If you're looking for natural remedy to help lower your blood pressure and improve your cardiovascular health, you might just find it in a rather unusual beverage. The results of a study published in the February issue of the American Heart Association's medical journal, Hypertension, demonstrated that drinking two cups of beetroot juice daily significantly reduced blood pressure in healthy volunteers.
Among the study participants, blood pressure fell within just one hour of drinking the beetroot juice, with the greatest drop occurring three to four hours following consumption. The blood pressure-lowering effects continued for up to 24 hours afterward.
Physicians and nutrition experts have long recommended diets rich in fruits and vegetables to help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Previously, the heart-healthy benefits of these and other plant foods were largely attributed to their rich supply of antioxidants and their high fiber content.
Recently, however, some scientists have begun investigating the roles played by other plant compounds, particularly nitrate. Nitrate occurs naturally in many vegetables, including spinach, cabbage, radishes and, of course, beets.
In the current study, researchers at Barts and The London School of Medicine demonstrated that the nitrate in the beetroot juice was responsible for lowering the volunteers' blood pressure. In the human body, nitrate is converted to nitric oxide, a substance that is known for its ability to dilate blood vessels and subsequently reduce blood pressure.
The effectiveness of the drug nitroglycerine in treating angina, or chest pain, is based on a similar mechanism of action. After taking nitroglycerine, blood levels of nitric oxide increase, and in response, blood vessels around the heart relax and widen.
Wider vessels allow more oxygen-rich blood to be delivered to the starving heart muscle. In most cases, patients taking nitroglycerine experience greater blood flow to the heart and a welcome reduction in chest pain within a matter of moments.
You don't have to take nitroglycerine to enjoy the cardiovascular benefits of nitric oxide — your body produces the substance naturally. Unfortunately, nitric oxide production declines progressively with age.
Many experts blame the steady decline in nitric oxide production for many age-related diseases and disorders of the cardiovascular system, including high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, heart disease, sexual dysfunction and peripheral vascular disease.
If you enjoy the distinctive flavor of beetroot juice, drinking two cups daily might be a good way to increase nitric oxide levels and to improve your cardiovascular health. Just make sure you take into account the extra calories and sugar. A two-cup serving of beetroot juice contains around 200 calories and 50 grams of carbohydrates. If you don't adjust your daily caloric intake, adding two cups of the juice daily could lead to a weight gain of about a pound and a half a month, which could potentially offset the beetroot-derived cardiovascular benefits.
If downing a couple of glasses of beetroot juice daily doesn't sound like an appealing way to boost your body's supply of nitric oxide, you may get similar benefits by adding more spinach, radishes and cabbage to your diet. Or, you could simply take a dietary supplement that supplies the essential amino acid arginine.
In cells of the body, nitric oxide is manufactured using arginine as a raw material. Because humans are not capable of producing arginine, it must be obtained from foods in the diet or from nutritional supplements.
Food sources of arginine include nuts, seeds, wheat germ and brown rice. Preliminary research suggests that a higher intake of dietary arginine boosts levels of nitric oxide in the body, leading to reductions in blood pressure and improved blood flow throughout the body.
Arginine-containing dietary supplements are popular among body builders, weight lifters and other athletes. In clinical trials measuring exercise performance, supplementation with arginine has been shown to delay muscular fatigue and prolong exercise duration.
Although somewhat controversial in mainstream medicine, the results of several scientific studies suggest that arginine supplementation can improve symptoms of many conditions related to suboptimal blood flow throughout the body. Arginine supplements have been used in the treatment of angina, erectile dysfunction, peripheral artery disease and even dementia.
One thing is certain: High blood pressure and other forms of cardiovascular disease are serious enough to warrant management by a physician. If you're thinking about taking arginine supplements or making beetroot juice a part of your daily diet, it's a good idea to discuss your plans with your doctor first.
Rallie McAllister is a board-certified family physician, speaker and the author of several books, including "Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim." Her website is www.rallieonhealth.com. To find out more about Rallie McAllister, M.D., and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.