Maca | Can We Unlock The Secrets of this Ancient Traditional Medicine?

Maca | Can We Unlock The Secrets of this Ancient Traditional Medicine?

A Storied Ancient Food & Medicine

You get in a vehicle and start your journey to the highlands. The farther up you go, the more tired you start to feel, your head is starting to hurt and you get the distinct sense that the air is getting thinner. Before you know it, you are chewing on coca leaves, and your affliction is starting to subside. Yet, you get the sense that you are still going higher. You get word that you are going to an elevation in excess of 4000 meters above sea level (MASL) and right now you have just breached 2500 MASL. Life is tough at this altitude already, yet you are still climbing in elevation. As if appearing out of nowhere, you see a large body of water, and the landscape looks to flatten out a bit. You are now at Lake Junin in the Peruvian highlands at a dizzying altitude of over 4,000 MASL, the epicenter of Lepidium meyenii, better known as maca!

At this altitude, life is nearly impossible, yet there are still vibrant communities of people and livestock. Yet one thing seems to be missing, trees. Trees aren’t the only thing that are missing at this elevation though. There is also a distinct lack of food crops around. In fact, all but one crop grows at this extreme altitude, and that crop is Lepidium meyenii, better known as maca!

Maca is in the Brassicaceae family of plants, meaning that it comes from the same family to which radishes, broccoli, cabbage, and kale belong. Somehow this wondrous plant overcame the harshest of climates and started to thrive. Humans also started to thrive in this harsh environment, with indigenous populations having lived in this area of Peru for thousands of years. However, what did they live on if cultivating crops was next to impossible? Maca of course! Maca not only is a world-renowned energy, libido, and mood booster, it is also incredibly nutritious and delicious. When properly prepared it has a caramel, almost butterscotch sweetness to it, and is chock full of minerals, vitamins, proteins, and starches! Better yet, this food source not only helps you adapt to the harsh high elevation climate, it helps you thrive in it! The naive (yet brutal) Spanish conquistadors quickly found that out when they set forth to steal these indigenous peoples’ land, resources, and lives.

When the Spanish conquistadors first came to Peru and colonized the highland regions, they quickly noticed that their imported livestock was not thriving like they were back in Spain. The locals suggested that they try feeding their livestock maca, and lo and behold, their livestock started to thrive again. They were productive and they were reproducing again. The Spaniards also quickly realized that their own fertility was way down, so they too started taking maca. Suddenly, the Spaniards were thriving again, but they realized they needed maca and they had no clue how to cultivate it themselves. They then forced the Peruvians to give them 9 tons of maca annually as a “tribute.”

Maca | Can We Unlock The Secrets of this Ancient Traditional Medicine?

Maca Cultivation

The thing about maca that makes it a very sought after botanical, is also partially because it is quite hard to cultivate. This is no surprise given its harsh natural environment! Cultivating maca happens in two stages. The first of which is to grow the hypocotyls, which are commonly referred to as the maca “roots”. There is a common misconception about the hypocotyls, which is that specific colors can be cultivated, since there is yellow, red and black maca.

The reality is that these colors simply happen randomly, with most maca being yellow and small percentages being red and black maca. After the hypocotyls are fully mature, which can take between 9-12 months, the maca is finally harvested. However, this is not where the maca story ends because at this point you have little to no seeds for the next crop. So where do these seeds come from?

To obtain seeds for future maca crops, about 10% of some of the very best maca hypocotyls are replanted. This is done in order to grow out the aerial parts of the maca plant, commonly referred to as the rosette.The rosette is what produces the seeds, and this takes another couple of months of growth. At this point, the rosettes become quite large and produce vast amounts of seeds.

The maca farmers then remove the seeds from the rosettes and begin the process of sowing the next crop. Sowing the next crop can also be quite challenging. Once maca has grown on a plot of land, the soil is quite depleted.

This is because maca sucks a lot of minerals and nutrients out of the soil, which is great for us because maca is very nutrient and mineral dense, however, it poses a challenge for low impact farmers. This is because it takes about 10 years before the land is ready again for the next crop of maca. The entire cultivation cycle for maca is clearly a very time intensive process, and with this being one of the only crops that can be grown at these extreme altitudes, it goes to show just how crucial maca is for farmers and local populations in the Peruvian highlands.

Summary of Maca Benefits

✔ Promotes Positive Mood*

✔ Boosts Energy Levels*

✔ Enhances Vitality*

✔ Increases Endocannabinoid Activity*

Maca Processing

As if the farming practices weren’t hard enough already, the processing of maca is also quite an art and is actually where the magic within maca comes from! As the maca grows, it starts to biosynthesize glucosinolates, just like most of the other Brassicaceae species. A highly popular example of this is, of course, broccoli which produces a glucosinolate called glucoraphanin, which later turns into the famed isothiocyanate compound, sulforaphane. Maca tends to produce high amounts of a glucosinolate called glucotropaeolin. Glucotropaeolin then later turns into benzyl isothiocyanate, one of the main bioactives in maca. This is quite fascinating because most of the macamides are benzylamides of fatty acids and they do not exist in fresh maca in significant amounts. Nor does benzyl isothiocyanate exist in large amounts in fresh maca hypocotyls. This means that as a medicinal plant, maca is practically useless in its fresh form.

The magic happens during the drying process, and thus it is no surprise that practically all traditionally consumed maca is first dried. However, this drying process is quite intensive too. A technique called “open field drying” is traditionally utilized for maca. This means that the maca is simply laid out in the open, at elevations between 3500-4000 MASL. This results in the maca being exposed to dry heat and massive amounts of solar radiation during the day, and freezing temperatures during the night. This then causes a freeze/thaw cycle when the maca is still fresh, which macerates the insides of the maca. While this is happening, the maca is also losing moisture, and enzymes within the maca hypocotyl start to respond to the damage that is occurring within the maca hypocotyl. The first thing that starts to happen in the early stages, is that free fatty acids start to get released from cells in the maca hypocotyl. While this is happening, enzymes are breaking down glucotropaeolin into benzyl isothiocyanate, which also produces benzylamine as a side product. The benzylamine and long chain fatty acids then start to interact, and macamides are formed. This is likely catalyzed by an enzyme, however it is not totally known what enzyme catalyzes this reaction. However, it has been hypothesized that it is perhaps an enzyme called fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) working in reverse to generate the macamides. This is quite fascinating, because in humans, a lot of the benefits of the macamides are mediated through inhibition of the FAAH enzyme! We will touch on this mechanism later in the blog.

What is so fascinating about this process, is that the macamides are the primary compounds within maca responsible for maca benefits. However, it is only contained in trace amounts in fresh maca hypocotyls. The full traditional drying process takes a whopping three months, which seems quite inefficient and adds to the already very long cultivation times for maca. However, it is clearly worth it, because without the crucial drying stage, we don’t end up with all of the beneficial compounds we want!

Traditional Uses Of Maca

With such a complex cultivation process, followed by a lengthy drying stage, this plant clearly is crucial for the locals in the Peruvian highlands. Based on its long history of use, this certainly is the case. This is of course partially due to the fact that not much else grows at these extreme altitudes, however, maca plays an important role in traditional food and medicine. As the Spanish conquistadors quickly found out, life at these altitudes may very well depend on the regular consumption of maca. Having spent a bit of time at extreme altitudes myself, having something around that can boost your energy levels is vital, as every step you take feels like 10 steps at a more normal altitude. Even better if that energy booster is also very nutritious!

In Peru, maca is traditionally used in its dried, but raw form. However, Peruvians do not eat this raw maca without first cooking it. It is oftentimes made into a type of sweet porridge. This means quite a lot of nutrient-dense maca is being consumed, and a relatively high amount of macamides are consumed. However, most important to note here, is that the maca is first getting cooked! This is something that is often neglected in the western world, where somehow the idea has spread that raw maca is best. However, it has been found by lots of people that completely raw dried maca can have some undesirable effects on our GI system. With this in mind, the consumption of raw maca is not desirable at all and the local Peruvians who have been consuming maca for thousands of years, always appear to cook their maca. Instead, for the western market, where cooking with maca is not common, a new process has been invented. This process very rapidly cooks the maca, and is commonly referred to as “gelatinization”. The change in maca powder from raw to gelatinized is quite drastic! First, the somewhat pungent and brassica-like flavor associated with raw dried maca quickly fades and turns into a lovely butterscotch/caramel-type aroma. Secondly, the color rapidly changes from a pale off-white to a light caramel color. The resulting gelatinized maca now allows you to use maca in cold preparations like a smoothie, without having to first cook it.

Traditionally, maca appears to most frequently be used for improving vitality, energy, fertility, and perhaps also libido. This range of effects is crucial for thriving in these high-altitude environments that can quickly decrease your vitality and even appear to impact fertility. Maca is clearly the perfect companion to have when you are living at a high altitude!

The Science Behind Maca: Endocannabinoid Activity

Now that we have discussed the history, cultivation, processing, and traditional use of maca, it is time to get into some of the science behind it! As we mentioned earlier in the blog, there is a class of compounds in maca called macamides. If you have spent any amount of time looking at the various different endocannabinoids in our bodies, such as anandamide, you will quite quickly start noticing some big similarities between the endocannabinoids and the macamides. Check out the structure of macamide B, compared to the endocannabinoid anandamide below.

As you can see, these compounds are quite similar in structure, both sporting long fatty acid chains. However, it is uncommon to see bioactive compounds with large fatty acid chains, but this is a hallmark of endocannabinoids! So perhaps it is no surprise then, that the macamides act very similarly to the endocannabinoids.

Now that we have discussed the history, cultivation, processing, and traditional use of maca, it is time to get into some of the science behind it! As we mentioned earlier in the blog, there is a class of compounds in maca called macamides. If you have spent any amount of time looking at the various different endocannabinoids in our bodies, such as anandamide, you will quite quickly start noticing some big similarities between the endocannabinoids and the macamides. Check out the structure of macamide B, compared to the endocannabinoid anandamide below.

The Science Behind Maca: Energizing Effects

This is where things start to become quite tricky! We know a lot about the macamides and their effects on the endocannabinoid system. This helps explain the bulk of maca benefits, however, a hallmark of maca are its energizing effects which are not explained by the endocannabinoid effects. It also leaves some of the other compounds in maca out of the equation such as macaenes, benzyl isothiocyanate, various alkaloids, and even pyrrolidone-type compounds called the macapyrrolins which closely resemble some famous nootropic compounds. Sadly, the research is still very much lacking for most of these compounds. In addition to this, there are still a lot of scientific knowledge gaps when it comes to maca’s effects on energy.

However, if we jump into the research, most researchers appear to attribute the anti-fatigue and energizing effects to the macamides. This somewhat helps explain the anti-fatigue effect, because the macamides appear to positively impact energy metabolism, and specifically, glucose utilization and fatty acid metabolism. The interesting thing to ponder here for a little while is where the macamides come from. The macamides are formed in the maca hypocotyl from benzylamine which is liberated while benzyl glucosinolate becomes hydrolyzed. The benzylamine then reacts with free fatty acids, to form the macamides. However, the macamides are fairly large compounds and thus would have a hard time absorbing intact in our bodies. This likely means that the macamides are being broken down prior to exerting their beneficial effects. What this means, is that perhaps benzylamine is liberated once again in our bodies. This would make sense because studies looking at oral benzylamine consumption have also found significant positive effects on energy metabolism. More interestingly, there is lots of research on benzylamine-based compounds which can inhibit the monoamine oxidase enzymes. Interestingly enough, benzylamine even seems to be a substrate for monoamine oxidase-B (MAO-B) itself. Furthermore, there are also lots of benzylamine-based compounds which can inhibit neurotransmitter reuptake, which may also help elucidate what is going on in maca, because it contains lots of different benzylamine-based compounds.

It seems to be an impossible question to answer currently with the limited amount of scientific data around, but it seems likely that benzylamine and its derivatives (which includes the macamides!) are involved here. This seems especially likely when looking at the impact maca can have on neurotransmitters. Research has shown that maca can elevate the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, effects that would be expected when one consumes a monoamine reuptake inhibitor, a MAO-B inhibitor, or even a monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) inhibitor. Pair this with a great improvement in energy metabolism, and the picture for maca’s anti-fatigue and energizing effects becomes a little bit more clear. Considering the synergy between these monoamine effects and upregulated endocannabinoid activity, we end up with an incredibly unique cognitive effects profile. Hopefully, the future brings us more research and clarity on the stimulating effects of maca!

What Are The Best Supplements To Stack With Maca?

A Nootropics Depot blog certainly would not be complete without a stack section, and while maca is an incredible standalone product, we have certainly found a few stacks in which it can shine! When developing maca stacks, we split up maca benefits into three distinct categories:

● Mood enhancement

● Libido enhancement

● Energy enhancement

The idea behind this being that we can develop stacks which help dial in these unique maca effects while not adding too much of their own character to the mix. This allows the maca to really shine within these three different categories! However, for the first category, mood enhancement, we decided on two separate stacks each focused on a specific monoamine that maca can help enhance. Monoamines are crucial to mood, however, this is often grossly oversimplified. One of the interesting things to take into account here is that while some people react positively to increases in serotonin, others may not. On the flip side, the same is true for dopamine enhancement. Since maca already enhances all three monoamines, these stacks are aimed at bringing individual monoamines more to the forefront, thereby allowing you to dial in your ideal monoamine balance while consistently getting an endocannabinoid and norepinephrine boost in each stack.

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