If you are hypothyroid and looking for foods and supplements to help support thyroid function and resolve persistent symptoms, you may be considering maca.
Maca is a cruciferous root vegetable that grows at high altitudes — typically 14,000 feet above sea level — in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Due to a dispute, there are actually two botanical names for traditional Peruvian maca: Lepidium meyenii and Lepidium chacon.
For centuries, maca has served as both a food and medicine for the indigenous people of Peru. Among its many uses, maca was traditionally eaten to improve energy, fertility, sexual drive and function, and thyroid function in both men and women, as well as to resolve menstrual and menopausal symptoms.
In recent years, this traditional food has become a superstar nutritional supplement, and you can find hundreds of different maca powder and capsule supplements on the U.S. market. Maca powder has a nutty, earthy taste, and in powder form, some people add it to smoothies or foods or take it mixed with liquid. Maca is so popular that it's even being added to all kinds of food products, and you'll find it in everything from protein powders to nutritional bars.
The evidence on maca’s effectiveness is not anecdotal; thousands of research studies have provided clear scientific evidence that maca has proven benefits for health, including:
Balance your endocrine glands and function, including the thyroid, pancreas, adrenal glands, testes, and ovaries
Improve libido (sex drive) and sexual function in both men and women
Improve fertility and reproductive function in both men and women
Increase sperm count and sperm motility
Increase the number of receptors for neurotransmitter hormones that regulate mood, sleep, and cognitive function
Support collagen production, used for bone, muscle, hair, skin, and nail health
A key benefit of maca — compared to phytoestrogenic supplements such as soy, or hormonal support with estrogen, progesterone, or testosterone drugs — is that for the most part, maca does not appear to change hormone levels. Instead, it is considered an adaptogen and appears to stimulate the endocrine system to maintain balance in a variety of ways that experts are still studying. A few highlights:
One study of women taking maca for six weeks found that while maca did not change estrogen levels, it significantly reduced anxiety, depression, and sexual dysfunction in the women when compared to a placebo.
Another 12-week study of men age 21 to 56 found that while testosterone levels were not changed, there was a noted increase in sexual desire in the men after eight weeks.
Another study found that maca had an overall balancing effect on sex hormones and was safe for use in women for perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms.
Maca and hypothyroidism
Given the endocrine-balancing effects of maca, and maca’s ability to improve energy, stamina, sex drive, fertility, and brain fog — among other issues — maca is a supplement that is of interest to many people with hypothyroidism who have health challenges even after optimal treatment. While you will find many different products that contain maca on the shelves of your health food store, there are some important things to know before you start taking maca in any form if you are hypothyroid.
To help explore the issue, we had an opportunity to get some advice from Viana Muller, the anthropologist and expert on South American botanicals who is credited with the groundbreaking introduction of maca to the U.S. market. Viana is co-founder and president of Whole World Botanicals, and for almost three decades, she has been a pioneer in all facets of South American medicinal herbs and plants, working with numerous indigenous communities in Peru to help them develop sustainable, socially-responsible businesses growing and harvesting maca and other botanicals.
Here is some advice for people who are hypothyroid and considering maca.
Make sure you are taking maca grown in Peru
Around 80 percent of the maca sold in the United States not authentic Peruvian maca and is grown in China. According to Viana, this poses some concerns:
"Chinese maca is grown at a much lower altitude than it is in Peru, where it is always grown at 14,000 feet above sea level or higher. Experiments with growing maca at lower altitudes have been unsuccessful because that maca does not have the same hormone-balancing properties. Unless it's certified organic, Chinese-grown maca is also exposed to pesticides and fertilizers. Unless a product says ‘grown and processed in Peru,' the buyer should beware!"
How maca is prepared is important
Maca in its raw form is a goitrogen, and like other goitrogenic foods, natural compounds in raw maca can slow down your thyroid gland. Much of the supplements and products available in the United States are made from raw maca, which is not recommended for people with hypothyroidism.
According to Viana:
“In Peru, maca is never eaten raw. Instead, it is heated using traditional methods. With our Whole World Botanicals line of Royal Maca®, we only use maca that is organically grown in Peru on land which has lain fallow for five years and is fertilized by grazing sheep. After that, it is sun-dried for six to eight weeks after harvesting to ensure maximum potency. After the sun-drying, our Royal Maca goes through a flash-cooking process called gelatinization, which destroys toxic and goitrogenic enzymes found in raw maca."
The amount you take matters
When taken properly, maca typically has no negative side effects. But if you are taking too much maca, or have a sensitivity to maca, you may have some minor side effects, including:
- Feeling jittery
- Difficulty sleeping
- Stomach upset, gas, or cramping
When you are starting, Viana has this advice:
“I recommend that people start with a lower dose of Royal Maca, and slowly add more each week. When your symptoms start responding positively, the tendency is to want to add more. But instead, I recommend that you drop back to the previous dose, for maximum effectiveness without side effects. Also, women who are having a regular menstrual period should start while they are still bleeding to see the full benefit during one menstrual cycle.”
Taking too small a dose of maca is also a problem, as Viana explains:
“If you are taking too little maca — which can easily happen when you are using sub-potent maca grown in China — the main side effect is that the maca will not have any beneficial effect. You may then wrongly assume that ‘maca doesn’t work,’ when the right kind of maca, taken at the right dose, could be very effective for you. But, on the other hand, if you have been used to taking raw Chinese maca — anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon — and try to take that much of our Royal Maca, you could end up taking too much and may have some side effects, including increased hot flashes. You could also come to the false conclusion that maca is not for you. I recommend starting with one capsule — or a fifth of a teaspoon — daily, and evaluate how you feel at the end of a week. Increase by the same amount if your symptoms aren’t 80 percent better.”
Get your thyroid levels checked periodically when using maca.
If you are on thyroid hormone replacement medication and are taking maca, you should periodically have your thyroid levels checked. Given maca’s ability to help balance hormones, you may discover that you need less medication to treat your hypothyroidism, as Viana explains:
"I can't even count the number of women with hypothyroidism who have contacted me to say that they have lowered their dose of thyroid medication — or even were able to stop it all together — after taking our Royal Maca. I always counsel our customers to have periodic thyroid tests because they often see a significant change for the better to thyroid function. This benefit of healthier thyroid levels, although frequently evident on the first thyroid test after starting Royal Maca, has often improved further with each thyroid test for as long as nine months after starting."
Iodine and maca
If you search around the web, you will occasionally see a recommendation that thyroid patients should avoid maca, because it is a source of iodine. Unless you have an iodine allergy, the iodine level of maca is not likely to result in excess iodine intake. According to the RainTree tropical plant database, a typical 10 g serving of dried maca contains around 52 mcg of iodine.
It’s estimated that you would need to take 30 grams (15 teaspoons) or more of maca powder daily — a very high dose — to get even 150 mcg — the recommended daily allowance — of iodine.
According to Viana:
“Even when you are taking higher doses of maca, the amount of iodine you are getting from the maca is less than what is typically found in many multivitamins. This is considered safe, and unlikely to have a negative effect on your thyroid.”
My own experience
My mother had taken hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with estrogen before and after her menopause and later developed estrogen-receptive breast cancer. Given this family history, when I was going through my perimenopause and experiencing frequent hot flashes, my physician and I decided against hormone replacement with estrogen. I decided to try maca instead — specifically Whole World Botanicals Royal Maca brand. Within two days my hot flashes disappeared! The next time I had thyroid testing, my doctor noted an improvement in my thyroid function, despite no change in my dosage of thyroid hormone replacement. Since that time, I have frequently recommended the Royal Maca to my friends, family, readers, and thyroid-coaching clients and wrote about it at length in my book Menopause Thyroid Solution.
For more information
Whole World Botanicals has a helpful list of selected published research on maca. You can also find thousands of articles at the National Institute of Health’s PubMed database, searching both “maca” and “Lepidium meyenii.”
There is also a detailed listing of information regarding maca at the RainTree topical plant database.
For more information on Whole World Botanicals and Royal Maca, see their website.