Balancing Hormones with Maca by Sophie Knapp, MScN, CN
Hormones are hugely important molecules in the body. They regulate numerous processes like hunger levels, urine output, blood pressure, growth and much more.
Many hormones occur at similar levels and have common actions among men and women. Sex hormones, however, diverge in terms of their types and amounts between men and women and are largely responsible for the differing manifestations of male and female physiology.*
Read on to learn the basics of which hormones are sex-specific, what those hormones do, and how the powerful adaptogenic properties of maca root can help to balance them when they’re out of whack. The sections of this article are labeled so you can read through the parts that most interest you!
The main sex hormone contributing to male anatomy and physiology is testosterone. This hormone is the main driver of developing key male characteristics during the fetal and adolescent phases of a guy’s life.1
Beyond those early life stages, throughout a majority of a man’s adulthood, testosterone has abundant functions in the body including causing a deepening of the voice, increasing skin thickness and contributing to acne, increasing protein formation and muscle development, increasing bone stregnth, and it increases metabolism as well as the number of red blood cells in the body.1
Testosterone is heavily involved in hair growth in areas like the face and chest while also being responsible for a lack thereof when it comes to baldness on top of the noggin’.1
We’re all aware that women experience a major hormonal shift midlife called menopause, but did you know that men can experience a similar, less understood, and slower onset decline in sex hormone output called andropause?
Andropause is defined as a syndrome associated with declining testosterone levels where a man may feel decreased sexual satisfaction, decreased libido, decreased fertility, nervousness, irritaiblity, fatigue, depression, memory problems, sleep disturbances, and hot flashes.2
Estrogen is present in male bodies too, just in lesser amounts than in female bodies. Though testosterone dominates, estrogen, in the form of estradiol, plays an important role in libido, erections, and sperm production.3,4
Just as men need some estrogen, ladies have some testosterone in their systems, but the main hormones dictating their feminine-specific physiology are estrogen and progesterone along with follicle stimulating hormone and luetinizing hormone to orchestrate the menstrual cycle.
Estrogen is arguably the most influential female hormone. Like testosterone in males, increases in a gal’s estrogen production during puberty drives the development of secondary sex characteristics like breast tissue and the beginning of their menstrual cycle.1
In addition to piloting puberty, overall, estrogen promotes growth by signaling the body to lay down proteins and fats. It’s also crucial for promoting bone formation in the body and is responsible for making skin appear and feel soft and supple.1 Due to its growth-promoting properties, excess estrogen is widely recognized as increasing the risk of cancer.5
Progesterone is another hormone that plays a bigger role in female physiology than male: it’s most important function is prompting the uterus to prepare for implantation of a fertilized egg by building up the nourishing lining along the uterus’s walls.1 This is the lining that’s shed during menstruation in a cycle when an egg isn’t fertilized.
Men, if at all, as far as researchers currently understand, only experience one hormonal shift later in life, the decline of testosterone as they age. Women, however, typically go through three distinct phases. They experience a phase called premenopause where four key hormones cycle up and down to causes menstruation every 28 days on average. Then, they go through a transition phase, usually lasting about four years and starting around age fifty called perimenopause.1 Following that time, after one year without a period, women spend the remainder of their lives in menopause, also referred to as post-menopause.
What’s happening to female hormones during menstruation years, perimenopause, and menopause?
Hormones of cycling women (premenopausal):
During the fertile years when a menstruating person is cycling and experiencing a period, estrogen, progesterone, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), and luetinizing hormone (LH) change levels in a pattern each month.
During menstruation, levels of all these hormones are low. In the week following bleeding, estrogen begins to rise until the middle of the cycle when ovulation, the release of an egg from the ovaries happens, and estrogen takes a sudden dip. Simultaneously, just before ovulation, FSH and LH briefly surge for a few days only to drop back down to very low levels again. That FSH and LH surge signals to the ovaries to release an egg. During the last week and a half before bleeding begins again, estrogen levels rise again, higher than in the first half of the cycle. In addition, progesterone surges even higher than estrogen. A couple of days before their period arrives, their estrogen and progesterone quickly drop again.
Hormones during perimenopause:
Hormones during the transition phase between cycling and the cessation of a woman’s period can be complicated. During this time of perimenopause that often begins during a gal’s forties, the length of a woman’s cycle loses predictability in length and frequency and eventually becomes absent, with longer durations of amenorrhea (no period).
Symptoms experienced during this phase of life prompts 90% of women to seek healthcare to help manage them.6 Most women experience hot flashes along with PMS-like symptoms such as irritability and fatigue.6,7 Depressed mood and anxiety along with poor sleep and low libido are common for women too.6
Though there can be fluctuations, and further research is warranted to determine more common patterns of estrogen levels during perimenopause, overall, estrogen levels during this time are decreasing.
Hormones during menopause:
One year to the day after a woman’s last period marks the beginning of menopause. During this time, estrogen production by the ovaries drops all the way down to zero.1 Though there are other organs in the body still producing tiny amounts of this hormone, the ovaries were the main makers, so a woman’s estrogen level during this time is dramatically lower than during previous phases of her life.
Estrogen loss like this can lead to a continuation of symptoms similar to those experienced during perimenopasue: hot flashes, difficulty sleeping and sometimes with breathing, irritability, fatigue, anxiety, decreased libido, and vaginal dryness.1,6 Prolonged low estrogen puts women at risk of decreased strength and calcification of bones known as osteoporosis.
The benefits of Maca (Lepidium meyenii) on hormones:
Maca root has been used traditionally as a nutrition and sexuality/fertility-boosting herb with its first written documentation dating way back to 1553.8,9 For centuries, folks of the Andean region of Peru have enjoyed the turnip-like roots aka tubers of this mustard family plant not just as an OG superfood!10
It comes in a few varieties–yellow, red, and black. Though all show similar medicinal effects, red and yellow seem to have more benefits for males, and yellow, red, and black all seem to have positive effects on female physiology.9 For example, according to an animal study, red and black maca seem to be the most protective against osteoporosis, a concern mainly for menopausal or low-estrogen-producing women..11
Maca is frequently categorized as an adaptogen, an herbal preparation that helps us cope with stress.12 Part of overcoming stress is keeping our male and female-specific hormones on track, but in case you choose to look into maca more, know that it does more than just support sex hormones!
Maca for Men:
Prior to andropause, so for most men under the ages of 50-60, maca can improve fertility based on a few factors that a small study found it to affect: sperm count, semen volume, and sperm motility.8 What’s interesting is that maca didn’t boost testosterone levels in this study; instead, it may have increased the bioavailability of testosterone already present and/or it may contain a plant sterol that mimics testosterone and can bind to the same receptors as the hormone.8
For men of older generations, maca has shown positive benefits for improving prostate health and maintaining sexual health.8
Though the study mentioned shows promising results of maca for male health, a systematic review and meta-analysis from August 2022 (a big study that looked at all the research out there), concluded that there hasn’t been enough research performed yet and that too many of the existing results are conflicting, arguing that more investigating is needed to determine if this herb is truly effective at improving the aforementioned health parameters in men.13
Maca’s benefits for cycling women:
Sometimes cycling persons can experience low estrogen, which can manifest as vaginal dryness, increased frequency of urinary tract infections, irregular periods, absent periods, mood swings, hot flashes, breast tenderness, headaches, depression, difficulty focusing, insomnia, and fatigue.14
There are many causes of low estrogen, including but not limited to family history (genetics), pituitary gland issues, disordered eating, excessive exercise, and substance use disorders.14
Maca can be a supportive tool to help tonify estrogen levels and perhaps restore balance by boosting estrogen levels.15,16 Of course, if the cause is something within a woman’s control like her exercise level or eating habits, seeking the help of a compassionate healthcare practitioner to shift those contributing habits will likely enhance the effects of the herb or render its use unneccesary.
Maca’s benefits during perimenopause:
Though a healthful lifestyle, wholesome eating habits, and proactive stress management go a long way to ease the symptoms of perimenopause, the addition of herbs can also make a significant difference with or without the other listed changes.6,17
There has been one notable, double-blinid, randomized, placebo-controlled, multi-center clinical study aka, a trustworthy, well-designed study, with 168 early-perimenopausal women (in the first year or two of the transition) taking 2,000mg maca daily for two months to manage their symptoms. Results showed that even though many women reported missing some doses, a significant increase in their estrogen levels was found.15 Another smaller study with 20 participants taking 1000mg of maca daily for three and some for 9 months was performed a year ealier. They observed increases in estrogen levels in women after taking maca for 2 months and after 9 months even at that lower dose.16
Since declining estrogen levels are usually the culprit for the onset of these symptoms, maca’s estrogen-boosting effects may be a helpful therapy to alleviate them.
Maca’s benefits for menopausal women:
Menopausal women have extremely low estrogen levels, usually putting them at increased risk for developing osteoporosis or a weakening of the bones, making them more likely to fracture. And remember that they can also continue dealing with many of the other symptoms of perimenopause for years following their transition.
Maca can benefit post-menopausal women in the same way it helps those in perimenopause. It’s estrogen-boosting and estorgen-like effects can be a safer way to increase estrgoen levels/perceived estrogen levels in the body without flooding the body with too much via hormone replacement therapy, which has been commonly used for decades.
Described here have been the broad brushstrokes of male and female sex hormones and their effects in their bodies. Hormones are complicated, and it’s always recommended to work with your healthcare practitioner to determine if an herb like maca is something that can benefit you.
If I haven’t met you yet, I’m Sophie Knapp, and I’m a Certified Holistic Nutritionist (MScN, CN, and CNS candidate), and I can connect you with state of the art testing resources that can measure your hormones, including sex hormones, to a much more detailed and precise level than the typical blood tests at your doctor’s office can. I’ll interpret your results and provide you with evidence-based, personalized eating and lifestyle recommendations, which may or may not include maca root, to help resolve your symptoms and optimize your wellbeing.
If you’re struggling with hormone-related issues, are curious if your health issues are hormone related, or are approaching peri-/menopause or andropause, reach out to Knapp Nutrition to schedule a free 20-minute consult today!
*Many people do not identify with either of these gender categories. WILLOWTREE Market and Knapp Nutiriton LLC both strive to promote gender positivity and inclusivity and embrace all humans of all gender identifications without judegment. This article acknowledges that the claims made in it are most relevant to binary, sex identification categories. The nuances of sex hormone levels and impact vary widely and are often specific to the individual, including those who do not strictly identify as either male or female. Though some info in this article may directly apply to you, regardless of your gender identity, it’s always recommended to talk to your healthcare practitioner before beginning any dietary supplements.
- Hall JE, Guyton AC. Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiology. Saunders/Elsevier; 2011.
- Singh P. Andropause: Current concepts. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2013;17(Suppl 3):S621-S629.
- Jewell T. Estrogen in men: How it works and what high or low levels mean. Healthline. Published October 22, 2019. Accessed October 7, 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health/estrogen-in-men
- Schulster M, Bernie AM, Ramasamy R. The role of estradiol in male reproductive function. Asian J Androl. 2016;18(3):435-440.
- Samavat H, Kurzer MS. Estrogen metabolism and breast cancer. Cancer Lett. 2015;356(2 Pt A):231-243.
- Santoro N. Perimenopause: From Research to Practice. J Womens Health . 2016;25(4):332-339.
- Loftus D, Radomski J. The Moon Cycle Cookbook: A Holistic Nutrition Guide for a Well-Balanced Menstrual Cycle. Storey Publishing, LLC; 2021.
- :: Asian Journal of Andrology :: Accessed October 9, 2022. http://www.asiaandro.com/archive/1008-682X/3/301.htm
- Gonzales GF. Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:193496.
- Maca. In: LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; 2019.
- Gonzales C, Cárdenas-Valencia I, Leiva-Revilla J, Anza-Ramirez C, Rubio J, Gonzales GF. Effects of different varieties of Maca (Lepidium meyenii) on bone structure in ovariectomized rats. Forsch Komplementmed. 2010;17(3):137-143.
- Panossian A, Wagner H. Adaptogens: A review of their history, biological activity, and clinical benefits - American botanical council. Accessed October 9, 2022. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/90/table-of-contents/feat_adaptogens/
- Lee HW, Lee MS, Qu F, Lee JW, Kim E. Maca (Lepidium meyenii Walp.) on semen quality parameters: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Front Pharmacol. 2022;13:934740.
- Ginta D. What are the symptoms of low estrogen in women and how are they treated? Healthline. Published June 16, 2021. Accessed October 8, 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health/womens-health/low-estrogen-symptoms
- Meissner HO, Mscisz A, Reich-Bilinska H, et al. Hormone-Balancing Effect of Pre-Gelatinized Organic Maca (Lepidium peruvianum Chacon): (II) Physiological and Symptomatic Responses of Early-Postmenopausal Women to Standardized doses of Maca in Double Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Multi-Centre Clinical Study. Int J Biomed Sci. 2006;2(4):360-374.
- Meissner HO, Kapczynski W, Mscisz A, Lutomski J. Use of gelatinized maca (lepidium peruvianum) in early postmenopausal women. Int J Biomed Sci. 2005;1(1):33-45.