There has been enormous research interest in beets because of the the unusual mix of antioxidants that they contain. The unique combination of nutritional and nutriceutical components establishes the red beet as a marvelous vegetable, easy to grow and process its natural products. Its strong vasodilation properties, imparted pigments, flavonoids and organic nitrogen have lead to deep investigations by pharmaceutical companies to reap the enormous array of health benefits. Fortunately, a vegetable can’t be patented, so the beet will always remain as a very useful dietary tool in both the prevention and treatment of disease.
When it comes to antioxidant phytonutrients that give most red vegetables their distinct color, we’ve become accustomed to thinking about anthocyanins. (Red cabbage, for example, gets it wonderful red color primarily from anthocyanins.) Beets demonstrate their antioxidant uniqueness by getting their red color primarily from betalain antioxidant pigments (and not primarily from anthocyanins). Coupled with their status as a very good source of the antioxidant manganese and a good source of the antioxidant vitamin C, the unique phytonutrients in beets provide antioxidant support in a different way than other antioxidant-rich vegetables. While research is largely in the early stage with respect to beet antioxidants and their special benefits for eye health and overall nerve tissue health, we expect to see study results showing these special benefits and recognizing beets as a standout vegetable in this area of antioxidant support.
Researching Eye Health
Scientists have specifically investigated the pharmacology behind nitrates and how they produce nitric oxide in the body, including their effects on retinal microvasculature, meaning blood vessels in the eye. Although the research has been considered by pharmaceutical giants such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca, neither has developed drugs based on the findings likely because no conclusive data has ever been published linking beets to improved eye health.
However, previous research has linked dietary nitrate supplementation with improved endothelial function in healthy humans (see here ).
“Beets are so healthy for you that it got me researching how effective they would be at helping to restore vision,” said Dr. Edward Kondrot, who is also the president of the Arizona Homeopathic and Integrative Medical Association and the clinic director of Integrative Medicine of the American Medical College of Homeopathy. “What I found is that they are a great natural source for improving eye health. A colorful diet will give colorful vision.”
Indeed, beetroot is high in antioxidants and is an anti-inflammatory that can help to detoxify the body. But it is also among the richest source of dietary nitrates.
“Beets have an extremely high concentration of nitrates, which have gotten a bad rap as a preservative,” Dr. Kondrot stated. “But they’re actually essential to producing nitric oxide in the body, which in turn helps open the body’s blood vessels, increase blood flow and oxygen, and allow more nutrients to fuel the body’s cells.”
Though oft associated with enhancing sexual performance in men, Dr. Kondrot said his interest in nitric oxide pertains to its ability to strengthen corneal endothelial cells. “When it comes to eye disease, one of the biggest problems is vascular dysfunction, and anything we can do to improve the endothelium is good for the eyes.”
Mouthwash, Antacids Can Deter Absorption of Nitrates
One cup (200 grams) of beetroot contains about 500 mg of nitrate, which is typically the amount recommended daily to achieve the desired benefits. That’s roughly the equivalent of six beets, depending on the quality of the beet. Dr. Kondrot noted that improvements can be seen in as little as three months.
A key piece of the body’s ability to convert nitrates to nitric oxide is the role of digestive enzymes in the saliva and stomach. Although beets contain a little naturally occurring ascorbic acid (which aids in absorption), consumers who frequently use mouthwash or take antacids can actually destroy the enzymes needed for this conversion.
“That’s probably a big contributor to deficiency of nitric oxide in American diets,” Dr. Kondrot said. “That’s also perhaps one of the reasons why drinking beet juice works so well, because it has a greater surface area to come in contact with during digestion.”
It also may prove a suitable alternative for those less inclined to shovel in in six beets a day.