A new study at Wake Forest University is putting beets in the spotlight, connecting the dots between consumption of beetroot juice and brain activity.
The study, published in the Journals of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, was led by a WFU team that included Paul J. Laurienti and Jonathan H. Burdette of the Department of Radiology; Jack Rejeski and Anthony P. Marsh of the Department of Health & Exercise Science; James L. Norris of the Department of Mathematics; and Swati Basu and Daniel B. Kim-Shapiro of the Department of Physics.
The study found that a supplement of beetroot juice combined with exercise produced brain activity in older adults that resembles that of younger adults.
Beets contain a lot of dietary nitrate, which the body converts to nitrite and nitric oxide. The latter is associated with increased blood flow to the brain.
“I think that (the study) shows that dietary nitrates have potential for improving physical and brain health in older adults and other populations,” Kim-Shapiro said.
Kim-Shapiro is also the director of the Wake Forest Translational Science Center, whose mission is to translate health research into practical applications for older adults. He and other WFU researchers have been studying the potential benefits of nitrates, specifically in beets, for several years. “Actually, lots of people throughout the world are studying the benefits of dietary nitrates,” he said.
It turns out that beetroot juice supplement works just like exercise, increasing blood flow to our brains. And increasing blood flow to the brain essentially makes an older brain younger.
The study was small: 26 men and women aged 55 or older who did not exercise and had high blood pressure. Three times a week for six weeks, half of the group got a regimen of a beet-juice supplement — called Beet-It Sport Shot — an hour before they were given a 50-minute moderate walk on a treadmill. The other half did the same exercise but took a placebo.
When the participants’ blood was analyzed, the researchers found that the group that received the supplement had more nitrate and, most important, converted nitrite in their blood after exercise.
This study adds to previous research that associates beets with improved blood flow and better exercise performance for people of all ages.
“It’s a small study — and that always should be taken with some degree of caution and skepticism,” Kim-Shapiro said. “At the same time, statistically there is a significance. If you show significance in a small study, that’s a sign to follow up with a larger study.”
He said that WFU researchers do not currently have a planned follow-up to this latest study, though they are looking at potential benefits of nitrates in general.
“But I think the results warrant follow-up,” he said. “Hopefully, other labs will see it and confirm and extend the results.”
For example, he said, no one has given people 100 milligrams of nitrates a day for a long period, such as a year — a regimen that might mimic a healthy diet high in nutritious vegetables.
Having another lab do a follow-up in this case would be particularly beneficial, in that WFU helped develop a nutritional drink called Unbeetable (now available through Amazon.com).
In other words, Kim-Shapiro and WFU have at least a small conflict of interest in any research involving beets. Kim-Shapiro says such conflicts are always disclosed, and that the studies involve oversight to protect the validity of the data.
Still, he welcomes more research. “That’s why you want to have it confirmed by other laboratories,” he said. “And in general, with these things there’s a lot more work to be done.”
In the meantime, people could just eat more beets. Nutritionists have known for many years that beets are extremely nutritious. The roots are rich in folate and B vitamins. Beet greens are great sources of antioxidants and Vitamins A and C.
Beets also contain good amounts of fiber, copper, magnesium, iron and potassium.
Acknowledged health benefits include lowering blood pressure and risk of heart disease and improving digestion and liver function.
But further research could pinpoint some other specific benefits. “One reason to focus on older adults is there’s a lot of evidence that the availability of nitric oxide decreases with age,” he said.
“Compensating for this loss could be beneficial in certain cardiovascular disorders and diabetes and sickle cell disease. “
Kim-Shapiro said that the 560 mg of beetroot juice supplement that participants received in the study probably would work out to 2 or 3 whole beets, though nitrate levels can vary from beet to beet.
Spinach, kale and some lettuces are also high in nitrates. And the Mediterranean diet is generally considered a good diet for nitrate consumption.
But, Kim-Shapiro said, “We did one study where we looked at a high nitrate diet without beet juice and compared that to drinking beet juice, and beet juice was so much more effective.”