Want to turn back the clock on your aging brain? Drinking beetroot juice before you exercise may just help. We’ve known for years that exercise has positive effects on the brain and that beets enhance circulation and exercise performance. Putting the two together can be particularly powerful. Here’s how…
Background: When we’re younger, we have more brain plasticity—the ability to form new neurons and connections in response to experience. Example: It’s easier to learn a new language when you’re 10 years old than when you’re 50. Brain plasticity declines with age, but we can assist in preventing this decline with a healthy lifestyle, especially physical activity. Doing so may help protect against age-related cognitive decline and some forms of dementia.
One way that exercise benefits the brain is by improving circulation. After all, brain cells need sufficient oxygen to work. Beets improve circulation, too—including blood flow to the brain. They do so primarily because they are rich in nitrate, a compound that the body converts to nitric oxide, which has many cardiovascular and metabolic benefits including relaxing the inner lining of blood vessels so that blood flow increases…reducing blood pressure…and helping to regulate blood sugar levels. Nitrate, through the intermediacy of another compound, nitrite, targets delivery of nitric oxide to areas that need oxygen.
So researchers wondered if the brain plasticity benefits of exercise might be even more profound with a little beet boost.
Study: Researchers from Wake Forest University enlisted 26 sedentary men and women 55 years and older (the average age was 65). Everyone had mild-to-moderate elevated blood pressure, too—researchers selected for that because beets are particularly beneficial for people with hypertension, although they speculate that it would be effective in people with normal blood pressure, too. Three times a week for six weeks, the volunteers participated in a moderately intense treadmill walking program for 50 minutes.
Everyone also drank one really small glass of concentrated beetroot juice—just 2.4 ounces—every day. On exercise days, they were asked to drink it an hour before they worked out. Half of the participants got “real” beetroot juice, standardized to contain 560 mg of nitrate in that 2.4-ounce serving. The other half (the controls) got a special beetroot juice processed to contain very little nitrate. Everyone underwent magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) brain scans before they started the exercise program and after they completed it.
Findings: The brains of the beetroot-drinking exercisers had improved brain connectivity, which is associated with more brain plasticity—similar to younger brains. Brain research suggests that these kinds of changes are linked with improved problem solving and sharper memory recall.
Bottom line: Toast your “younger brain” with a shot of beetroot juice before your next workout! The commercial product that the researchers used is called Beet-It Sports Shot, which contains 400 mg of nitrate per serving, a bit less than the 560 mg used in this study. (The study authors have no financial connection to the company and no conflicts of interest.)
You can also eat beets, of course, although nitrate levels vary widely between varieties. Try them grated raw in salads—or roasted. Cooking beets doesn’t affect the nitrate content, but if you boil them and discard the water, a lot of nitrate will go down the drain. There’s a great roasted beet salad recipe in the Bottom Line article, “5 Foods That Fight Blood Pressure.” Beets are also popular in smoothies—check out the recipe at the end of this Bottom Line article: “For Better Blood Sugar, You Can’t Beat Beets.”
Caveats: People with low blood pressure should stay away from beets and beetroot juice. Also, some people with kidney stones should avoid it too. While there’s no reported dose that’s too high, the authors suggest that it’s best to consume no more than 1,000 mg a day.