THE BLOG
01/26/2015 01:47 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

Just Beet It: Nature's 'Farmacy'

For most of us, our daily choices for nutrition have veered so far from the farm that a connection between nature and health seem distant. Until 60 years ago there were shopping lists, not carry-out orders, and backyard gardens were common. Our health has suffered in the intervening decades, and we have paid a price for convenience. So it is refreshing to be reminded that you don't have to pull health out of a hat, but just out of the ground.

This week researchers in England assembled two groups of patients. Half had high blood pressure and were on medications and half had high blood pressure and were about to be placed on medications. The two groups were given a drink in a blinded study that either contained about 8 ounces of beet juice or a placebo, presumably colored to match the active drink. Over the course of only two weeks, systolic blood pressure fell 8 mmHg while diastolic blood pressure fell 4 mmHg. This is comparable to adding a new prescription drug to these patients, yet it was done with the farmacy, not the pharmacy.

Further studies were done on the flexibility of arteries of the subjects tested. The group getting the active beet preparation showed more flexibility, or conversely, less stiffness, which is a positive trend to observe. There were no side effects.

Why do beets have the ability to lower blood pressure? Beets provide a rich source of plant-based nitrites. These can be converted in the mouth during chewing and interacting with bacteria in the grooves of the tongue to produce the miracle gas nitric oxide or NO. NO activates pathways causing arteries to relax, blood to be more resistant to clotting, and resist formation of atherosclerotic plaque. That is a pretty profound outcome towards health just by drinking some pulverized beets.

Beets are also powerful donors of a compound called betaine, which participates in a crucial system in all cells called methylation. Beets can augment this metabolic pathway to spin faster and detoxify our bodies, perhaps also contributing to heart health.

What is the take-home message? Take home some beets, preferably red and preferably with the long green roots still attached. If you have a juicer, wash them well and run them once or twice through a juicer, being careful not to splatter, as it will stain. Alternatively, beets can be added to a smoothie or cooked by steaming or sautéing. If you have borderline or established high blood pressure or arterial disease, you can anticipate benefits if are persistent in this action. If you find this onerous, several manufactures make a beet root powder to add to smoothies or drinks.
We have strayed so far away from the farm but it is time to return and use nature to heal our bodies. Maimonides, philosopher and medieval physician, wrote 1,000 years ago that "no disease that can be treated by diet should be treated by any other means." This week we are reminded again that nurture can overcome nature and if we provide our bodies the tools it needs and get out of the way we have the capacity to heal ourselves.