“Eat your beets!” Were three more spine-tingling words ever uttered around the childhood dinner table? (hint: No) But the bloody-looking ridged discs that we were so terrified would touch our mashed potatoes; these later manifested as a delicious, beloved, and power-packed food item in adulthood. Beets!
Beets are a root food, to put it politely. One imagines with awe the first brave proto-humans who thought it a good idea to unearth and eat these things—but when they gave beets a try our unibrowed ancestors hit serious paydirt. Beets are a wonder food whose dazzling nitrate content spurs production of nitrous oxide in the body.
Nitrous oxide? Yeah. This rather obnoxious-sounding compound has a wholly happy effect on our life-bearing tangle of cardiovascular spaghetti, helping dilate arteries in a way that lets the blood flow through unimpeded; or with less pressure, anyway. Possibly “blood pressure” is something you’ve heard of? Studies have also shown conclusively that beets do something that is more or less unexplained; they actually maximize the energy we get from a fixed amount of oxygen. Let’s look at that sentence again. A measured ingestion of beets in a laboratory setting has been shown to increase energy yield from oxygen.
Endothelial Function, Thermodynamics, Beets: Squeezing Oxygen for All It’s Worth
Oxygen in the human body has no choice but to answer to the somewhat schoolmarmish Second Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us (with a waggling finger) that in a closed system, energy can be neither created nor destroyed—it can only be moved around or translated into different forms. Now, for a moment think of your circulatory system not as plumbing, but as a tangle of wiring, the kind that delivers house current to your appliances. Indeed, the bloodstream’s main purpose is the conveyance of energy throughout the underpriced penthouse apartment that is your body. In one interpretation, blood swishes playfully through your lungs, picking up the precious oxygen you’ve inhaled, and your pump (known to poets and thoracic surgeons as The Heart) uses Ol’ Man River (yeah—the bloodstream) to push the oxygen around to the muscles so we can swat at flies, doodle on cocktail napkins, and conquer Everest.
Athletes and bio hackers have long since come up with ways to maximize this delivery of oxygen to the barbell-hoisting muscle groups. But until recently it was believed that the fundamental amount of energy that could be drawn from a given unit of oxygen was fixed; inflexible. That is, huge muscles and the means to rush vast quantities of oxygen to them is one thing—but in the end the amount of energy that could be yanked from the oxygen molecules was the same for the 98lb weakling as for the crazily jacked competitive bodybuilder. Now. Pass the beets, please.
A 2009 study found that a control group of beet juice drinkers were, in effect, able to produce more low-intensity work with less oxygen than the unfortunate control group who received a mere placebo. Summation? Beet-users essentially did the same physical work, and it cost them 19% less oxygen. The study, entitled Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of low-intensity exercise and enhances tolerance to high-intensity exercise in humans, involved volunteers drinking 2 cups of beet juice a day over a period of six days, then having their bodies wired for readout as they mount stationary bikes and push themselves to varyingly unpleasant levels of exhaustion. When the study ramped up the bike riding to higher-intensity levels, time to exhaustion (a scientific metric in this sweat-producing study) rose from 9 minutes 43 seconds to 11 minutes and 15 seconds in the beet juice group. The beet juice actually reduced the O2 cost of exercise.
That isn’t exactly clear. Nitrate-rich beets are known to increase nitrous oxide in the body, and Nitrous Oxide is the best friend of your endothelium; the micro-thin lining of the entire vascular system—the arterial wallpaper, so to speak. The endothelium controls vasoconstriction and vasodilation—the narrowing and relaxing of blood vessels—which makes this wallpaper a major player in the blood pressure game. This permeable membrane also has a role in repairing diseased organs, and in allowing white blood cells to push their way into and out of the bloodstream as internal conditions require, the endothelium acting as doorman between Club Vascular and the surrounding neighborhoods of organ and tissue.
Nitrates. Down the Pie Hole and Onto a Chemical Roller Coaster
The process by which a beet’s nitrate is transfigured into Nitrous Oxide is somewhat akin to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. Once you eat a ridged disc of beetroot (one of its curiously popular forms at the dinner table), the nitrate NO3 is reduced to nitrite NO2 (and we’re not making this up) by specialized bacteria in your mouth. When the newly minted nitrites hit your stomach they are turned to nitric oxide; the easy-to-remember NO. From there the nitrous oxide heads to the intestine—your one organ you hope never to see in your lifetime—and are absorbed into the bloodstream to work their oxygen-boosting magic, through processes that are still under investigation, and costing the science sector a whole lot of #2 pencils.
So, beets! Nitrate, Nitrite; they’re like a Gershwin song—but don’t call the whole thing off. The beet root is your key to both healthy blood pressure and an oxygen molecule that delivers more than it ought to. While the smocks-and-beaker set work on figuring out the hows and whys, you just keep dancing to the beet. And apologies for the heart-stopping pun.
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