While numerous studies have examined the effect of beet juice on blood pressure, this is one of the first to examine the link to brain health.
Researchers were interested in how high concentrations of nitrates, found in beets, as well as in celery, cabbage and other leafy green vegetables like spinach and some lettuce affect blood vessels in the body, and how they might increase blood flow and oxygen to places in the body that are lacking oxygen.
To investigate, researchers examined how dietary nitrates affected 14 adults age 70 and older over a period of four days.
On the first day, the study subjects reported to the lab after a 10-hour fast, completed a health status report, and consumed either a high- or low-nitrate breakfast. The high-nitrate breakfast included 16 ounces of beet juice. They were sent home with lunch, dinner and snacks conforming to their assigned diets.
The next day, following another 10-hour fast, the subjects returned to the lab, where they ate their assigned breakfasts. One hour after breakfast, an MRI recorded the blood flow in each subject's brain. Blood tests before and after breakfast confirmed nitrite levels in the body.
For the third and fourth days of the study, the researchers switched the diets and repeated the process for each subject.
The MRIs showed that after eating a high-nitrate diet, the older adults had increased blood flow to the white matter of the frontal lobes - the areas of the brain commonly associated with degeneration that leads to dementia and other cognitive conditions.
The findings were published online in the journal Nitric Oxide: Biology and Chemistry.
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