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This is a guest contribution from a former member of my research team named Melissa Mazzo. She is smart and fast and currently pursuing Graduate Training in Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Melissa is a high active who adheres to a healthy diet and lifestyle. To me, that makes her delivery of related scientific information even more credible. - ck
What’s with all the fuss about beetroot juice?
You may have heard about it on the radio, read it in a magazine article, or seen an advertisement for the dark red drink marketed as the next popular “superfood.” But why did a simple root vegetable get so much hype?
With the spreading understanding that cardiovascular disease is the largest single contributor to global mortality, researchers are attempting to learn as much as possible about what factors contribute to heart disease and how cardiovascular health is affected throughout aging. A simple compound called nitric oxide has been found to play a large role in circulatory health, and has been the focus of recent scientific studies in labs around the world. This tiny substance—made up of just one molecule of oxygen and one of nitrogen— is what has the health industry humming about beetroots.
Beets are a plentiful source of nitrate, another small compound that, once ingested, is broken down into nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is then absorbed and circulated in your bloodstream, which is where the potential health benefits of beetroot juice may occur.
Nitric oxide is a substance that is normally produced by healthy, functioning blood vessels. It signals the muscle that surrounds the blood vessels to relax and dilate, which allows for increased blood flow and reduced blood pressure. In populations with hypertension, cardiovascular disease, peripheral arterial disease, and other circulatory health conditions, the blood vessels have become damaged and are unable to produce adequate amounts of nitric oxide.
By consuming foods that are rich in nitrate, the amount of nitric oxide available in the bloodstream can be increased, supplementing the amount of nitric oxide that the blood vessels can produce naturally. Researchers have shown that incorporating high-nitrate foods improves blood vessel dilation (vasodilation) and decreases blood pressure. In these studies, beetroot juice is often the dietary supplement of choice, and does indeed help to increase dilation of the blood vessels. However, beetroot juice is not the only source of nitrate that can help to improve blood vessel health through circulation of nitric oxide.
Beetroot juice is an easily accessible and practical source of nitrate, but many other fruits and vegetables contain substantial amounts of nitrate as well. Dark, leafy greens are excellent sources, and the greens of the beetroot plant even contain a higher concentration of Nitrate than the signature, red bulbous root. Another plant with a red-colored stem, the rhubarb plant, also has high concentrations of nitrate. Arugula, collard greens, spinach, mustard greens, and butter lettuce are all plentiful sources as well.
It’s not a complex diet full of exclusions and banned foods, but instead emphasizes meals rich in fruits and vegetables (especially leafy greens), low-fat or non-fat dairy, lean sources of protein, and a moderate amount of grain products (preferably whole grain). This simple, balanced dietary recommendation has been shown to both increase nitrate consumption and levels of nitric oxide in the blood, showing that you don’t have to supplement with beetroot juice to experience the benefits of nitric oxide.
Even for those without high blood pressure, arterial disease or heart disease, increasing dietary intake of nitrate-rich foods will help to preserve the function of your blood vessels and entire circulatory system. When your circulatory system is healthy and functioning, the rest of the organs, tissues and cells in your body will be healthier as well. Blood vessels are like the lifeline of every cell, providing oxygenated blood and removing metabolic wastes like carbon dioxide from every cell in order to keep them functioning optimally.
Researchers have explored this effect and found that a diet higher in nitrate does indeed have a large impact on improving blood flow in the brain.
Chronic decreased blood flow in the brain tends to occur more naturally as we age, and has been linked to cognitive decline, dementia, and the degradation of brain cells. In contrast, preserving ample blood flow through proper blood vessel dilation helps to ensure the health of brain tissue and to preserve cognitive functioning. Increasing dietary nitrate consumption to increase blood flow allows more oxygen to be transported in the blood and delivered to brain cells to prevent damage that accumulates with age.
This increased availability of oxygen is vitally important in other tissues as well. Increased nitric oxide in the blood has been shown to improve exercise capacity in large part due to the increase in oxygenated blood flow to skeletal muscle. However, increases in exercise capability aren’t quite that simple; nitrate isn’t a “magical” supplement that will cut a minute off your 5k time or allow you to instantly ride for twice as long on your road bicycle. The effect of nitric oxide on exercise performance is seen primarily in populations with sub-optimally functioning blood vessels, like those with heart disease, atherosclerosis, or even anyone leading an exceedingly sedentary life.
In other words, supplementing with nitrate to increase blood-nitric oxide will only improve vasodilation (and therefore blood flow and exercise capacity) in anyone whose blood vessels cannot individually produce enough nitric oxide to suitably vasodilate the blood vessels.
This selective benefit of additional nitric oxide makes sense, as researchers have also studied the correlation between increased fitness and improved ability of blood vessels to produce nitric oxide. Their findings indicate that changes in diet (emphasizing fruits and vegetables high in nitrate; beetroot juice supplementation) are not the only ways to increase blood vessel dilation ability via nitric oxide. As you may now have realized, exercise helps to improve the health and function of blood vessels as well, stimulating the cells in your blood vessels to produce more nitric oxide naturally. Exercise, in addition to improved diet, is another guaranteed way to reduce hypertension and risk of heart disease.
Don’t forget, cardiovascular health is cumulative; the slow-but-steady breakdown of your circulatory system is occurring constantly, so you shouldn’t wait until your arteries are showing signs of damage to start changing your health habits. The earlier a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise become habitual in your life, the more optimally your circulatory system will function throughout aging, keeping the rest of the organs and tissues in your body in good health as well.
Important points to take away:
Beetroot juice contains a high amount of Nitrate, which can also be found in fruits and vegetables, especially dark leafy greens.
Nitrate breaks down into Nitric Oxide in your body, which your blood vessels naturally produce when they’re healthy.
Increasing the amount of Nitric Oxide circulating in your bloodstream (by eating foods high in Nitrate) can help to…
- Improve vasodilation and lower blood pressure
- Improve blood flow to the brain and improve cognitive health
- Increase exercise tolerance
Exercise improves the ability of your blood vessels to secrete Nitric Oxide themselves, relying less on dietary consumption of Nitrate
A healthy, balanced diet and habitual physical activity can help to improve and preserve your cardiovascular health, leading to a healthier you all around!
Share your new knowledge with friends and family!