The Health Benefits of Maral Root

This adaptogenic herb may help treat diabetes and obesity

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Maral root (Rhaponticum carthamoides) is a herbal remedy long used in alternative and folk medicine. Available as a dietary supplement, its compounds—including antioxidants and plant-based steroids—are said to enhance athletic performance, build muscle mass, and help treat a variety of health conditions.

Maral root is widely cultivated in Eastern Europe and Russia and is named after the maral deer that feed on it. The plant is recognized by its thistle-like magenta blossom and deeply incised pointed leaves.

Maral root in a bowl

Nikolay_Donetsk / Getty Images

Also Known As

  • Leuzea root
  • Maralu
  • Rhaponticum
  • Russian leuzea
  • Siberian leuzea

Health Benefits

Maral root is considered an adaptogen. Adaptogens are non-toxic plants marketed for their ability to fight the harmful effects of stress, whether chemical, biological, or physiological. The concept was first introduced in 1947 and is generally regarded as pseudoscience.

With that said, the practice of using adaptogens for health purposes embraces many of the tenets of traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic healing, both of which contend that stress has a direct effect on health.

Maral root is thought to possess adaptogenic properties similar to ginseng root (Panax ginseng), replenishing energy reserves, increasing libido, sharpening concentration, promoting lean muscle growth, reducing body fat, improving mood, and stimulating the immune system.

Among some of the conditions maral root is believed to treat are:

  • Colds and flu
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fatigue
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Cancer

To date, there is little evidence to support any of these health claims. While some research is promising, it is generally limited by either by the small study size, the poor quality of the study, or both.

Athletic Performance

Maral root is rich in ecdysteroids, a type of plant-based steroid that helps regulate protein synthesis. Proponents believe that maral root has anabolic properties but without the adverse effects of anabolic steroids. But evidence of this is lacking.

In fact, a 2012 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition reported that the long-term use of ecdysteroid-containing supplements—including those derived from maral root—triggers hormonal imbalances inconsistent with muscle growth and increased athletic performance.

Of the 23 male athletes involved in the study, 10 had abnormally high levels of progesterone while 15 had abnormally high levels of estrogen. (Both are considered female hormones.) Only two experienced an increase in testosterone levels, albeit in tandem with steep rises in estrogen.

According to the research, these abnormalities in men would more likely cause long-term harm than good, including reduced testosterone production (hypogonadism), increased breast size (gynecomastia), and a reduction in fertility. Among women, an enlarged uterus and menstrual irregularities are major concerns.

Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome

A 2012 study in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine reported that rats fed a high-fat diet containing malar root experience improved glucose tolerance, meaning that they had less fluctuation in blood sugar levels. In addition, the lab rats had reduced triacylglycerol rates, increases of which—like blood sugar—are also linked to metabolic syndrome.

According to the research, by improving glucose tolerance and reducing triacylglycerols, maral root can help those with diabetes achieve better glucose control and enhance weight loss in those with metabolic syndrome.

On the flip side, the consumption of maral root had little if any effect on high blood pressure, another element of metabolic syndrome.

Further research is needed to establish whether the effects seen in rats can be replicated safely in humans.

Cancer

A 2018 study from the University of Lodz in Poland suggests that R. carthamoides may help fight certain types of cancers, including leukemia and lung adenocarcinoma.

According to the scientists, maral root contains compounds called caffeoylquinic acid derivatives that act as powerful antioxidants, neutralizing the free radicals that cause molecular damage to cells.

When a maral root extract was inoculated in a series of test tubes containing leukemia and lung cancer cells, it consistently killed all tested cell lines. At the same time, it appeared to enhance the effect of the TP53 gene which regulates a cell's lifecycle and suppresses tumor formation.

Whether the same can be achieved in humans is doubtful given that the oral administration of maral root does not target cancer cells in the same way. Even so, the mechanism of action may one day pave the way for the development of new chemotherapy drugs.

Possible Side Effects

Maral root is generally considered safe for short-term use. It is not intended for long-term use given its potential influence on hormones. It is unknown whether maral root can adversely affect hormonal contraceptives or hormone replacement therapies.

While maral root causes few overt side effects, it can affect blood clotting in some. Because of this, maral root should be avoided in people with bleeding disorders. Moreover, maral root in any form should be discontinued at least two weeks prior to a scheduled surgery to avoid excessive bleeding.

Maral root may also potentially interact with blood thinners such as Coumadin (warfarin) and Plavix (clopidogrel). To avoid these or any other interactions, advise your doctor about any and all drugs you are taking, including prescription, over-the-counter, and herbal medications.

Due to the lack of research, it is best to avoid maral root during pregnancy and breastfeeding as well as in children.

Dosage and Preparation

Maral root is available in capsule form as well as in tincture, powder, and dried whole root forms. The products can be sourced online as well as in nutritional supplements stores and certain health food shops.

There are no guidelines as to the appropriate use of malar root. As a general rule, follow the dosing instructions on the product label and never exceed the recommended dose.

Maral root tincture can be taken by mouth or added by the dropperful to a glass of water. Maral root powder is often added to juice or a protein drink.

The whole dried root is typically steeped in hot water to make a decoction; the flavor is generally described as bland with slightly sweet and bitter notes.

Maral root is rarely found fresh in the United States and is not easily grown outside of sub-alpine regions (4,500 to 6,000 feet above sea level).

What to Look For

Maral root is a particularly tricky herb to use because it is sold in so many wild-crafted (naturally harvested) forms. Some are packaged in zipper bags or sold as tinctures that vary both in the distillation processes used to make them as well as their concentrations.

Maral root capsules are generally the easiest to dose, although it can be hard to ascertain the quality and safety of a product. To ensure quality ingredients in the advertised amounts, opt for brands that have been voluntarily tested by an independent certifying body like the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), NSF International, or ConsumerLab. Although independent certification is less common in the herbal supplements industry, larger manufacturers have started to embrace the practice.

You should also check that "Rhaponticum carthamoides" is printed on the product label. Products marked as maral root may contain any one of the dozens of different Rhaponticum species grown around the world. While these alternate species could very well offer health benefits, there is even less clinical research to support their use.

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  1. European Medicines Agency. Reflection Paper on the Adaptogenic Concept. London, England; May 8, 2008.

  2. Skala E, Rijo P, Garcia C, et al. The Essential Oils of Rhaponticum carthamoides Hairy Roots and Roots of Soil-Grown Plants: Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial, Anti-Inflammatory, and Antioxidant Activities. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2016:2016:8505384. doi:10.1155/2016/8505384

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