Super foods are foods and herbs considered to be especially healthful due to their hefty nutritional content. The list includes familiar favorites, such as blueberries, broccoli and beans. Now a more exotic super food you may never have heard of is generating excitement in the world of natural health-a Peruvian root vegetable called maca (lepidium meyenii or peruvianum), pronounced MACK-ah.

The root of the maca is shaped like a large radish. It is a cousin to other cruciferous plants, such as cauliflower and brussels sprouts. Peruvians traditionally boil or roast the maca root or grind it into flour for baking. However, despite maca's popular description as a "super food," you won't see it in food form in this country. Instead, the root is dried and ground into a fine powder. It then is distributed primarily in capsules, although you also can buy the powder to blend into beverages or sprinkle on foods.

In addition to its healthful fiber, complex carbohydrates and protein, maca provides numerous minerals, including calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur, iron, zinc, iodine and cooper...vitamins B-1, B-2, C and E...nearly 20 amino acids, including linoleic acid, palmitic acid and oleic well as various plant sterols, which are natural cholesterol-lowering agents. All of these nutrients have been shown to promote health in a multitude of ways.

Here is what this super food can do for you...

Fight Stress and Disease

Any kind of stress-from work, personal problems, illness, injury, toxins, hormonal imbalances or any other source-can negatively affect how our bodies function. Maca is what holistic doctors call an adaptogen, a plant or herb that boosts the body's ability to resist, deal with and recover from emotional and physical stress.

Practitioners of traditional medicine from China and India have known about and made use of adaptogens for centuries, though the term itself was not coined until the middle of the 20th century. Well-known adaptogens include the herbs ashwagandha, ginseng, rhodiola and licorice root, all of which I have prescribed to my patients with much success over the years.

How it works: To be classified as an adaptogen, a natural substance must meet specific criteria. It must be nontoxic... normalize levels of chemicals raised during periods of stress... and produce physical, chemical and/or biological responses that increase the body's resistance to stress.

Although all adaptogenic plants contain antioxidants, researchers do not believe that antioxidants alone account for adaptogens' normalizing powers. Rather, it is thought that a variety of phytochemicals helps balance the dozens of endocrine, digestive and neural hormones that operate throughout the body including insulin (which regulates blood sugar levels) and dopamine (which enhances and stabilizes mood). Many adaptogens also stimulate immune system components, leading to better immune function.

More of Maca's Super Powers

In addition to its documented beneficial effects on the human reproductive system, laboratory tests and animal studies suggest that maca may reduce the risk for...

• Arthritis-by promoting cartilage growth.

• Blood toxicity-by improving liver function.

• Diabetes-by allowing for better control over blood sugar levels and body weight.

• Digestive health-by combating ulcers.

• Fatigue-by increasing energy and endurance.

• Heart disease-by lowering levels of LDL "bad" cholesterol and triglycerides (a type of blood fat).

• Infertility-by stimulating production of estrogen and other hormones in women and boosting sperm count in men.

• Memory and mood-by enhancing certain brain chemical.

• Osteoporosis-by increasing bone density.

• Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)-by regulating hormone levels.

• Prostate problems-by reducing prostate enlargement.

The Safest Way to Start

Maca generally appears to be safe, given its long history of use by Peruvians... but there are a few guidelines to bear in mind. Women who take estrogen to ease menopausal symptoms should talk to their doctors about using maca. They may be able to wean off hormone therapy or at least lower the estrogen dosage under a doctor's supervision.

Breast cancer patients taking tamoxifen or other estrogen blockers and women who have had breast cancer must not use maca, because it raises estrogen levels. Women in a family with a strong history of breast cancer should discuss maca use with their doctors first. People who take thyroid medication should be monitored by their doctors because maca may increase thyroid activity. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not take maca, as a general precaution.

Since its long-term effects have not been scientifically studied, I recommend taking a break from maca now and then in order to give the body's cell receptors a break from any hormone stimulation. People who want to try maca to see if it is a "super food" for them should take supplements for three months (six months for women with severe menopausal symptoms), then stop using maca for one or two weeks. They may then continue this regimen as needed for symptom relief.

How much to take

Maca is available in supplement and powder form. The average dose of maca supplements is 1,000 mg to 2,000 mg daily-which you can take with or without food at any time of day.

Or you can get your maca by adding powder to your favorite foods and drinks. It has a slightly nutty flavor, so you may enjoy mixing it with almond milk. Other ways to incorporate maca into your diet...

• Sprinkle on cereal (hot or cold).

• Mix into your favorite smoothie or protein shake.

• Add to yogurt or applesauce, perhaps with a little cinnamon.

• Stir into tea-especially chai blends, as the flavors complement each other .

• Use in baking-substitute maca powder for one-quarter of the flour in any recipe (no more, or it might affect texture or consistency).

Be aware: Maca powder has a high fiber content and may initially cause gassiness. I suggest beginning with one teaspoon a day, then gradually increasing your intake by one teaspoon every five days until you find your comfort zone. The optimum dosage is three to six teaspoons daily.

How to get your Maca

I recommend organically grown maca products from Natural Health International, or NHI (888-668-3661,, available online or through naturopathic doctors). The company sells a blend for women called Femenessence Macapause (the same blend used in the study of Polish women, who experienced significant improvement in their menopausal symptoms) and another for men, Revolution Macalibrium, formulated to enhance energy and vitality in men as they age.

Cost: $35 to $38 for 120 capsules of 500 mg each. The average dosage of maca supplements is 1,000 mg to 2,000 mg daily, which you can take anytime.

You can also sprinkle maca powder into your favorite foods and drinks. The powder costs about $17/pound and is available online from and www.

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