Beet Power – Excerpt from Eating Plant-Based by Jesse J. Jacoby
Of all foods in the plant kingdom, beets are my favorite. I drink my beets daily. Beets are the same color and shape as the heart. According to legend, Aphrodite – the Greek Goddess of Love – used beetroots to enhance beauty and gain aphrodisiac properties. The Oracle at Delphi also claimed beetroots are worth their weight in silver, second only to horseradish in mystic potency. To heal our heart, amplify the beauty and glow of our skin, and increase the health of our organs, beets are an essential food.
The association between diets rich in fruits and vegetables, and decreased cancer risk could be linked to the up-regulation of phase II detoxifying enzymes by dietary constituents. The rich colors found in beets are from pigments called betalains. These compounds stimulate phase II enzyme detoxification in the liver. Findings from a February 2005 study featured in the journal Nutrition and Cancer, Betalains, Phase II Enzyme-Inducing Components From Red Beetroot (Beta vulgaris L.) Extracts, confirm betalains from beets are capable of inducing phase II enzyme activity. Phase II detoxification involves the neutralization of toxins by binding them with phytonutrients so they can be excreted in the urine. A perfect example is the use of glutathione-S-transferase (GST) enzymes. GSTs use glutathione to neutralize toxins, allowing them to be excreted from the body. Betalains found in beetroot have been shown to enhance GST activity, thereby aiding in elimination of toxins that require glutathione for excretion.
There are two basic types of betalains: betacyanins and betaxanthins. Betacyanins are a deep red color, and betaxanthins are yellowish in color. Darker colored beets contain betacyanins, and golden beets are abundant in betaxanthins – most notably vulgaxanthin. These pigments accelerate the process of detoxification, help eliminate free radicals by serving as antioxidants, repair damaged endothelium, and reduce inflammation. Compounds in beets also increase endurance, lower blood pressure, modulate oxidative stress, and are effective for preventing cancer. In addition to beets, amaranth, chard, Nopal cactus, prickly pear cactus, and rhubarb are examples of foods containing betalains.
The June 2012 edition of Food and Pharmaceutical Applications, includes a chapter on red beet biotechnology. In the section titled, Anticancer Effects of Red Beet Pigments, we learn betanin – the betacyanin constituent primarily responsible for red beet color – is an antioxidant with an exceptionally high free radical-scavenging activity, and is a modulator of oxidative stress. Several phytonutrients circulating in beets have been shown to function as anti-inflammatory compounds. Among these nutrients, betanin, isobetanin, and vulgaxanthin, are most closely associated with being anti-inflammatory. These compounds are able to inhibit activity of cyclo-oxygenase (COX) enzymes, which are widely used by cells to produce messaging molecules that trigger inflammation. For those suffering with chronic inflammation, production of these inflammatory messengers can exacerbate their condition, leading to several types of heart disease – including atherosclerosis. A study in the October 2005 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Relative Inhibition of Lipid Peroxidation, Cyclooxygenase Enzymes, and Human Tumor Cell Proliferation by Natural Food Colors, examined human tumor cells and found betanin pigments from beets lessened tumor cell growth through inhibition of pro-inflammatory enzymes – specifically COX enzymes. The tumor cell types tested in these studies include tumor cells from breast, colon, lung, nerve, prostate, stomach, and testicular tissue.
The 2011 Nitric Oxide journal published a study, Acute Effect of A High Nitrate Diet On Brain Perfusion In Older Adults. Researchers found nitrates in beets act as a vasodilator increasing blood flow in ischemic areas. The addition of beetroot juice to the diet helped with age-related dementia and cognitive decline. This same year a Journal of Applied Physiology study, Dietary Nitrate Supplementation Enhances Exercise Performance In Peripheral Arterial Disease, tested patients with peripheral artery disease to determine how nitrates from beets could help improve complications. The nitric oxide from nitrates improved oxygen efficiency and delivery so much subjects were able to walk on average eighteen percent longer and maintain more oxygen in the blood. The beetroot juice stimulated these improvements by vasodilating blood vessels and opening up arteries for more blood flow.
In 2012, the Respiratory Physiology and Neurobiology journal published a study, Acute Dietary Nitrate Supplementation Improves Dry Static Apnea Performance. Dietary supplementation was reported to lower blood pressure, reduce oxygen cost during sub-maximal exercise, and improve exercise tolerance. A study in the 2015 Nitric Oxide journal, Dietary Nitrate Supplementation Improves Exercise Performance and Decreases Blood Pressure in COPD Patients, provides evidence of dietary beetroot juice increasing exercise capacity of younger and older adults by elevating plasma NO2, and NO2 concentrations, while improving exercise performance and reducing blood pressure in patients experiencing COPD.
In addition to betalain and carotenoids, beets are also rich in a nutrient known as betaine. Betaine is made from the B-complex vitamin, choline, which regulates inflammation in the blood vessels by preventing accumulation of homocysteine. When levels of homocysteine rise, we are at increased risk of developing inflammation and cardiovascular problems such as atherosclerosis. The presence of betaine in our diet is also associated with lower levels of C reactive protein, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor alpha – all inflammatory markers.
By introducing beetroot juice to our daily diet, we can vastly improve health. Not only can we utilize the beet for lowering blood pressure and reducing inflammation, we also benefit by strengthening our heart, repairing the cells lining our arteries and organs, and improving blood flow to the brain.