Maca's Effects on Menstrual Periods
Mary Shomon: One of the symptoms that women with hypothyroidism suffer from is more frequent menstrual periods, and typically, they are heavier, and more painful. Since becoming hypothyroid, I typically get my period anywhere from every 21-25 days, and it's extremely heavy and painful. I've tried maca, and was actually very surprised when after taking maca for a month, my period came after 28 days, and was normal and lighter. Can you explain a bit more about maca's role in menstrual function.
Dr. Viana Muller: These same effects which you describe for the impact of hypothyroidism on the menstrual cycle are also found in women who have fibroid tumors. In both cases, in most women, maca helps to normalize the menstrual cycle, both in terms of number of days in a cycle, the amount of blood flow, and the great reduction of pain and PMS. I do not understand the intricacies of how this happens, nor do I think that researchers fully understand even to this day exactly what all of the very complex hormonal interactions are involving the ovaries, the pancreas, the adrenals, and the thyroid. It appears, however, that each of these glands has a major impact on the functioning of the other. And so any kind of intervention, such as taking hormones, will always leave a lot to be desired because it will not positively impact the functioning of all of the endocrine glands which do a very delicate dance together.
What we have found is that when women start taking maca for their PMS or their hot flashes, vaginal dryness or mood swings, they begin to report very positive collateral effects on their energy levels (adrenal function and thyroid function), a cessation of sugar cravings and reduced fluctuation in blood sugar levels (they don't get light headed or irritable so easily), an improvement in their sleep pattern (perhaps pineal gland function), as well as cessation of heart palpitations (estrogen receptors in heart are filled) and improvement in bladder function (estrogen receptors in bladder are filled). These effects have not been replicated when women were taking 'natural hormone replacement therapy' with 'natural estrogen' and 'natural progesterone.' I spoke with one woman and one man who had been taking DHEA for years because of her very poor adrenal function, yet the effects of their taking maca were far more powerful than taking DHEA. I have spoken with a number of women who have suffered from uterine fibroids for years who have taken progesterone cream or oral micronized progesterone for this condition which they believed had helped some but they still had the fibroids. Once they started on organic maca root powder or capsules the fibroids dissolved in two or three months.
So although we may not understand exactly how all of these effects take place, clearly there is an interaction among the different endocrine glands which produce the positive and in many cases dramatic effects.
Dr. Viana Muller: Well, I was born in Chile and made frequent visits to South America to visit my extended family as a child before the age of jet airplanes. I made my first trip to Peru when I was ten years old and I visited Macchu Picchu when I was 17 before there was a hotel there. We stayed three days there and enjoyed that sacred site virtually by ourselves, staying at the caretaker's house. My mother did extensive research on the Incas and our dining room table in Indiana was filled with books she got by interlibrary loan. Growing up bi-cultural and bi-lingual (my Dad was Chilean) made me interested in cross cultural studies so I guess it was natural that I ended up studying cultural anthropology. Although at one point like many children I wanted to be a doctor, I later realized that I was much more interested in herbs and natural healing than the way medicine is practiced today. Although I'm grateful modern medicine exists when I might need it in an emergency.
My doctoral studies had Meso-America as an area focus but my theoretical focus was gender studies and I wrote my dissertation on the gender and kinship structures of northern European tribal cultures. So my involvement with herbs was not just a natural seguey from my anthropological studies, although I became aware of the different healing traditions of the different peoples I studied.
What drew me really close to herbs was a health crisis I suffered in 1990, from which it took me several years to recover. During that recovery period I began an intense study of alternative medicine and I became passionate about healing herbs. At this point I had already made a couple of trips to study the herbs, had met people who were incredibly helpful to me in learning about South American herbs, and it just felt like the Universe was supporting my becoming professionally involved in this area.
Mary Shomon: How is the use of medicinal plants different from the current vitamin, supplement and herb craze in the United States?
Dr. Viana Muller: Wow, that's a really good question. First of all, I want to say that I am glad that there is a vitamin, supplement and herb craze in the U.S. It shows that the American people are searching for alternatives to antibiotics and powerful prescription drugs with debilitating side effects as a way of dealing with their health issues. It also shows an interest in prevention and optimizing wellness and also the beginning of an attitude of taking responsibility for the state of their own health. But as you imply, in this "craze" there may often exist a somewhat superficial attitude --kind of like--instead of popping an aspirin for whatever ails me, I'll just "pop an echinacea capsule, because since it's good for the immune system its got to be good for me and can't do any harm" type of attitude.
Well, that way of taking herbs is usually ineffective and can even be harmful to the body. Herbs are powerful substances and many at the wrong dose or taken for too long a time without a break can be harmful. The effects of medicinal plants have to be studied, any possible side effects have to be studied, and dosage range and the best way to take the herb (morning or evening, empty stomach or with food, etc.) have to be looked into. Then discipline must be followed in the way the herb is taken in order to get results. For example, if you start taking an herb at a certain dosage level and you have been told not to expect any significant results for a week, then you wouldn't start changing the dosage level after two days because you don't feel a difference. You'd follow through with the same dosage for a week and then evaluate. If you change your dosage, you'd again keep to the same level for a week and then evaluate again.
People often discard an herb because they think it's "not working" when really they are at the wrong dosage level for them. And that's another understanding that needs to change: there is no "standard dose." That is a myth. The right dose differs according to individual sensitivity, gender, age, weight, and individual biochemical differences. Too high a dose may produce side effects that wouldn't exist if you'd drop the dosage down. So rather than abandon the herb if you get a side effect, you could try cutting way back on the dosage.
In other words, since herbs do have great healing properties they must be treated with great respect and caution. But fortunately, they are much safer than most prescription drugs because their effects work in days not in minutes or hours usually and the multitudinous chemical compounds contained in a single herb are all beautifully synergistically balanced, whereas pharmaceutical drugs are made by isolating quite often a single compound and multiplying its effects many times over, in the process often creating toxicity as a side effect.
So far in the vitamin-herbal craze most people only know a couple of herbs--Echinacea, St. John's Wort and Ginko Biloba--the three herbs which have received major attention from the main stream press. The beginning of our recovering of the lost herbal heritage of our paleolithic and neolithic ancestors is just beginning. It will be a marvelous journey.
Mary Shomon: One of the herbs that you have devoted a great deal of study to is maca. Can you tell us more about maca, and what in particular made you so interested in researching maca?
Dr. Viana Muller: Maca is a cruciferous root (same botanical family as the turnip and broccoli) which grows at 12,500 - 14,500 feet above sea level--the highest growing food plant in the world--in the high Andean plateaus of central Peru. It is believed to be one of the earliest domesticated food plants of Peru, right along with the potato. It almost became extinct because first the Incas restricted its use to the royal court, including their warriors. Then the Spanish who conquered Peru eventually forbid anyone to plant it, along with several other Andean food plants such as quinoa, since these plants were used in native religious ceremonies, and the Spanish were trying to stamp out native religion. When I heard about maca on one of my trips to Peru and that it could help the body's hormonal balance, I was determined to get some, because I was having a very difficult time with my menopause.
South American Herbs for Depression
Mary Shomon: Another problem that many people seem to have, despite treatment, is continued depression and mood swings. Some research suggests that the South American herb camu-camu (myrciaria dubia) can have a positive effect on depression. Can you tell us more about camu-camu?
Dr. Viana Muller: (talk about camu and depression, other herbs that can help) Camu-camu (not to be confused with kava-kava which comes from Polynesia and Hawaii) is a rainforest fruit that is quite sour because it is loaded with Vitamin C. But in addition to being a high quality non-corn source of Vitamin C and bioflavanoids, and a strong anti-viral herb against all types of herpes infections as we discussed a few minutes ago, it has phytochemicals which clinically have been shown to change mood within a few hours. It can help lift depression and greatly reduce anxiety even the same day it is started. Only a tiny amount is needed--two capsules taken with water on an empty stomach twice daily or 1/4 tsp. taken in water twice daily.
Of course, since there is no standard dose, sometimes even less will be effective and sometimes a little more is needed. Unlike St. John's Wort, it does not cause photosensitivity of the skin and eyes, presenting a danger of developing cataracts. And it works much much more quickly than St. John's Wort for most people. Also, it is not a MAO inhibitor as is both St. John's Wort and the standard pharmaceutical anti-depressants, such as Prozac, Paxil, etc. So it is safe to take camu-camu while you wean off of the pharmaceutical anti-depressant--but of course, under your psychiatrist's supervision. To the extent that people eat more to relieve anxiety, this herb may also help people lose weight.
Medicinal Herbs for Fatigue
Mary Shomon: The third symptom that most people continue to suffer from is fatigue and exhaustion. Are there any South American herbs that are known to help with fatigue?
Dr. Viana Muller: The more I learn about how people are functioning before they start taking maca and after they take maca, I realize the huge difference there is between taking a particular hormone for a particular condition and taking maca whose alkaloids work at the level of the hypothalamus and the pituitary, causing a profound shift in the entire endocrine system. To give you a fatigue-related example: a woman who started ordering maca for us had had chronic fatigue for about 15 years. It took quite a while to get diagnosed because 15 years ago chronic fatigue was thought to be "all psychological" and they sent you to a psychiatrist. There are still plenty of doctors who think this way today! When this young woman was finally correctly diagnosed, she was given DHEA, which had no effect on how she felt. So her doctor increased the dosage. Then she felt minimally better, so he increased the dosage again. In the end, he gave her huge amounts of DHEA and she began to be able to function, to go to work, etc. but she still didn't feel GOOD. When she read about maca (Dr. Morton Walker's Medical Report in the Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, November, 1998), she decided to try it and within a few weeks she had a tremendous feeling of energy and wellness that she hadn't experienced in about 20 years. She then gradually went off of her DHEA supplement and still felt great. Now obviously maca was increasing her DHEA level--enabling her adrenal glands to make her own DHEA--but why should this make such a difference in how she felt. Perhaps there was more to her fatigue than her DHEA level and maca helped her body manufacture other hormones she needed. Or perhaps taking DHEA by mouth just won;t have all the benefits of having your own glands make your own hormones. It's really a mystery.
Mary Shomon: What will your focus be in the coming months? Are you planning any more trips to South America, or are there new herbs you plan to research further?
Dr. Viana Muller: Well, we go to South America on a regular basis, every few months, both to keep a close eye on the sourcing of our herbs and to investigate new herbs and to build relationships with the people who grow the herbs or collect them directly from the rainforest. With the help of nongovernmental organizations in Peru, for example, we have been able to help the peasant producers of maca working the land owned collectively by their communities to set up local organic maca growers associations. We also provide seed money individual maca cultivators who are just getting started in growing maca commercially and to their organic maca growers organizations--money needed to travel to meet together and to provide food for their two day meetings. It is such a privilege to have this kind of respectful partnership relationship with the growers of this wonderful herb. All of these efforts have also paid off in terms of the quality of the maca we import to the U.S. as we have just received confirmation that out maca has been certified as organic by one of the leading European organic certification agencies and the ECO-CERT logo used all over Europe will be on our future labels! We are the only company to offer certified organic maca products in the U.S.
Developments in the rainforest are very exciting also. We work whenever possible with local collectors of rainforest herbs to bring in the herbs we need directly from the forest. This way we can guarantee the freshness of our herbs and provide employment to local folks knowledgeable about herbs. Our own co-founder of our company, Dr. Sidney McDaniel, a botanist who is considered one of the top three experts in the world on plants from the Upper Amazon, positively identifies for correct species each of lots of herbs collected. We are scrupulous about sowing seeds from the same species we collect in order to replenish the supply. In other words, what we are collecting is sustainable in terms of its effect on the forest.
We are also working with a group of local people in a jungle town to set up a rainforest herb processing center--to clean and dry the herbs. We have loaned them funds to build an herb drying facility. This is part of our philosophy--to decentralize our operations as much as possible and to provide local employment through face to face relationships which we establish and maintain with the people. Of course, this is more costly than the alternatives, but it allows more money to reach the people who need it the most. It helps to empower local people both financially and in terms of building something that didn't exist before right in their own communities. It gives us a very good feeling.
At the same time that we are dedicated to making powerful healing South American herbs available to the folks in this country whose health will be greatly benefited by the use of the herbs, we are also trying to make a difference on the sourcing end in terms of the quality of life of the people growing or collecting the herbs and those who process them.
The maca root is considered so safe that there is no prohibition to using it even during pregnancy. Maca keeps the levels of progesterone high and the hormones balance which is beneficial for a pregnant woman who is in her first trimester. The large amounts of minerals, amino acids and vitamins in the root crop also make it an ideal pre-natal vitamin.
And since the maca root has not toxicity levels, there is no chance of getting an overdose