Supercharge your hormones with superfoods
by Rachel Jesson

FUNCTIONAL SPORTS NUTRITION - January/February 2014

Superfoods have formed a comparatively new section of the health shop, but research so far is limited. Rachel Jesson chooses two of her favourite superfoods and justifies their support to our hormones.

One of my favourite topics of discussion and the most enjoyable ingredients to use in my daily dietary regime, are superfoods. Although the energy-enhancing superfoods discussed below are centuries old, they are still relatively new as nutritional supplements. This means that the scientific research to-date is limited and the few studies that do exist, are mostly anecdotal. The superfoods that I've chosen to discuss are Maca, which is a wonderful adaptogen and Moringa, with its highly bio-available nutrients. Both of these superfoods influence the endocrine system and further support and balance the body. In my mind, they are under-rated nutritionally and unfortunately do not get the recognition that they surely deserve.

More and more athletes are making their own smoothies because they recognise the health benefits over commercial recovery drinks and meal replacements. They therefore have a great opportunity to strongly boost the nutrient-density of their diets by including superfoods in post-exercise smoothies and by sprinkling them over food.

What is Maca?
Legend has it that the Incan warriors used to eat Maca before going into battle because they believed it gave them great strength and stamina. And truth be told, it probably did! Traditionally it was used by native Peruvians as both food and medicine.

The root herb Maca (Lepidium Megenii) grows in the high Andean plateaus of Peru, typically at altitudes of 3,600m. It is a tuber, like a potato, which offers enviable energy-boosting benefits in a non-caffeinated way. It is one of the highest altitude growing herbs in the world, which means that the soils on these high plateaus are nutritionally rich in minerals. This accounts for Maca’s incredible array of nutritionally-dense minerals, vitamins, enzymes and amino acids.

Nutritionally, Maca contains the energy B-vitamins, B1, B2, B6 and B12. It is also packed with vitamin C and E. Maca is also rich in minerals, including calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sulphur and iron, and contains trace minerals including zinc, iodine, copper, selenium, bismuth, manganese and silica. Interestingly, many of these nutrients are essential for the energy pathways of our mitochondria. Additionally, Maca contains nearly 20 amino acids, of which seven are essential. Dried Maca’s nutritional composition is 60 per cent carbohydrates, of which 9 per cent is fibre, and slightly more than 10 per cent protein. Additionally, in comparison to other root crops, it has a higher lipid content (2.2 per cent).

According to Evans (1), Maca is increasingly becoming known as an adaptogen. So it ‘adapts’ to your body’s metabolism, working with your body for optimal balance. As an adaptogen, Maca can provide more energy if required, but is not likely to over-stimulate the body. Adaptogens can also boost immunity and increase the body’s overall vitality; they are used to improve the overall adaptability of the whole body in diverse and challenging situations and during stress. Studies indicate that the Maca root doesn’t contain plant oestrogens or any other phyto-hormones (2,3,4,5), but rather plant sterols. Although not well understood, these plant sterols nourish and stimulate the master glands; the hypothalamus and the pituitary, which regulate other endocrine glands, helping to maintain hormone balance (6). Thus, improvements have been found in the functioning of the adrenals, ovaries and testes with Maca supplementation; all incredibly important for stressed individuals and training athletes. Positive results have also been discovered in the functioning of the thyroid, pancreas and pineal glands.

Additionally, Maca has been found to have two unique substances that could impact the sex lives of both males and females taking it. These substances are called ‘macaenes’ and ‘macamides’ (7,8), which are believed to increase sexual libido and fertility. In men, Maca has been found to enhance the androgenic hormone testosterone and improve sperm fertility. In women, Maca has been found to assist in the relief of premenstrual symptoms and menstrual regulation, as well as improve menopausal symptoms; women who take Maca report less fatigue, greater energy and relief from hot flushes and night sweats (1).

With this magazine being released just before New Year and many resolutions focussed around weight, I'll mention one key finding in Meissner’s research (9). They looked at the physiological responses of rats who were administered varied doses of Maca. In male rats given high doses of Maca over a short period of time, they noted a significant reduction in body weight and plasma triglycerides levels. Female rats also experienced weight reduction, but required high doses of Maca over longer periods of usage (90 days). So not only do we get hormone benefits from consuming Maca, we might also get the added benefit of leaning out naturally.

Until recently, Maca has been sold as an over-the-counter supplement for medicinal purposes to enhance physical, physiological and psychological performance. But, due to its tolerable taste, it is now creeping into the dietary-supplement market. Maca has a malted taste and an odour of butterscotch. It can therefore be included in desserts and sweet treats or incorporated into a smoothie. For the satiating of a sweet tooth, mix Maca with honey and eat it like that. Or sprinkle over organic, non-microwaved popcorn. As an example of how to include Maca into a sweet treat and smoothie, see the recipes below:

Energising Maca Smoothie
- 200ml of milk (animal, nut, grain or seed) or water
- 1 heaped tablespoon of Maca powder
- 4-5 brazil nuts
- 1 tablespoon of honey
- 1 heaped tablespoon of goji berries
- ½ cup fresh strawberries
- 1 banana
- 6-8 cubes of ice, depending on how thick you would like the smoothie

Blend it and enjoy!

Maca Power Balls
- ½ cup of mixed nuts
- ½ cup of mixed dried fruit
- 1 tablespoon of Maca

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor until well mixed. Shape into balls. These tasty treats can be coated with cinnamon, coconut, Maca, or simply eaten as they are.

What is Moringa?
Moringa Oleifera is the best know of the thirteen species of the genus Moringacae. In ancient times, the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians used the extracted edible oil for perfumes and skin lotions. The Moringa tree is a fast growing, drought-resistant tree, native to the Southern foothills of the Himalayas in North Western India, but is now widely cultivated in topical and sub-tropical areas. The tree can tolerate poor soil conditions, although this will interfere with the nutritional contents of the vegetable matter and can vary depending on the varieties, seasons, climates and soil conditions. Thus, different analyses will produce different nutritional figures (10).

Moringa leaves have been used in traditional medicine in many cultures for centuries and are now attracting the interest of the modern scientific community. Moringa is a tree often dubbed the ‘miracle tree of hope’ because it contains many medicinal compounds and is nutrient-dense. The whole tree is edible, which means the leaves, bark, flowers, fruits and seeds can be used to make medicine. The leaves can be eaten fresh or cooked and they can be stored as a dried powder for many months without refrigeration, and reportedly with no loss of nutritional value.

The leaf powder is a food-state source of nutrients, meaning that your body recognises the natural nutrients for what they are. Therefore, the Moringa nutrients should have a high bio-availability; that is, the body recognises and uses the nutrients.

The leaves of a Moringa tree are the most nutritious of all its parts and contain a significant source of B vitamins, pro-vitamin A, vitamin C, beta carotene, vitamin K, manganese and protein (11); again, essential nutrients for energetic pathways. Gram-for-gram, the fresh leaves are said to contain the vitamin C of seven oranges and have four times the vitamin A of carrots. When compared to milk, it has four times the calcium content and when compared to yoghurt, it is said to be twice as high in protein. Additionally, Moringa is thought to have three times the potassium content of a banana (12). With this nutritional analysis, it would indicate that the leaves of the Moringa tree contain essential, health- and vitality-promoting nutrition. Since the dried leaves are concentrated, they contain higher comparative amounts of these nutrients, except for vitamin C.

To-date, Moringa is being consumed in poverty-stricken areas of Africa to combat malnutrition. Malnutrition is actually also being diagnosed in affluent areas all over the world because of all the processed and refined foods that have become the staple diet; which would suggest that Moringa has value in all cultures and societies worldwide.

In traditional medicine, the dried Moringa leaves are used to treat a variety of conditions, such as: balancing blood pressure, blood sugars and cholesterol; anaemia; digestive disorders; ulcers; epilepsy; headaches; heart problems; kidney stones; low sex-drive; to increase the quantity of breast milk; fluid retention; thyroid disorders; as well as bacterial, fungal, viral and parasitic infections. The powdered leaves are used as a nutritional supplement or tonic.

Trees for Life revealed a case study performed in 1997 and 1998 by the Alternative Action for African Development and the Church World Service (13) - they tested the ability of Moringa leaf powder to prevent or cure malnutrition in pregnant and nursing women. The results concluded that children maintained or increased their birth weight with Moringa consumption and breastfeeding women had an increase in milk production. For this response to occur, it might suggest that Moringa helped to support the endocrine systems of these women, increasing oxyctocin and prolactin secretions.

I digress slightly from the topic of sports nutrition, but as with any other health-related nutrition advice, if you can improve the health and vitality of under-nourished individuals, you can improve the health and vitality of individuals who put great physiological strain on their bodies; ie. athletes. Sports people may not classically be viewed as under-nourished but when the demands of their training starts to out-strip the nutrient-density and diversity attained from their diet, a moderate state of malnutrition is exactly where they're heading.

For centuries, people in many countries have used Moringa leaves as traditional medicine for common ailments. Clinical studies have begun to suggest that at least some of those claims are valid, meaning that the Moringa leaves could become an invaluable resource for many people; no less, athletes.

Fresh Moringa leaves can be hard to come by. If available, they can be lightly steamed like spinach or mixed into curries, stews and stir-fries (although the nutritional values will decrease once heated over 60 oC). The dried powder is far more accessible from most health stores and can be sprinkled over salads or mixed in with a smoothie. Moringa is also available to sip as a tea or is found in compressed tablet form. For a delicious and nutritious Moringa smoothie recipe, try this:

Magical Moringa Smoothie
- 100ml of a juiced apple or commercial apple juice
- ½ cup pineapple
- 1 banana
- 1 tablespoon of Moringa powder
- 1 cup of ice

Blend until smooth

Conclusions
To conclude, my suggestion would be to experiment with these powerful superfoods and to take note of the differences that you feel, as you adjust the quantities and the duration of usage. To start, begin moderately because too much of anything too quickly can have negative consequences. Moringa introduces elements that make the body an unattractive environment for bacteria and parasites. Additionally, the anti-inflammatory properties of Moringa support the cleaning-out of excess acids, resulting in improved alkalinity and detoxification. This may make you feel uncomfortable at first, so smaller controlled doses initially should prevent an unpleasant detox.

To date, I have not found any life-threatening evidence on over-dosing with Maca powder and only one small issue with Moringa: it has been advised that patients on blood thinning medication should abstain from taking Moringa, so consultation with a health practitioner is advisable.

Due to the sparse research on these superfoods thus far, the only way of enjoying and understanding their benefits is to supplement with them, together with a healthy diet. Because there are no known contraindications, self-experimentation is recommended. Alongside other dietary and lifestyle changes, I believe that these superfoods have the remarkable ability to restore balance and support the body, therefore increasing energy and restoring vitality.

References

  1. Evans K (2009). Benefits of Maca root: find more energy and hormonal balance. http://www.naturalnews.com/027797_maca_root_hormone_balance.html (accessed Dec 2013).
  2. Genyi L, Ammermann U & Quiros C (2001). Glucosinolate contents in Maca (Lepidium Peruvianum Chacon) seeds, sprouts, mature plants and several derived commercial products. Economic Botany. 55(2):255.
  3. Fahey J, Zalcmann A & Talalay P (2001). The chemical diversity and distribution of glucosinolates and isothiocyanates among plants. Phytochemistry. 56:5.
  4. Ganzera M et al (2002). Chemical profiling and standardisation of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) by reverse phase high performance liquid chromatography. Chem Pharm Bull. 50:988.
  5. Sandovala M et al (2002). Antioxidant activity of the cruciferous vegetable Maca (Lepidium Meyenii). Food Chemistry. 79:207.
  6. Brako L & Zarucchi J (1993). St Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden. Catalogue of Flowering Plants and Gymnosperms of Peru. p.229.
  7. Zheng BL et al (2000). Effect of lipid extract from Lepidium meyeniion sexual behaviour in mice and rats. Urology. 55:598.
  8. Chacon RG (1961). Phytochemical study on Lepidium meyenii - PhD Thesis. Peru:Univ Natl Mayo de San Marcos. pp1-46.
  9. Meissner H et al (2006). Short and long term physiological responses of male and female rats to two dietary levels of pre-gelatinized Maca. International Journal of Biomedical Science. 2(1):13-28.
  10. Gopalan C et al (1989). Nutritive value of Indian Foods. Hyderabad, India: National Institute of Nutrition. Revised and updated by Narasinga BS, Deosthale YG et al.
  11. Seshadri S, Nambiar V & Kanjero (2003). and drumstick leaves (Moringa Oleifera): Nutrient profile and potential for human consumption. World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics. 41-59.
  12. Trees for Life. An Introduction to Moringa. St Louis, Wichita. Page 5. http://issuu.com/treesforlifeusa/docs/moringa_book_en/36?e=1275041/2980630 (accessed Dec 2013).
  13. Sambou Diatta B (2001). Supplementation for pregnant and breast-feeding women with Moringa oleifera powder. Cited by Trees for Life. Page 26. http://issuu.com/treesforlifeusa/docs/moringa_book_en/36?e=1275041/2980630 (accessed Dec 2013).