Beetroot on the brain

Posted on July 26, 2017 by Guest Writer

I have a terrible relationship with beetroot. If asked about food preferences, I’ll say, pretty much anything except beetroot. Its earthy aftertaste clashes with my pleasure centre, which is a pity, because I absolutely adore its colour. I’m aware that it is good for you; I sat through a workshop on chakras in London’s Regent Park and watched the teacher drink from a bottle of beetroot juice throughout the class whilst extolling the virtues of it as a sattvic food in the Ayurvedic tradition. Sattvic means it is high in Prana, or “life force,” which makes it a highly desirable element of your diet, as is watermelon, another sattvic product. Funnily enough, I don’t like the texture or flavour of watermelon either, but I do love the colour. You can see a trend emerging, I’m sure!

It is a shame that beetroot and I are not on better terms as it has come to my attention that drinking beetroot juice will make my brain feel younger. This information comes partly from Dr Marilyn Glenville, one of the UK’s most respected nutritionists and an expert in women’s diet and the menopause. Not that the beetroot thing is just for women; it’s for everyone. But she’s not the only beetroot fan.

According to research scientists at Wake Forest University, you should drink beetroot juice before working out because it makes the ageing brain feel like it has a spring in its step and it “copies the operations of a younger brain.” The study tracked adults with hypertension and discovered that compared to the test results from exercise alone, the addition of beetroot juice increased brain connectivity to a level usually seen in younger adults.

This is the first study done on the combined effects of exercise and beetroot on functional brain networks. These include the workings of the motor cortex and the connections between this cortex and the insula, both of which support our mobility. The experiment included men and women over 55 who did not exercise, had high blood pressure and took a maximum of two medications for their hypertension. They exercised three times weekly for six weeks and drank a beetroot juice supplement one hour before each exercise session consisting of 50 minutes moderate to intense walking on a treadmill. Half of the participants were given the beetroot supplement containing 560mg of nitrate and the rest were given a beetroot supplement placebo with hardly any nitrate in it.

I was puzzled about the nitrate content, but the scientists answered my unspoken question. Beets are high in dietary nitrate and this is converted to nitrite and then nitric oxide (NO) when you eat or drink beetroot products. Nitric oxide increases your body’s blood flow and it is known to improve exercise performance. But it doesn’t only affect blood flow. Jack Rejeski, one of the study’s authors explained, “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.”

During exercise the brain’s somatomotor cortex processes information from your muscles. The activity then strengthens the cortex. Adding beetroot juice to the exercise regime provides even more power to the somatomotor cortex, which in turn improves muscle performance. Post-exercise blood analysis of the research study group showed that whilst all the participants had more or less similar levels of nitrate and nitrite in their blood before beginning the experiment, those who drank the beetroot juice had significantly higher levels of both chemicals after exercise compared with those in the placebo group.

At Wake Forest University they are extremely keen on the effects of beets on health and this is just one of its Translational Science Centre’s investigations. They have already looked at how beetroot juice can increase blood flow in the brain of older adults, and this was the first study undertaken anywhere into the relationship between beet consumption and the brain. Another of their studies revealed that a daily dose of beetroot juice significantly improved exercise endurance and blood pressure in elderly patients with heart failure.

Other studies show that eating whole beets improves running performance in fit adults and beetroot juice improves exercise ability in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). And, if none of those convince you of the benefits of beetroot, it has been shown that blood pressure drops after drinking the juice. It looks like I should really try to get over my beet-phobia; the juice I think I can handle, but I doubt I’m ever going to make it to solids.