential aphrodisiac benefits, it shows promise as a beneficial supplement for fertility in men. But does it help women? We'll look at that question on the next page.
Maca Root and Female Fertility
Maca root is believed to offer women numerous health benefits. In fact, it's commonly used to help relieve symptoms of PMS and menopause [source: Ley]. But that's not the only assistance this powerful plant offers the female sex. It may also improve fertility.
So far, there have been more studies looking at the conception-promoting benefits of maca root in men than in women. Anecdotal evidence has suggested for years that the plant enhances both male and female fertility, but the research to back up the benefits in women isn't as prolific.
However, there was a recent noteworthy study that gave a hint at maca root's fertility power in women. Remember on the previous page where we discussed the different colors of maca hypocotyls? That information comes into play once again. A 2005 study showed that extract of yellow maca increased litter size in mice [source: Ruiz-Luna, et. al]. This was the first scientific study to confirm the influence of maca root on female fertility. More research is needed to determine just how the supplement can benefit women wishing to get pregnant, but the results so far are encouraging.
When it comes to maca root and fertility, we still have more to examine. Keep reading.
Preconception Benefits of the Maca Root
On previous pages, we talked about how maca root can increase sexual desire, sperm count and sperm motility -- and possibly even effect female fertility. All of these findings suggest that maca root aids the reproductive system best when it's taken prior to conception. That information might seem obvious based on what you've read thus far. But what might not be as apparent are the other ways in which maca root can prepare your body for conception.
It's widely known that overall health is an important factor in fertility. And this is an area where maca root might be able to help both men and women. In addition to the ways it benefits the male and female reproductive systems, maca root is also believed to increase vitality in the following ways [source: Chillemi].
- increase energy and stamina
- reduce fatigue and lethargy
- boost immune system
- provide essential minerals and nutrients (particularly iron and iodine)
Maca root's delivery of iron may be particularly important to women. During a woman's pregnancy, she's likely to experience iron deficiency, so ensuring she has healthy iron levels prior to conception is a valuable step.
It's important to note, however, that some people can experience conditions that cause iron overload. While such illnesses are uncommon in women of childbearing age, any woman seeking to increase her iron intake should first have her iron levels tested by a physician.
Continue to the next page to see what other precautions you should consider when taking maca root.
Maca Root Safety and Precautions
Peruvians have eaten maca root for thousands of years without incident, so it can be assumed that the food is safe to consume. However, it's important to note that residents of the Andes eat maca root as a regional crop that's a staple of their diets.
The maca root supplement you purchase online or at a local health store will likely be in capsule or powder form. Therefore, it's impossible to know what all occurred during processing. With any supplement, there's always the possibility that impurities or inappropriate amounts of the plant made their way into the final product.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate supplements, so it's best to be cautious. There are a couple of ways you can do this. For starters, always talk to your physician about taking a supplement -- whether it's maca root or something else. The next thing you should do is make sure you buy supplements from reputable brands and dealers.
Wondering about just cutting out the middle man and growing your own maca root? That's probably not going to happen. There's a reason why maca root is exclusive to the Andes region. It grows only in cold, high-elevation areas with poor soil quality.
Want to learn more about maca root and fertility? We have a lot more information in our next section.
- Castleman, Michael. "The New Healing Herbs." Rodale, 2010. (June 30, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=mlyszsVFQ1kC&dq=maca+root+fertility&source=gbs_navlinks_s
- Chillemi, Stacey and Chillemi, Michael. "The Complete Herbal Guide: A Natural Approach to Healing the Body." Lulu.com. 2007 (June 30, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=PTSg-kXnBrIC&dq=maca+root+fertility&source=gbs_navlinks_s
- Cleveland Clinic. "Increasing Iron in Your Diet During Pregnancy." Dec. 21, 2009. (June 30, 2012) http://my.clevelandclinic.org/healthy_living/pregnancy/hic_increasing_iron_in_your_diet_during_pregnancy.aspx
- Gonzales, GF; Cordova, A; Gonzales, C; Chung, A; Vega, K; and Villena, A. "Lepidium meyenii (Maca) improved semen parameters in adult men." Asian Journal of Andrology. Dec. 2001. (June 30, 2012) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11753476?dopt=Citation
- Gonzales, GF; Nieto, J; Rubio, J; and Gasco, M. "Effect of Black maca (Lepidium meyenii) on one spermatogenic cycle in rats." Andrologia. Oct. 2006. (June 30, 2012) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16961569
- Hermann, Michael and Heller, Joachim. "Andean Roots and Tubers: Ahipa, Arracacha, Maca and Yacon." International Potato Center. 1997. (June 30, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=j7pgT1lDoggC&dq=maca+root+fertility&source=gbs_navlinks_s
- Ley, Beth M. "Maca: Adaptogen and Hormonal Regulator." Bl Publications. 2003. (June 30, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=-_etK2PJlkwC&dq=maca+root+fertility&source=gbs_navlinks_s
- NYU Langone Medical Center. "Maca." (June 30, 2012) http://www.med.nyu.edu/content?ChunkIID=104590
- Rubio, J; Riqueros, MI; Gasco, M; Yucra, S; Miranda, S; and Gonzales, GF. "Lepidium meyenii (Maca) reversed the lead acetate induced -- damage on reproductive function in male rats." Food and Chemical Toxicology. July 2006. (June 30, 2012) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16510228
- Ruiz-Luna, Ana C; Salazar, Stephanie; Aspajo, Norma J; Julio Rubio, Julio; Gasco, Manuel; and Gonzales, Gustavo F. "Lepidium meyenii (Maca) increases litter size in normal adult female mice." Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology. 2005. (June 30, 2012) http://www.rbej.com/content/3/1/16
- WebMD. "Semen Analysis." Oct. 31, 2011. (June 30, 2012) http://www.webmd.com/infertility-and-reproduction/guide/semen-analysis?page=1
- WomensHealth.gov. "Preconception Health. Sept. 27, 2010. (June 30, 2012) http://www.womenshealth.gov/pregnancy/before-you-get-pregnant/preconception-health.cfm
- Zelman, Kathleen M. "The Truth about Maca." WebMD. 2010. (June 30, 2012) http://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/features/the-truth-about-maca