Every time I cut into a beet root, I am still surprised by the vibrant red juice that seems to bleed out onto the chopping block. It is this undeniable similarity to blood that first made beet root and beet root juice a focus of interest in traditional medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) relies heavily on the use of foods and herbs to tonify organs and energy systems in the body.
In TCM, Blood and Qi are two extremely important substances working together to maintain the vitality of the human body. Blood is more “Yin” and Qi is more “Yang”. The symbol of the “Yinyang” teaches us that a perfect balance of Blood and Qi is required for optimum health. In this medical system illness often arises as a result of either Blood or Qi being deficient. A blood deficiency can arise in the heart and/or liver leading to symptoms of insomnia, anxiety, weakness, dizziness and fatigue. Interestingly these are often the same symptoms seen in individuals experiencing anemia (the “blood deficiency” of western medicine). In TCM the primary way to restore blood is through food and herbs. Beets root, perhaps due to the bloody appearance of its juice, is thought to be an excellent dietary restorer of blood. When assisted with the use of certain herbs and acupuncture points, the dietary inclusion of beets and other red pigmented fruits and vegetables is very effective in treating the TCM diagnosis of blood deficiency.
The closest connection between the TCM medicinal use of beets for blood deficiency and how this might work from a western “science based medicine” perspective is elucidated in a Hungarian 2007 research article. The article explains that biological testing of liver tissue after consumption of beet root reveals that beets are relatively rich in metal elements such as: aluminum, copper, iron, zinc and manganese. One type of anemia known as “microcytic anemia” is usually caused by iron deficiency. With beet being a relatively rich vegetable source of iron, one can hypothesize as to why this vegetable might be an effective therapy for a “blood deficiency” or anemia.
Recent scientific research has revealed many other interesting medicinal applications for beet root. Beets contain high levels of nitrates and pigment molecules that have been shown to be powerful antioxidants, cancer protective and ergogenic. In a 2009 study, male rats were treated either with 8ml/kg/day beet root juice or nothing at all for 28 days. Both groups of rats received an injection of the toxic chemicals nitrosodiethylamine and carbon tetracloride. The rats pretreated with beet root juice demonstrated less damage to fat cells in the liver, and a 3-fold increase in the activity of the antioxidant “superoxide dismutase”. The authors concluded that beet root juice may be helpful in counteracting some of the damaging effects of environmental toxins.
A large portion of the recent research on the medicinal properties of beets, has been done in Hungary. A Hungarian research article in 2010 looked at the effect of giving 20g prepared beet root per day for one month to 24 patients with hormone resistant metastatic prostate cancer, who are also receiving chemotherapy. The results indicated that there was a significant improvement in inflammatory markers, such as transmethylation, after consuming the beet root. Here, the authors conclude that moderate consumption of beets may favorably affect the life expectancy of patients with this type of prostate cancer.
Athletes are always searching for latest performance enhancing supplement. Ergogenic (performance enhancing) aids are usually taken to increase stamina, strength and recovery. One supplement known to increase stamina is sodium nitrate. Sodium nitrate has been shown to decrease the demand for oxygen by muscle cells during exercise leading to an increase in exercise duration. Beet root juice is a natural source of nitrates and therefore, there has been a handful of studies in the past few years looking into beet root juice as a potential natural alternative to sodium nitrate. In 2009 the journal of applied physiology conducted a placebo controlled, double blinded, crossover study on 8 men ages 19-38yr. The men either consumed 500ml/day of beet root juice or black currant cordial (juice) for six consecutive days and underwent a series of moderate and intense physical activity tests on the last three days. In those men consuming beet root juice, blood nitrite levels were significantly higher on days 4-6 and systolic blood pressure was reduced by approximately 10mmHg compared to placebo. During both moderate level and intense exercise, those men taking the beet root juice demonstrate a decrease in demand for oxygen and corresponding increase in time to exhaustion compared to placebo.
Beets are an amazing vegetable. Roasted, pickled, steamed or boiled; beets are a great way to add sweetness and colour into any meal. Like all the foods I discuss on this blog, beets are full of powerful medicinal properties. However, there are some things to watch out for when considering including beets into the diet. Beet root and leaves are relatively high in a substance known as oxalates. Oxalates are excreted from the body by the kidneys and into the urine. Those who have a personal history or family history of kidney stones should take caution when consuming beets in moderate to high quantities. Most kidney stones are formed out of calcium and oxalates and consistent consumption of beets can possibly contribute to the formation of a kidney stone. Boiling beets in water has been shown to remove greater than half the amount of oxalate content. Those who enjoy eating the leaves of beets (usually steamed or boiled) can consider that a 2009 study demonstrated that boiling the leaves in milk removes more oxalates than boiling in water.