By Dr. Mercola
There's a lot to be said for the humble beet, an easy-to-grow garden vegetable. Whether juiced raw, cooked, pickled or fermented, beets have a wide range of health benefits. The nutrients they contain fight inflammation, lower blood pressure and help you detoxify. Beets have also been shown to lower your risk for heart disease and stroke, and may even help combat cancer.
Recent research also shows beets have powerful benefits for your brain, especially when combined with exercise, courtesy of their high nitrate content. Your body transforms nitrates into nitric oxide, which enhances oxygenation and has a beneficial impact on your circulatory and immune systems.
I include about 1 to 2 ounces of raw beets in my smoothie each day, in addition to taking a fermented beet root powder supplement. However, if you have diabetes or are insulin resistant, carefully monitor how raw beet juice affects your overall health, as 36 percent of each beet is simple sugars.
This high sugar content can also make raw beets and beet juice counterproductive during the initial transitioning phase of a ketogenic diet as you're trying to get your body to burn fat instead of sugar as its primary fuel. I detail this process in my new book, "Fat for Fuel." In these instances, fermented beet juice, also known as beet kvass, may be a far preferable option, as virtually all of the sugar is eliminated during the fermentation process.
Beets Give Your Brain a Powerful Boost
In the featured study,1 26 middle-aged men and women diagnosed with high blood pressure were given either beet juice or a placebo to drink three times a week, an hour before exercise, for six weeks.2,3,4 Exercise consisted of a 50-minute walk on a treadmill.
As demonstrated in other studies, the beet juice increased tissue oxygenation and blood flow in the treatment group. It also improved brain neuroplasticity by improving oxygenation of the somatomotor cortex, a brain area that is often affected in the early stages of dementia. As noted by study co-author W. Jack Rejeski, a health and exercise science professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina:5,6
"Nitric oxide is a really powerful molecule. It goes to the areas of the body which are hypoxic, or needing oxygen, and the brain is a heavy feeder of oxygen in your body … [W]hat we showed in this brief training study of hypertensive older adults was that, as compared to exercise alone, adding a beet root juice supplement to exercise resulted in brain connectivity that closely resembles what you see in younger adults."
As I've stated on countless occasions, the researchers note that your diet may indeed be crucial to the maintenance of a healthy brain and functional independence as you get older.
Raw Beets Boost Heart and Cardiovascular Health Too
Raw beets have been shown to have a very potent impact on your cardiovascular health, lowering blood pressure by an average of four to five points in just a few hours.7
Some studies have shown a glass of beet juice can lower systolic blood pressure by more than eight points,8 which is far more than some blood pressure medications! This effect is due to the naturally-occurring nitrates in beets, which are converted into nitric oxide in your body.9
Nitric oxide is a soluble gas that's continually produced from the amino acid L-arginine, inside your cells. This gas plays an important role in supporting normal endothelial function and protecting your cells' powerhouses, the mitochondria. It is also a potent vasodilator.
By relaxing and dilating your blood vessels, nitric oxide improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure. In conventional medicine, nitrates are used to treat angina and congestive heart failure, and research shows a glass of beetroot juice has the same effect as prescription nitrates.10
Competitive athletes also use beet juice for its nitric oxide-boosting benefits. Research shows raw beets may boost stamina during exercise by as much as 16 percent,11 an effect again attributed to increased nitric oxide.
In another study,12 nine patients diagnosed with heart failure who experienced loss of muscle strength and reduced ability to exercise were found to benefit from beet juice. The patients were given 140 milliliters (mL) — 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.
There's one important caveat though: Avoid using mouthwashes or chewing gum, as this actually prevents the nitric oxide conversion from occurring.13 The reason for this is because the nitrate is converted into nitrite in your saliva by friendly bacteria. That nitrite is then converted into nitric oxide in other places in your body.
More About Nitric Oxide
Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas or sweet air, is a chemical compound with the formula N2O. It is used in surgery and dentistry for its anesthetic and analgesic effects. It is known as "laughing gas" due to the euphoric effects of inhaling it.14 Nitric Oxide15 (NO) is a gas that serves as a signaling or messenger molecule in every cell of your body. Hence, it's involved in a wide variety of physiological and pathological processes.
It causes arteries and bronchioles to expand, allows brain cells to communicate with each other, and causes immune cells to kill bacteria and cancer cells. Low levels of nitric oxide production are important in protecting an organ such as the liver from ischemic damage.
On the average, you lose 10 percent of your body's ability to make nitric oxide for every decade of life. Nitric oxide is synthesized by nitric oxide synthase (NOS). There are three isoforms of the NOS enzyme:
- Endothelial (eNOS): a calcium-dependent signaling molecule that produces low levels of gas as a cell signaling molecule
- Neuronal (nNOS): a calcium-dependent signaling molecule that produces low levels of gas as a cell signaling molecule
- Inducible (immune system) (iNOS): calcium independent; produces large amounts of gas which can be cytotoxic
Another problem is the presence of fluoride. When fluoride is present, it converts nitric oxide into the toxic and destructive nitric acid. As noted in "Pharmacology for Anesthetists 3,"16 "Nitric oxide will react with fluorine, chlorine and bromine to form the XNO species, known as the nitrosyl halides, such as nitrosyl chloride. Nitrosyl iodide can also form but is an extremely short-lived species."
One way to increase nitric oxide production is to do a series of calisthenic exercises. There are many that can be used, but I typically do a modified version of one developed by Dr. Zach Bush, whom I recently interviewed. I did a short video to illustrate the workout. It takes about three to four minutes and is typically done three times a day and every day, but must be at least two hours between sessions.
Other Health Promoting Properties of Beets
The phytonutrients that give beets their deep crimson color also have powerful anti-cancer properties. Research has shown that beetroot extract reduced multi-organ tumor formations in various animal models when administered in drinking water. Beetroot extract is also being studied for use in treating human pancreatic, breast and prostate cancers.17
Raw beets also help boost immune function thanks to high vitamin C, fiber, potassium and manganese, while the betalin pigments and sulfur-containing amino acids in beets support your body's Phase 2 detoxification process. Traditionally, beets have been valued for their ability to purify your blood and liver.
High in the B vitamin folate, beets may also lower your stroke risk and are an excellent food for pregnant women. Folate is essential for many bodily processes, and lack of folate during pregnancy raises the risk of birth defects. The blood-cleansing properties of beet kvass may also help alleviate morning sickness.
Considerations When Buying and Preparing Beets
Whether you're juicing your beets, eating them raw or fermenting them, I strongly recommend buying organic beets, or growing your own from heirloom beet seeds. While table beets are not genetically engineered (GE), they're frequently grown in close proximity to sugar beets, most of which are GE, so there's the potential for contamination via cross-pollination.
Besides the beetroots, beet greens are also very nutritious, and are a great source of fiber — 17 percent of your daily requirements in just one cup. Beet greens also contain vitamins B6 and K, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese and valuable antioxidants. You can juice or sauté them, or simply add them to your salad.
Beetroots tend to have a foul-tasting skin, so you may want to peel your beets before using them. One exception is when you're making beet kvass. In this case, it's better to leave the peel on, as beneficial microbes benefit and thrive from it. Hence you get better fermentation if you leave the skin on.
Fermenting Your Beets Makes Them Even Healthier
Fermenting your beets gives you all the health-boosting benefits of raw beets — and then some. Not only do you get beneficial bacteria and enzymes, but the fermentation process also makes all of the nutrients in beets more bioavailable. Aside from pickled beets,18 other fermented beet products include beet-infused sauerkraut19 or kvass, 20,21 the latter of which can be drunk straight or added to soups, sauces and vinaigrettes.
Traditionally, beet kvass has been used to boost immune function, cleanse blood, combat fatigue and treat kidney stones, chemical sensitivities, allergies and digestive problems. Recent animal research confirms the gastrointestinal benefits of lactofermented beetroot juice, showing it helps improve gut microbiota and metabolic activity.22
By supplying beneficial bacteria, beet kvass can also have a very beneficial impact on diabetes and many other health problems, particularly those rooted in gut dysfunction.
Because of its detoxifying properties, avoid drinking too much when first starting out. Doing so could result in an overload of released toxins, producing bloating, constipation and/or cold or flu-like symptoms. As a general recommendation, start out with 1 ounce per day, gradually increasing the amount to an 8-ounce glass per day. If you're highly toxic, you may need to start out with as little as a tablespoon.
Add Some Beets to Your Diet Today
Beets truly are a great ally in your quest for good health, thanks to their ability to increase nitric oxide. Fermenting them will give you the added benefit of beneficial bacteria, and most health problems today are in one way or another related to or aggravated by poor gut health. So, go ahead and add some beets to your diet. There are many ways to enjoy them, be it raw, cooked or fermented. Here are a few suggestions:
Grate or slice them raw over salads. Sample recipe: beet salad with walnuts and goat cheese
Add them to your fresh vegetable juice. Limit yourself to approximately 1 ounce per day to get the benefits without overdosing on sugar
Lightly steam or roast and eat with some salt and butter
Marinate them with lemon juice, herbs and olive oil
Make borscht soup (beet soup, a traditional Russian dish)
Make raw, pickled and beet-infused sauerkraut
Enjoy homemade beet kvass. For instructions and a simple recipe, see my previous article, "The Benefits of Fermented Beets"