Bruce Frankel

Author of the new book "What Should I Do with the Rest of My Life? True Stories of Finding Success, Passion, and New Meaning in the Second Half of Life."

Red States: Protecting Against Dementia and Overcoming Post-Election Blues

November 4, 2010

Okay, as long as we’re talking about red states, we need to consider the benefit of the non-partisan beet. Perhaps, it’s even time for President and Michelle Obama to reconsider ruing the vegetable.

I’ll get to the political analysis later. First, the news:

Researchers recently reported that eating beets increases blood flow in the brains of older adults and may help combat the progression of dementia.

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As we age, some areas of the brain often develop an inadequate blood flow. In the lexicon of science, they are poorly perfused. While several high-profile studies have previously shown that drinking beet juice can lower blood pressure (which many of us might have benefited from on Tuesday night), a study at Wake Forest University’s Translational Science Center, had another objective. Said center director Daniel Kim-Shapiro, “We wanted to show that drinking beet juice also increases perfusion, or blood flow, to the brain.”

Researchers were already aware of one aspect of why beets are beneficial. High concentrations of nitrates are found in beets, as well as in celery, cabbage and other leafy green vegetables like spinach and some lettuce. When you eat high-nitrate foods, good bacteria in the mouth turn nitrate into nitrite. Nitrites can help open up the blood vessels in the body, increasing blood flow and oxygen specifically to places that are lacking oxygen.

In the Wake Forest study, available online in Nitric Oxide: Biology and Chemistry, researchers looked at how dietary nitrates affected 14 adults age 70 and older over a period of four days. They found, for the first time, a link between consumption of nitrate-rich beet juice and increased blood flow to the brain. 

To conduct the study, for the first two mornings, subjects reported to the lab after a 10-hour fast and were given either a high- or low-nitrate breakfast. The high-nitrate breakfast included 16 ounces of beet juice. Each subject was sent home with diets conforming to an assigned diet. On the second day, an MRI recorded the blood flow in each subject’s brain one hour after breakfast.  Blood tests before and after breakfast confirmed nitrite levels in the body.

Researchers switched the diets and repeated the process for each subject on the third and fourth days.

Strikingly, 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.

Earlier studies at the Harvard University-affiliated McLean Hospital found that the natural substances found in certain foods work as well as prescription antidepressants at preventing depression and making people feel happy.

Those natural substances are omega-3 fatty acids and uridine, and in experiments with rats, they were just as effective as three different prescription antidepressants in preventing signs of depression. In other words, eat these foods and you’ll be happier. Sugar beets are among the top five foods rich in these substances. The others are salmon, herring, walnuts, and beet molasses.

The study used a well-established animal model of depression. Rats were placed in a tank of water where they were forced to swim. They soon realized that swimming was futile, so they just gave up and floated, a sign that they were surrendering to depression. When the rats were given an injection of an antidepressant drug or combined doses of omega-3 fatty acids and uridine, they started swimming again. Interestingly, the mixture of natural substances proved as effective as three different prescription antidepressants—Norpramin, Prozac, and Celexa—in prompting the rats to begin swimming again.

According to study leader William Carlezon, director of McLean’s Behavioral Genetics Laboratory, the brains of the rats that stopped swimming were basically running out of energy, produced by mitochondria, for brain cells. The omega-3 fatty acids and uridine fixed that.  “Basically, we were giving the brain more fuel on which to run.” 

Hmmm! Remember when First Lady Michelle Obama introduced the White House garden and it was widely celebrated by advocates of organic and local foods. It was reported that the garden would include 55 varieties of vegetables, including red romaine, green oak leaf, butter head, red leaf and galactic lettuces, spinach, chard, collards and black kale, shallots, shell peas, sugar snap peas, broccoli, fennel, and rhubarb and onions.

But because neither President nor Michelle Obama like them, beets were excluded and a protest ensued around the blogosphere. But the Obamas did not back down. A month ago, in the Ladies Home Journal, the First Lady brought her own brand of science to the debate, saying,  “I am a believer there is a beet gene—people who love beets love them and people who hate beets hate them. Neither the President nor I have the beet gene.”

Listen up, Democrats, I say. Eat your beets!

Beet spritzers may be a good way to start. Here’s a recipe from http://sweetbeetandgreenbean.net (the source of the photo). Vodka is, of course, optional.

1 part beet juice
2 parts cranberry juice
1 part soda water

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