This week’s topic in our series on supplements to potentially help with missing periods is maca, aka Lepidium meyenii.
A little while back I did a survey of women in my facebook support group and found that among 53 women 63 supplements were being taken with the idea of helping to restore missing periods. (The overview of the topic can be found here, other posts in the series include Vitex and Acetyl-L-Carnitine). Maca was taken by 10 of these women, so I thought we’d investigate it next. Thanks to Eryn for digging up some references!
Overview of Maca
Maca is grown in the central Andes. The part that is eaten is the “hypocotyl”, a tuberous root-like structure that is a storage organ for nutrients. Maca has been cultivated and used for food and medicinal purposes for hundreds of years.
Maca and period restoration
Our question is whether maca can be useful in a woman trying to restore menstrual cycles. I was rather surprised after reading some abstracts to find that there were hints of potential usefulness of this supplement – but after reading the full studies, my conclusion is that while maca is not going to hurt recovery, it is unlikely to help either.
In the first study, rats were fed dried maca powder as 5%, 25%, or 50% of their diet. Seven weeks later, during the “pro-estrus” phase (like the follicular phase in humans) hormones were measured, and in the rats consuming 50% maca, a 4.5-fold elevation in LH levels and 19-fold elevation in FSH levels were seen. This elevation was dose dependent (meaning elevations were seen at lower amounts consumed as well, in proportion to the amount of maca). However, there are two key points missing from the abstract, which is where that info comes from. One is that there was essentially no elevation at the lowest dose, 5% of feed, which is about 3g/kg/day. The second point was that these elevations were very transient, seen only at the time of the pre-ovulatory surge. There was not an overall increase in LH levels.
The huge elevations in LH are clearly not reproducible in humans, because 50% of our diet as maca powder is not feasible. Even 3 grams per kilogram, i.e., 180 grams per day in someone weighing 60kg (about 130 lb) doesn’t jibe with the dosages normally prescribed. A website selling maca powder indicates that a serving is about 9 grams. In the Andes, people will often eat 100-200g of the root 2-3 times a week, a much higher amount than what is realistically available to those of us outside Peru.
There are a few other studies in rodents, but unfortunately not much in humans to support or refute these results. A study performed in men (due to positive effects on sperm parameters) showed no change in FSH, LH, estradiol, prolactin, or testosterone while taking 1.5 or 3g of maca for up to 12 weeks.
These two results, an elevation in the levels of LH and FSH *only* during the pre-ovulatory surge in mice, and no change in reproductive hormones in males in response to maca suggest that maca is not going to help with no periods based on a hormonal mechanism.
As I was researching the toxicity of maca (which seems to be zero), I came across an article where they did a double-blind, placebo-controlled study looking at a number of health outcomes after consuming maca (3g/day) for 12 weeks (197 subjects across all groups). The health outcomes were assessed on a weekly basis, giving a really nice data set. There were no adverse events reported which is great, and they reference another study that found no toxicity in rats at up to 17g/kg, which is an enormous amount, so maca seems to be very safe to eat.
GENERAL HEALTH EFFECTS OF MACA
Some of the health outcomes that were measured in the study I just mentioned and found to be significantly different from placebo (on top of a placebo effect!) may be of interest to readers – improved libido, energy, mood, and “Health Related Quality of Life” score. The “HRQL” is a 36-question survey that contains “five items related to general health, five items related to physical activities associated with current health status, two items related to limitations on work or other regular daily activities as a consequence of reduced physical health, two items on bodily pain, one item about vitality, and five items on mental health .”
This study suggests that there may be other reasons to take maca than period restoration per se… it may help with overall quality of life while you are working to recover. And in someone who is at a “fertile BMI,” not doing high intensity exercise, but still stressed and anxious… maybe something like maca could help with the mental stress part.
MACA for Missing periods?
My ultimate conclusion is if you like maca, go ahead and have some (after checking the sourcing, see below), but don’t feel like this is something that you need to go out and get to help you restore your missing period. It may have some mood boosting effects that could be helpful during recovery in other ways though.
I will leave you with a quote from a recent review of maca,
To date, the health claims of maca cannot be fully supported from a scientific standpoint and more research is needed. It appears that the indigenous local knowledge about the health benefits of maca has been dragged out of context to fit the demands of a growing market for herbal remedies. This globalisation (or hype esp. in China) also has had serious consequences for the local producers in Peru. The lack of protocols to regulate the production and marketing of maca during this rapid expansion, poses a threat to both the safety of consumers and the sustainability of supply.