The Beauty of the Beet

A version of this post appears in the Vital Juice blog.

If you enjoy a healthy and active lifestyle like most people who are into nutrition like me, you may have ventured into a nutrition supplement store to pick up some powder or pills that might help your athletic performance or boost your immune system. One particular supplement that is popular among weight lifters and body builders is nitric oxide (NO). The reason it is popular is that nitric oxide is a very cool molecule that helps to dilate blood vessels. For athletes and body builders this can mean increased blood flow (and therefore increased oxygen and nutrients) to tissues. Nitric oxide can also be used by people trying to lower their blood pressure or trying to prevent a myocardial infarction. It is such a cool molecule that it was even named “Molecule of the Year” by the journal Science.1 Drs. Robert F. Furchgott, Louis J. Ignarro, and Ferid Murad even won Nobel Prizes for their research into nitric oxide.2

However, if you venture into a supplement store you will find nitric oxide products for purchase, and they will all be overpriced. Further, dietary supplements are not required to provide proof of safety and effectiveness to the FDA prior to marketing, so there’s really no telling what is in there, how safe it is, and if it even works. Not only that but most of these NO supplements contain caffeine, which is a vasoconstrictor, essentially countering the effects of the nitric oxide. But did you know that there is another source of NO? It’s called beet juice. It’s true. Beet juice contains quite a bit of inorganic nitrate which is then converted to NO in the body.3 So much so that when scientific researchers want to study the effects of NO, instead of buying NO supplements to give their study participants they simply give them beet juice.

supps

Let’s take a look at the research behind beet juice and exercise…

A very recent study by Bond et al. published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism indicates that beet juice does in fact substantially increase the amount of NO in the blood.4 The researchers then studied the effects of drinking beet juice before aerobic exercise and found that those that drank beet juice performed better than those who did not.

beet graph

This is not an unusual result. Other exercise researchers have done similar studies and had similar findings.5–17 This recent study, for example, from the Journal of Applied Physiology indicated that beetroot juice (BR) is better than placebo (PL) at increasing the time to failure and decreasing VO2 max.6 VO2 max is a common measurement used to indicate how hard your lungs are working when you exercise, but the long and the short of it is that a lower VO2 max is better.

beet graph 2

As I mentioned earlier, NO is not just beneficial for athletes. There is quite a bit of evidence that beet juice significantly reduces hypertension (also known as high blood pressure), which is a serious risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.3,17–23

Of course improving risk factors for heart disease and helping gym rats make those gains is not the only thing this magical root can do. In addition to inorganic nitrate, beets contain a number of bioactive compounds called, betaines, betalains, and betanins, the latter of which are what give the beets their distinctive color. So what exactly do these compounds do? Scientists have been looking into them recently and have found some very promising results.

Beet Helps to Protect the Liver

Betaine is a lipotrope, which is something that helps shuttle fat outside the liver and facilitate fat metabolism. This prevents fat from accumulating in the liver and can help prevent non-alcaholic fatty liver disease.24 Betaine also helps to protect the liver when alcohol is involved as well.25 In fact there are many, many animal studies and cell culture studies that suggest that beet compounds like betaine and betanin are very effective at protecting the liver from many types of damage.26–31

How does that happen? It’s a powerful combination of two factors: 1) These compounds are powerful antioxidants that help to prevent oxidative damage to cells, and 2) they help to up-regulate the expression of other enzymes that play a role in removing harmful compounds from the body.32–35

But there are not just results from animal and cell studies, there are results from human studies as well. Promising results that show that beet compounds are associated with a reduced risk of cancer.36–39

Betaine is an Osmolyte

A normal, healthy cell must maintain a very specific osmotic balance between the water in the cell and electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and other minerals. Betaine helps to facilitate this balance by maintaining cellular hydration at an optimal state.24,36 In other words, it helps prevent the cell from becoming dehydrated.

In short, like my father always says, “You can’t beat the beets!”

 

beet juice
photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian
  1. Koshland, D. The molecule of the year. Science (80-. ). 258, 1861–1861 (1992).
  2. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1998. at <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1998/index.html>
  3. Webb, A. J. et al. Acute blood pressure lowering, vasoprotective, and antiplatelet properties of dietary nitrate via bioconversion to nitrite. Hypertension 51, 784–90 (2008).
  4. Bond, V., Curry, B. H., Adams, R. G., Millis, R. M. & Haddad, G. E. Cardiorespiratory function associated with dietary nitrate supplementation. Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. 39, 168–72 (2014).
  5. Pinna, M. et al. Effect of beetroot juice supplementation on aerobic response during swimming. Nutrients 6, 605–15 (2014).
  6. Wylie, L. J. et al. Beetroot juice and exercise: pharmacodynamic and dose-response relationships. J. Appl. Physiol. 115, 325–36 (2013).
  7. Haider, G. & Folland, J. P. Nitrate Supplementation Enhances the Contractile Properties of Human Skeletal Muscle. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. (2014). doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000351
  8. Thompson, K. G. et al. Influence of dietary nitrate supplementation on physiological and cognitive responses to incremental cycle exercise. Respir. Physiol. Neurobiol. 193, 11–20 (2014).
  9. Breese, B. C. et al. Beetroot juice supplementation speeds O2 uptake kinetics and improves exercise tolerance during severe-intensity exercise initiated from an elevated metabolic rate. Am. J. Physiol. 305, R1441–50 (2013).
  10. Hoon, M. W. et al. The Effect of Variable Doses of Inorganic Nitrate-Rich Beetroot Juice on Simulated 2,000 m Rowing Performance in Trained Athletes. Int. J. Sports Physiol. Perform. (2013). at <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24085341>
  11. Muggeridge, D. J. et al. The effects of a single dose of concentrated beetroot juice on performance in trained flatwater kayakers. Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 23, 498–506 (2013).
  12. Muggeridge, D. J. et al. A single dose of beetroot juice enhances cycling performance in simulated altitude. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 46, 143–50 (2014).
  13. Kelly, J., Vanhatalo, A., Wilkerson, D. P., Wylie, L. J. & Jones, A. M. Effects of nitrate on the power-duration relationship for severe-intensity exercise. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 45, 1798–806 (2013).
  14. Jones, A. M., Bailey, S. J. & Vanhatalo, A. Dietary nitrate and O₂ consumption during exercise. Med. Sport Sci. 59, 29–35 (2012).
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  19. Coles, L. T. & Clifton, P. M. Effect of beetroot juice on lowering blood pressure in free-living, disease-free adults: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Nutr. J. 11, 106 (2012).
  20. Hobbs, D. A., Kaffa, N., George, T. W., Methven, L. & Lovegrove, J. A. Blood pressure-lowering effects of beetroot juice and novel beetroot-enriched bread products in normotensive male subjects. Br. J. Nutr. 108, 2066–74 (2012).
  21. Ferreira, L. F. & Behnke, B. J. A toast to health and performance! Beetroot juice lowers blood pressure and the O2 cost of exercise. J. Appl. Physiol. 110, 585–6 (2011).
  22. Kenjale, A. A. et al. Dietary nitrate supplementation enhances exercise performance in peripheral arterial disease. J. Appl. Physiol. 110, 1582–91 (2011).
  23. Kapil, V. et al. Inorganic nitrate supplementation lowers blood pressure in humans: role for nitrite-derived NO. Hypertension 56, 274–81 (2010).
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  26. Jung, G.-Y. et al. Betaine Alleviates Hypertriglycemia and Tau Hyperphosphorylation in db/db Mice. Toxicol. Res. 29, 7–14 (2013).
  27. Krajka-Kuźniak, V., Paluszczak, J., Szaefer, H. & Baer-Dubowska, W. Betanin, a beetroot component, induces nuclear factor erythroid-2-related factor 2-mediated expression of detoxifying/antioxidant enzymes in human liver cell lines. Br. J. Nutr. 110, 2138–49 (2013).
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  29. Szaefer, H., Krajka-Kuźniak, V., Ignatowicz, E., Adamska, T. & Baer-Dubowska, W. Evaluation of the effect of beetroot juice on DMBA-induced damage in liver and mammary gland of female Sprague-Dawley rats. Phyther. Res. 28, 55–61 (2014).
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  34. Gandía-Herrero, F., Escribano, J. & García-Carmona, F. Purification and antiradical properties of the structural unit of betalains. J. Nat. Prod. 75, 1030–6 (2012).
  35. Georgiev, V. G. et al. Antioxidant activity and phenolic content of betalain extracts from intact plants and hairy root cultures of the red beetroot Beta vulgaris cv. Detroit dark red. Plant Foods Hum. Nutr. 65, 105–11 (2010).
  36. Ueland, P. M. Choline and betaine in health and disease. J. Inherit. Metab. Dis. 34, 3–15 (2011).
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  38. Xu, X. et al. High intakes of choline and betaine reduce breast cancer mortality in a population-based study. FASEB J. 23, 4022–8 (2009).
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