Over the years I’ve had numerous patients ask me about the potential benefits of maca, also known as Lepidium meyenii. Of course there are many beneficial herbs that people can take, such as ashwagandha, eleuthero, rhodiola, etc. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone with a thyroid or autoimmune thyroid condition should take all of these herbs. And to be honest, while I’ll be discussing some of the benefits of maca root in this blog post, I can’t say that I commonly use this herb in my practice, although over this past year I have been recommending it more frequently to my patients.
Maca is an Andean plant that belongs to the brassica family. Some of the more common uses is to help improve sexual function and fertility (1) (2). It seems that maca can be beneficial for both men and women. For example, one small study showed that maca improved sperm production and sperm motility (3). Another study showed that maca lowers measures of sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women independent of estrogenic and androgenic activity (4). These were both very small studies, and there are other small studies which show that maca can be effective in men and perimenopausal women.
More About Maca
There are actually a lot of studies on maca, although without question, larger trials need to be conducted. But most of the studies I came across showed that maca has some great benefits. Differences have been shown between the effects of the black, yellow and red maca varieties, as black maca shows the best results on spermatogenesis, memory and fatigue, while red maca is the variety that reverses benign prostatic hyperplasia and experimentally induced osteoporosis (5). In addition, maca reduces the glucose levels, and its consumption is related to the lowering of blood pressure and an improved health score (5). For those who are concerned about whether taking maca is safe on a long term basis, studies have demonstrated that short and long term consumption don’t show in vivo and in vitro toxicity.
Experimental scientific evidence showed that maca has nutritional, energizer, and fertility-enhancer properties, and it acts on sexual dysfunctions, osteoporosis, benign prostatic hyperplasia, memory and learning, and protects skin against ultraviolet radiation (6). A few different trials have shown that maca can help to reduce the symptoms of depression (7) (8), and can also improve diastolic blood pressure (8). One study showed that maca can even affect the cytokines, as consumption of maca was associated with low serum IL-6 levels (9).
How Does Maca Work?
Initially it was thought that Maca root worked via phytoestrogens, but it looks like the mechanism of action is through numerous alkaloids, and not its plant hormones (10). However, other components also can play a role such as sterols (campesterol, stigmasterol and beta-sitosterol), as well as polyunsaturated acids and their amides, called “macaenes” and “macamides”, as well as aromatic glucosinolates (10). Although the exact mechanism of how maca root works still isn’t known, maca apparently affects the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (11). And of course the hypothalamus and pituitary gland affect the output of the adrenal hormones, thyroid hormones, as well as hormones secreted by the ovaries and testes.
Can Maca Benefit People With Thyroid and Autoimmune Thyroid Conditions?
As I already mentioned in this post, maca seems to affect the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. These of course both play a role in thyroid health, as the hypothalamus releases thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH), which in turn stimulates the pituitary gland to release TSH, which stimulates the thyroid gland to release thyroid hormone. In this matter it is possible that taking maca root can affect thyroid health, and perhaps even help to increase the output of thyroid hormone in some people with hypothyroid conditions. However, maca doesn’t seem to directly affect the thyroid gland, and so if someone with hyperthyroidism or Graves’ Disease were to take maca it shouldn’t increase the output of thyroid hormone. With that being said, every now then I’ll receive an email from someone with hyperthyroidism who took an adaptogenic herb such as maca or eleuthero and claimed it increased the hyperthyroid symptoms. Although this isn’t something my patients commonly experience when taking adaptogenic herbs, if this does happen to you then obviously I would discontinue taking the herb.
Maca does have a very small amount of iodine, and so those who are trying to completely avoid iodine might want to avoid taking maca. With that being said, taking a few grams of maca doesn’t seem to cause problems in most people with autoimmune thyroid conditions such as Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. But of course everyone is different, and so if you take maca and feel as if it’s worsening your condition then obviously I would advise you to stop taking it. As I briefly mentioned earlier, maca is part of the brassica family, which also includes broccoli, kale, cauliflower, etc. Many people with hypothyroid conditions avoid these foods due to their goitrogenic properties, although taking maca is unlikely to inhibit thyroid hormone production in most people.
Many people with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions have problems with the adrenals and sex hormones (i.e. estrogen, progesterone, testosterone). And since maca affects the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, it not only can affect thyroid health, but since the pituitary gland also secretes hormones such as FSH, LH, and ACTH, maca can also potentially affect the output of these hormones as well.
As for what dosage of maca to take, this will vary from person to person. Most of the studies have used anywhere from 2 grams to 10 grams per day of maca. If you decide to take maca it probably would be best to start with a smaller dose and then gradually increase it if necessary. This is especially true if you’re taking maca to help with hot flashes, as if the dose is too high then it might actually increase the number of hot flashes in some women. Plus, while some notice an improvement in their symptoms in as little as three or four days, in some people it can take a week or longer before noticing a positive change.
In summary, the use of maca root is growing in popularity, as some of its benefits include helping to improve sexual function and fertility, reducing glucose levels, lowering blood pressure, reducing hot flashes, and in decreasing depression. Maca apparently affects the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, and thus can not only potentially affect thyroid health, but can also affect the output of adrenal hormones, as well as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Most people who take maca should begin with a small dosage and gradually increase it if necessary.