By Dr. Mercola
A new study has emerged that may give hope to those who may see themselves as the proverbial "90-pound weakling." Surprisingly, the remedy can be found in the garden.
The study, recently conducted at the Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis, is one of several university trials revealing that a small amount of beet juice is all it takes to beef up your exercise performance and endurance.
The researchers found nine heart failure subjects who experienced the typical symptoms — loss of skeletal muscle strength, reduced ability to exercise and even evidence that quality of life was suffering. Each individual exhibited measurable improvement.
The patients were given 140 milliliters — about two-thirds of a cup — of concentrated beet juice, followed by testing, which found an almost instantaneous increase in their muscle capacity by an average of 13 percent. The study was published in the journal Circulation: Heart Failure in September 2015.1
One of the study's coauthors, Andrew Coggan, assistant professor of radiology, asserted that's the type of boost one might get after a few hard months of resistance training. The source of this impressive difference, studies revealed, came from nitric oxide.
Was It Spinach That Popeye Reached for, or Beet Juice?
One of the most important benefits beet juice offers the heart is that its compounds "de-stiffen" patients' blood vessels when the individual is at rest. This prevents the heart from having to work so hard and also demonstrates potential value to diabetics.
Interestingly, it's occurred to more than a few scientists that a similar therapy might be useful for lowering blood pressure.
When testing was being done on individuals with heart failure, scientists concentrated specifically on the muscles used to extend the knee, looking for improvement in power, which they specified as a combination of force and velocity. This is crucial for athletes in training, such as sprinting or gymnastics.
That easy-to-take-for-granted strength is also required by people who want to climb stairs, move furniture around, or simply get up from the toilet, an action that — if they're unable to accomplish — is what most often puts people in a nursing home.
Further studies targeted 12 healthy people in one review; another focused on 13 highly fit college athletes. Individuals in both test groups demonstrated noticeable improvement in their endurance and stamina an hour or two after drinking the beet juice cocktail.
Naturally, scientists who've been tracking the literal power of beets have also considered other areas and individuals for whom beet juice could be particularly useful.
Still another study suggested that beet juice or other foods with high concentrations of nitric oxide might help develop and enhance circulation in young adults, because it "reduces blood pressure, and may positively influence the physiological responses to exercise."2
Turn the Beet Around — It's Good for You!
There's a lot to be said for the humble beet, an easy-to-grow garden vegetable that's purple-red, inside and out. Cooked and peeled with butter and a little salt, they're delectable. Pickled with cinnamon and cloves is another favorite preparation.
Beets can also be grated and added to salads or cubed to enhance vegetable soups (although the result may have a red tinge).
Beets contain an impressive number of advantages, health-wise. The nutrients they contain fight inflammation, lower your blood pressure and detoxify, plus they come with high amounts of infection-fighting vitamin C. Beets may combat cancer, particularly pancreatic, breast, and prostate cancers.
The folate in beets, also found in asparagus, spinach, okra, beans and other vegetables, may lower stroke risk — and that's just the beginning of the many benefits of beets! Nutritionfacts.org reported:
"Green leafy vegetables are the best source of plant-based nitrates. Nitrates from a plant-based diet are not considered harmful.
In fact, nitric oxide formed from plant-based nitrate may play a role in the prevention of heart disease and high blood pressure. Eating whole plant foods is likely better for your health than taking supplements."3
Beet Greens Are Good for You Too
Beyond just the beetroots, beet greens offer a plethora of vitamins and minerals, too. They're a great source of fiber — 17 percent of your daily requirements in just one cup — and also vitamin B6, magnesium, potassium, copper, manganese and antioxidants.
The incredible amount of vitamin K in beet greens contains blood-clotting properties, fights aging, supports your DNA, helps ward off osteoporosis, works with calcium to boost bone strength, and may also play a role in fighting Alzheimer's disease.
Beet greens contain more iron than spinach and a higher nutritional value than the vegetable itself. Besides using young beet greens in salads or sautéing with olive oil, juicing beet greens is another excellent way to obtain all these nutrients.
Organic or Heirloom Beets Are Best
Please note that if you're interested in buying beets to make your own juice, the industry has gone the way of so many crops in the U.S. — toward genetic engineering, according to the Organic and Non-GMO Report.4 This is particularly true with sugar beets.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous for humans on a number of levels. GMOs may alter DNA, potentially cause cancer, and may trigger other "less severe" problems like organ failure, liver and kidney damage, and the list goes on.
While the table beets most people eat are not currently genetically engineered, they're often grown in close proximity to sugar beets, which are often GE, and cross-pollination is known to occur. So when choosing beets to eat, opt for organic varieties whenever possible.
Your can also buy your own heirloom beet seeds, because beets are easy to grow. The many nutrients and real health advantages they offer are worth it.
Although beets have the highest sugar content of all vegetables, most people can safely eat beet roots a few times a week (and their greens in unlimited quantities). Beet-root juice should be consumed only in moderation.
It's All in the Molecules
Scientists have been poring over the response beet juice has on muscles since the 1990s. In fact, athletes have been sucking up beet juice before exercising for at least several years, and probably far longer, to increase blood flow and power up performance.
Beets were already on the map for having impressive concentrations of beta carotene. What gives them this kind of power, though — no pun intended — stems from nitrates also found in dark, leafy greens, such as spinach. Once eaten, bacteria on your tongue turns first into nitrite, but then converts to nitric oxide.
It's this molecule that effectively gives weak muscles strength, explains another study coauthor, Linda Peterson. Regarding similar clinical tests on the power of beets conducted at Exeter University in the U.K., Runner's World explained how this works:
"Beets are a great source of inorganic nitrate. Some of the nitrate ends up in your saliva, when friendly bacteria convert it to nitrite. Elsewhere in the body, the nitrite is converted to nitric oxide, which does ... well ... a whole bunch of things related to blood flow, muscle contraction, neurotransmission, and so on.
Exactly which mechanisms contribute to the performance boost they see in studies remains unclear (and in fact, there are likely multiple mechanisms). One caveat: mess with the friendly bacteria in your mouth by swishing mouthwash or chewing gum, and the nitrate never gets converted to nitrite."5
Two important takeaways from the Exeter study,6 the Runner's World article reported, was that more beet juice is better, and the endurance peak for athletes (or anyone) occurs two to three hours after it's ingested. Baseline or normal energy levels recur after about 12 hours.
Systolic blood pressure drops exponentially the more the study subjects ingested; three amounts were given for subsequent testing: 70 ml, 140 ml and 280 ml (a little over 1 cup). Also:
"The amount of oxygen required to maintain a given level of moderate exercise decreased after taking beet juice; in other words, it took less energy to cycle at the same pace. The best results came from the highest dose, which decreased oxygen consumption by about 3%. They did the tests 2.5 hours after ingesting the beet juice, since that seems to be the peak nitrite level."
No One Wants to Be Defeated — Just Beet It
Not every study had positive results, however. After observing the improvements knee joints exhibited after test subjects ingested beet juice, a third coauthor of the initial WU analysis, David Proctor, professor of kinesiology and physiology at Noll Laboratory, Penn State, began looking at its effects on subjects' forearm muscles under beet juice supplementation.
Despite the effectiveness already measured in other studies, 12 healthy young men undergoing a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study did not experience improved blood flow when exercising their forearm muscles.7 The journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism reported:
"Proctor and his colleagues gave subjects either a placebo drink containing beetroot juice minus the nitrate or a relatively high dose of nitrate-rich beetroot juice. They found that the latter did not enhance the natural rise in blood flow to the forearm muscles during graded handgrip exercise."8
While this wasn't the outcome researchers expected, Proctor maintains that the jury's still out on blood flow and increased strength in forearm muscles after drinking beet juice. One reason is because the tests were conducted under a narrow range of criteria, and also, he explained, because too many questions still needed answers.
According to an NPR article, Proctor believes pushing subjects to higher workloads, lower body exercises or increased intensities may have brought about enhanced blood flow to the muscles. The NPR piece added:
"When it comes to sports, one thing that did happen in Proctor's study is the beet juice seemed to cause the smooth muscle walls of arteries in participants to relax. This is an effect, he says, that could make it easier for a person's heart to pump blood — though not necessarily allow the heart to pump more blood. Still, this could be a potential gain for athletes, though they may not benefit as much as people with PAD (peripheral artery disease) who have trouble walking."9
Proctor's investigations are currently involved in examining the effects of beet juice and nitrate supplementation on individuals with peripheral artery disease, an illness suffered by around 20 percent of adults aged 70 and over in the U.S., which significantly limits blood flow to muscles. He hopes the beet juice slurry will help people have improved quality of life in a similar way that dark chocolate has demonstrated.
Getting to the 'Root' of the Power
Several manufacturers have found ways to liquefy beetroots and concentrate the nitrate into beetroot juice "shots." Researchers used a beet juice product manufactured in Britain using concentrated amounts of beet juice so it can be taken without stomach troubles. Referred to as a supplement and now also produced in the U.S., it's sold in 70 ml shots (between half- and one-third-cup quantities), each equal to 300 ml of straight beet juice in regard to the nitrate.
There's also organic beet juice, but several U.S. companies have jumped on the bandwagon, so beet juice cocktails are sold in a number of stores, including Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. An article on Competitor.com listed five beet juice products designed for endurance athletes, including a "sport bar" and nitrate crystals from beetroots and other veggies that are added to water.
"Due to increased media attention on the super vegetable and its perceived benefits for endurance, beetroot juice has become vogue among athletes of all levels. The Auburn University football team drinks it. Retired American long-distance runner Ryan Hall has said he consumes it. So do top professional cyclists. And its surge in popularity with the general public is reflective in the market, which now has plenty of options geared specifically toward athletes."10
Needless to say. Popeye knew what he was doing when he guzzled all that spinach, but think how quickly he could have finished off Bluto if he'd known about beets!