Red beetroot (Beta vulgaris rubra) has recently become known as a functional food. It was used in medicine in Roman times, and now beetroot has been found to be especially useful in chronic inflammatory states which are epidemic today. Interest in beetroot has increased because it is a source of dietary nitrates (important in cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, arteriosclerosis, dementia, and diabetes). Beetroot has been shown to relieve hypertension either as juice or baked in bread.
Beetroot contains nitrates, phenolics, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), caroteniods, flavonoids, and betalain pigments. Betalains, strongly antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, are suggested as being helpful in arthritis, liver disease, and cancer. Beetroot nitrates are nearly 100% absorbed and are beneficial since they are reduced in the body to nitric oxide (NO). Interestingly, nitrates are converted to nitrites by salivary bacteria at the back of the tongue. The nitrites are then converted to NO. Spitting out saliva or using mouthwashes which kill bacteria can prevent this conversion, thereby reducing a natural way to control blood pressure.
NO is important in maintaining the condition of the inner lining of the gastrointestinal tract (endothelium). Depletion of NO is seen with aging, and is a risk factor for hypertension and atherosclerosis. This is a possible means by which beetroot extracts may help since they are natural NO donors.
Oxidative stress in cells is the result of the normal oxidant/antioxidant balance being upset by external oxidants (UV radiation or foreign chemicals) or by abnormal cell metabolism. This can leave DNA, proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids of the cells open to oxidative damage. Oxidative stress is believed to be important in more than 200 clinical conditions.
Beetroot is a rich source of antioxidants, especially the betalain pigments. One betalain called betanin is a very strong inhibitor of fatty oxidation and a very strong electron donor. Beetroot is suggested as an additional treatment in cases of stress, related to liver damage and cancer. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs have been used in chronic inflammation in the past, but they often become ineffective in time and have serious side effects. Beetroot extracts may be useful in these cases.
Betacyanin alcohol extracts from beetroot have been shown to be preventive in lung, skin, and liver cancer cells in animals, as well as in human prostate, skin, breast and pancreatic tumor cells.
It is likely that depletion of NO could be responsible for age-related reduction in cognitive function, and it is likely that nitrates from beetroot could help improve this situation. One study provided a high nitrate diet for 24 hours to a group of people about 75 years of age. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans showed increased circulation to the frontal cortex, where much cognitive functioning takes place. More studies on this topic are needed.
CONCLUSION: Beetroot is a functional food with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and vascular-protective effects provided by nitrates and betalains. Beetroot has anticancer properties and may improve cognitive function.
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