Beets rarely make the list of anyone’s favorite foods. Yet they’ve recently earned a place in the spotlight, thanks to preliminary studies showing beetroot juice has some surprising health benefits. For example, a recent study showed drinking beetroot juice is beneficial to patients with heart failure, a condition where their heart weakens to the point that it can no longer effectively deliver blood and oxygen to the body. In one study, heart failure patients who drank concentrated beetroot juice enjoyed a 13% increase in muscle power in their legs within two hours after drinking it.
If beetroot juice can improve muscle power in people with heart failure, what impact might it have on the muscles of healthy people, particularly athletes? It’s an intriguing question, but first, let’s see how beetroot juice increases muscle power in heart failure patients.
Beet Root, Nitrates, and Nitric Oxide
Beetroot juice is rich in a group of chemicals called nitrates. You may have heard negative things about nitrates because manufacturers add them to processed meats, but the natural nitrates from sources like beetroot behave differently in the body. Once consumed in your body, natural nitrates from sources like beetroot are converted to another chemical called nitric oxide.
What makes nitric oxide special is the effect it has on blood vessels, including those that deliver blood and oxygen to your muscles during exercise. With more nitric oxide around, arteries that carry blood and oxygen open wider. This increases oxygen delivery to tissues. Since your arteries expand more, it lowers your blood pressure. So, you can see how beetroot juice has heart health benefits.
Initially, scientists thought the drop in blood pressure you get with beetroot juice is short-term, but a recent study showed the results are more sustained. In this study, patients with high blood pressure drank one glass of beetroot juice a day and a control group drank beetroot juice without nitrates.
The results? The group that drank the beetroot juice without the nitrates removed experienced an 8 mm. Hg reduction in systolic blood pressure and a 4 mm Hg reduction in diastolic pressure. In fact, for some of the participants, drinking beetroot juice daily brought their blood pressure down into the normal range. The group that drank nitrate-free beetroot juice didn’t experience this benefit.
Beet Root Juice and Exercise Performance
There are several ways beetroot juice may improve exercise performance. One is by opening up blood vessels wider so that more oxygen can reach muscle tissue at a given exercise intensity. This increased delivery of oxygen means your muscles get more oxygen without you having to work harder. Therefore, they’re more efficient.
Not All Research is Supportive
It makes sense that by increasing nitric oxide production beetroot juice would improve exercise performance but not all studies agree. A study carried out at Penn State University in which participants did arm exercises after drinking beetroot juice didn’t show the anticipated dilation of blood vessels. Yet, the preponderance of studies, so far, do suggest that beetroot juice by, boosting nitric oxide production, widens blood vessels, reduces blood pressure, and likely increases oxygen delivery to muscle tissue during exercise.
Preliminary studies show that during moderate-intensity exercise, like brisk walking, cycling, or running, beetroot juice reduces the oxygen cost of exercise and increases the time to exhaustion. That comes in handy if you’re entering a race. In one study, cyclists were able to cycle 16% longer after drinking beetroot juice. Some studies also show it increases tolerance of high-intensity exercise.
What about Muscle Strength and Power?
As the study in heart failure patients showed, beetroot juice boosts muscle power in people with failing hearts – but what about healthy people? In small studies, including one that tested healthy non-athletes and another that studied college athletes, beetroot juice enhanced muscle power in this population as well. In fact, the results were apparent within two hours after drinking the juice. So, beetroot juice seemingly enhances oxygen delivery to fast-twitch muscle fibers as well.
Getting the Benefits of Beet Root Juice
Interestingly, some athletes supplement with the amino acid arginine on the premise that arginine is converted to nitric oxide. Unfortunately, this doesn’t offer the expected benefits since the conversion of arginine to nitric oxide can only occur in the presence of ample oxygen. During exercise, oxygen is diverted to muscles and there isn’t enough to make this conversion. So, the best way to get the benefits of nitric oxide is to drink beetroot juice with its natural nitrates.
Interestingly, unlike some foods and supplements where you don’t see results for a while, beetroot juice exerts its effects quickly within a few hours. Due to the growing interest in beetroot juice, you can now buy it many supermarkets and natural food stores. You can also make it home with a juicer. You might hear people refer to beet juice. Don’t worry, it’s the same things as beetroot juice and you can make it by juicing beets.
There are a few things to be aware of before you begin drinking it. Beetroot juice is high in natural sugar and can turn your urine and even your feces pink or red. This happens because the pigments in beets oxidize in the presence of stomach acid. To what degree you get discoloration varies with the amount of stomach acid you produce.
If you have borderline high blood pressure, a daily glass of beetroot juice combined with exercise and a healthy diet may be enough to reduce your blood pressure to a healthier range. Even if you don’t like beets, many people still find the juice to have a pleasing taste. By itself, beetroot juice isn’t going to make you an athletic star but it could modestly enhance your exercise performance.