Beet Juice for Health

April 6, 2012

Jacob Schor, ND

www.DenverNaturopathic.com

 

 

At our clinic, we’ve recently added beet juice to our list of potential therapies to try more often.  In particular, drinking a daily cocktail of beet juice may be helpful in senile dementia.

 

I have to confess that I discovered this, not from keeping up with the scientific literature, something that I consider to be part of my job, but through word of mouth from a colleague who heard about it from a patient.

 

My friend Dr Shiva Barton, a naturopathic physician who practices in Massachusetts, forwarded me an email from Sue Higgins, a patient of his, who described an amazing improvement in her mother’s mental function after she, (her mother) started drinking a daily glass of vegetable juice that contained beets.  Sues’ mom suffers from senile dementia.  Sue described her mother after a few days of drinking beet and vegetable juice as,  “ … doing unbelievably well.  She was able to walk the long distance downstairs …. and to the outside garden area.  …. My mom enjoyed being outside and in the sun. [while listening to a singer] … She sang along, tapped her feet and even jumped up to dance 3 times….  It seems miraculous.  Her cognition is much better than it has been.  She actually remembers me when I go see her!  She seems to have more energy and is extremely funny to talk to; she makes the staff laugh frequently.”

 

 Pessimist that I am, my first response was to go to Snopes.com in order to check if the email Dr. Barton had forwarded to me was some new urban legend making the rounds online.  Not finding any evidence to support my skepticism, I turned to PubMed.org and searched through the medical literature for information on beet juice.  Much to my surprise, there have been numerous studies published on the effect of drinking beet juice. This ‘scientific’ evidence make Sue’s claim of near miraculous benefit seem plausible.

 

Starting in 2008 a series of studies have measured statistically significant health changes in participants who began drinking beet juice.  AJ Webb and colleagues in London showed that drinking two cups of beet juice lowered blood pressure almost 10 points in healthy volunteers. Drinking beet juice also protected blood vessels from injury and lowered the risk of blood clot formation.[1]   Beet juice improves the way muscles work, increasing their efficiency and allows them to do the same work with less oxygen.[2]   This increased efficiency allows those who drink beet juice to tolerate much higher intensity exercise.[3]   Blood pressures stay lower during intense exercise, putting less strain on the heart.[4]   Drinking beet juice allows people to walk, run or perform other exercises with a lower ‘cost’ in oxygen. [5]

 

While it is people with high blood pressure in particular who should be drinking beet juice, I won’t be surprised when I hear that my neighbor Dan has started to drink it.  Dan is a not so young bicycle racer who at his age sometimes strains to keep up with the younger men he trains with, men who are close to half his age.  Well it seems trained cyclists that drink beet juice improve their performance in time trials, shaving over ten seconds off a ten-kilometer race.[6]

 

 

Thus it’s not hard to see how beet juice might help a patient with either a heart condition, where they have trouble pumping oxygen to the muscles or in a lung condition such as COPD or emphysema where it’s difficult to get adequate oxygen into the blood.

 

A study published in January 2011, may explain the benefits Sue reports in her mother.  Scientists from Wake Forest University in North Carolina reported how they had given volunteers beet juice and watched the effect on their brains. The people in this study were older, an average of 75 years old.  Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers measured how much blood flowed to the varying parts of the brain.  They found that although the total amount of blood that reached the brains stayed the same, more blood flowed to the frontal lobe white matter, especially between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex.  These areas of the brain are involved in executive functioning.  Thus beet juice may increase blood flow to the areas of the brain essential for interpreting information and making intelligent decisions. [7]  

 

An easy rule of thumb when it comes to brains is that the more blood that reaches the brain, the better and clearer a person acts.  Cut off blood flow to the brain and the tissue can’t do its job well.

 

Scientists have an interesting explanation for why beet juice does all these things.  The best accepted theory is that beet juice contains large quantities of nitrates. 

 

Beetroot doesn’t just contain nitrates, it is loaded with nitrates.  These nitrates are absorbed into the blood and converted to nitrites that in turn are used to make a chemical called nitric oxide.  Nitric oxide is a potent ‘vasodilator, that is it opens up blood vessels allowing more blood and oxygen to reach its destination in tissues while at the same time lowering blood pressure. Jon Lundberg and colleagues at the Karolinski Institute in Stockholm may have been the first one to think of this when they proposed the idea in 2006  that green leafy vegetables protect against cardiovascular disease because they contained nitrates. [8] British researchers proved that the nitrates in beets are responsible for their cardiovascular benefit in 2010 by comparing the effect of drinking beet juice with swallowing nitrate capsules.[9]

 

 

Many of our readers should be raising their hands right now, wanting to ask an urgent question.  Many of them recall that in years past, both nitrate and nitrite were thought to be unsafe and we doctors were telling them to avoid eating excess amounts.  These were the chemicals that we worried about in smoked meats and bacon.  Scientists have reversed their stance and are no longer as concerned about the dangers posed by eating too many nitrates; they now seem more concerned about the danger of not eating enough nitrates. [10,11]

 

Another question that our readers should be wondering is whether or not some other chemical in the beet juice beside nitrate could explain the benefits.  This is a reasonable question as beets contain a numerous health stimulating phytochemicals including quercetin and resveratrol.  In an elegant experiment Japanese researchers compared the effects of two beet juices, one of which was processed to remove the nitrates.  Only the nitrate containing beet juice had the expected blood pressure lowering effects.  Removing the nitrates stopped the action. [I just read this study a few days ago but can’t find the reference at the moment. It’s on the desk at work.]

 

How much is enough?  Beet juice is not the most appealing of drinks.  Most people prefer to ‘water it down’ with other vegetable juices such as cucumber or celery or with a fruit juice such as apple.  In every study published on beet juice, participants were asked to drink fairly large quantities, a half-liter or about two cups per day is the standard experimental dose.  Less will no doubt still be beneficial as part of a general health promotion program.

 

While we know that green leafy vegetables and in particular beets are good for you, the most potent effect reported so far comes from beet juice.  I’ve just made a note to myself to go out tomorrow and purchase a new vegetable juicer.  Perhaps you should add one to your shopping list as well.

 

 

References:

 

1. Webb AJ, Patel N, Loukogeorgakis S, Okorie M, Aboud Z, Misra S, et al. Acute blood pressure lowering, vasoprotective, and antiplatelet properties of dietary nitrate via bioconversion to nitrite. Hypertension. 2008 Mar;51(3):784-90. Epub 2008 Feb 4.

 

2. Bailey SJ, Fulford J, Vanhatalo A, Winyard PG, Blackwell JR, DiMenna FJ, et al. Dietary nitrate supplementation enhances muscle contractile efficiency during knee-extensor exercise in humans. J Appl Physiol. 2010 Jul;109(1):135-48. Epub 2010 May 13.

 

3. Bailey SJ, Winyard P, Vanhatalo A, Blackwell JR, Dimenna FJ, Wilkerson DP, et al.

Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of low-intensity exercise and enhances tolerance to high-intensity exercise in humans. J Appl Physiol. 2009 Oct;107(4):1144-55. Epub 2009 Aug 6.

 

4. Vanhatalo A, Bailey SJ, Blackwell JR, DiMenna FJ, Pavey TG, Wilkerson DP, et al. Acute and chronic effects of dietary nitrate supplementation on blood pressure and the physiological responses to moderate-intensity and incremental exercise. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2010 Oct;299(4):R1121-31.

 

5. Lansley KE, Winyard PG, Fulford J, Vanhatalo A, Bailey SJ, Blackwell JR, et al. Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of walking and running: a placebo-controlled study. J Appl Physiol. 2011 Mar;110(3):591-600. Epub 2010 Nov 11.

 

 

6. Cermak NM, Gibala MJ, van Loon LJ. Nitrate supplementation's improvement of 10-km time-trial performance in trained cyclists. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2012 Feb;22(1):64-71.

 

7. Presley TD, Morgan AR, Bechtold E, Clodfelter W, Dove RW, Jennings JM, et al.

Acute effect of a high nitrate diet on brain perfusion in older adults. Nitric Oxide. 2011 Jan 1;24(1):34-42.

 

8. Lundberg JO, Feelisch M, Björne H, Jansson EA, Weitzberg E. Cardioprotective effects of vegetables: is nitrate the answer? Nitric Oxide. 2006 Dec;15(4):359-62.

 

9. Kapil V, Milsom AB, Okorie M, Maleki-Toyserkani S, Akram F, Rehman F, et al. Inorganic Nitrate Supplementation Lowers Blood Pressure in Humans

Role for Nitrite-Derived NO. Hypertension. 2010 Aug;56(2):274-81.

 

10. Hord NG, Tang Y, Bryan NS. Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jul;90(1):1-10.

 

11. Katan MB. Nitrate in foods: harmful or healthy? Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jul;90(1):11-2.

 

 

 

Webb AJ, Patel N, Loukogeorgakis S, Okorie M, Aboud Z, Misra S, et al. Acute blood pressure lowering, vasoprotective, and antiplatelet properties of dietary nitrate via bioconversion to nitrite. Hypertension. 2008 Mar;51(3):784-90. Epub 2008 Feb 4.

 

Bailey SJ, Fulford J, Vanhatalo A, Winyard PG, Blackwell JR, DiMenna FJ, et al. Dietary nitrate supplementation enhances muscle contractile efficiency during knee-extensor exercise in humans. J Appl Physiol. 2010 Jul;109(1):135-48. Epub 2010 May 13.

 

Bailey SJ, Winyard P, Vanhatalo A, Blackwell JR, Dimenna FJ, Wilkerson DP, et al.

Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of low-intensity exercise and enhances tolerance to high-intensity exercise in humans. J Appl Physiol. 2009 Oct;107(4):1144-55. Epub 2009 Aug 6.

 

Vanhatalo A, Bailey SJ, Blackwell JR, DiMenna FJ, Pavey TG, Wilkerson DP, et al. Acute and chronic effects of dietary nitrate supplementation on blood pressure and the physiological responses to moderate-intensity and incremental exercise. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2010 Oct;299(4):R1121-31.

 

Lansley KE, Winyard PG, Fulford J, Vanhatalo A, Bailey SJ, Blackwell JR, et al. Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of walking and running: a placebo-controlled study. J Appl Physiol. 2011 Mar;110(3):591-600. Epub 2010 Nov 11.

 

 

Cermak NM, Gibala MJ, van Loon LJ. Nitrate supplementation's improvement of 10-km time-trial performance in trained cyclists. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2012 Feb;22(1):64-71.

 

Presley TD, Morgan AR, Bechtold E, Clodfelter W, Dove RW, Jennings JM, et al.

Acute effect of a high nitrate diet on brain perfusion in older adults. Nitric Oxide. 2011 Jan 1;24(1):34-42.

 

Lundberg JO, Feelisch M, Björne H, Jansson EA, Weitzberg E. Cardioprotective effects of vegetables: is nitrate the answer? Nitric Oxide. 2006 Dec;15(4):359-62.

 

Kapil V, Milsom AB, Okorie M, Maleki-Toyserkani S, Akram F, Rehman F, et al. Inorganic Nitrate Supplementation Lowers Blood Pressure in Humans

Role for Nitrite-Derived NO. Hypertension. 2010 Aug;56(2):274-81.

 

Hord NG, Tang Y, Bryan NS. Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jul;90(1):1-10.

 

Katan MB. Nitrate in foods: harmful or healthy? Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jul;90(1):11-2.