Beets aren’t the most common root vegetable on the American table. But they’re rich in a variety of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, which has made them a popular addition to many a juice cleanse. New research recently published has found a new potential use for beets that may make them a key player in helping those with heart failure.
The researchers conducted a study in 2013 that found that nitrates present at high concentrations in beets could increase blood flow to muscles. They do this by forming a molecule called nitric oxide (NO), which is a tiny gas molecule that is released locally by your blood vessels to open them up when more blood is needed somewhere.
While the body produces the chemical by itself, adding it to your blood using medications can have the same effect. Nitroglycerin, for example, is taken for heart-related chest pain and helps by upping the blood flow to the heart when it starts to drop below needed levels. It seems beets serve the same purpose and specifically target muscles.
Building on these findings from 2013, researchers looked to understand the nuance behind how exactly muscles were benefitting. Other studies had found that increasing NO helped more with sudden, high-intensity exercise than endurance exercise. Muscles generally contain two types of fibers: slow-twitch, involved in endurance; and fast twitch, involved in rapid movements. Marathon runners tend to have more slow-twitch fibers, and sprinters tend to have more fast-twitch. The researchers wondered whether blood flow might be increasing more in fast-twitch fibers than slow ones.
To study this, they looked at two muscles in mice: the gastrocnemius, which is the muscle we know as the “calf” and has fast-twitch fibers; and the soleus, which sits right under the calf muscle and is mostly slow-twitch. They looked to see how much oxygen was being sent to each of these muscles when the mice were provided with water or with beet juice.
As expected, they found that beet juice increased oxygen and blood flow to each muscle, but they also found that the calf got more than the soleus. This meant that the reason performance improves during intense exercise with beet juice is that fast-twitch muscles get first dibs on high-oxygen blood over slow twitch.
These findings have several implications. A company has sprung up selling beet juice sports drinks, and the Auburn University football team has its players drink beet juice before games to boost their muscle performance. But the researchers also point out there’s another group of people who could benefit: heart disease patients.
In heart disease, the heart doesn’t pump as well as it should, which means all parts of the body struggle to get oxygen-rich blood. When a person with heart disease goes for a walk, they rarely get very far before feeling exhausted. This is because their heart can’t effectively pump oxygen-rich blood to their muscles. This prevents them from doing many of the daily activities they used to be able to do. Eating beets and drinking beet juice could serve as one way to increase blood flow to those muscles, improving mobility and quality of life in those with debilitating heart disease.