Beet Boosting Bugs

Are you drinking your beets?

You have likely heard about the performance-enhancing superfood, beetroot. Or maybe you have already incorporated it into your training. Either way, it’s hard to ignore the growing attention paid to beetroot. But how does this dark red root improve your 10k time and are there ways to get more out of your glass of beetroot juice?

The mechanism behind beetroot’s boost lies in nitrates. Nitrates are a chemical compound found in beetroot as well as dark, leafy vegetables. When we ingest nitrates they get converted into nitric oxide (NO). Our bodies use NO in a variety of ways, but NO is the link between beetroot and improved performance.

Jason Houston at BeetBoost explains it like this: 

NO relaxes the muscles by widening blood vessels when it spreads through underlying muscle cells in the arterial walls. This affects how efficiently cells use oxygen — efficient oxygen use is a very good thing — and this is one of the reasons why beetroot juice can be used to support sport performance. 

For an excellent, and more detailed look at this process read InsideTracker’s article .

In order for this process to occur, it turns out that our bodies need a little help from the bugs inside us to get the performance boosting benefits from nitrate. The bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract play a huge role in NO production – from our oral cavity to our colon. The name of this system is a mouthful (pun intended): the entero-salivary nitrate-nitrite-NO pathway. The nitrate in foods like beetroot get broken down by bacteria in the mouth, stomach and small intestine and eventually converted to NO.

We know that bacteria play a pivotal role in NO production throughout the entire gastrointestinal tract based off several studies. In one such study, researchers eradicated the bacteria of the mouth using mouthwash. This effectively destroyed the bacteria in the mouth that help convert the nitrate to NO. Subsequently, they found that NO levels were reduced and the benefits of the nitrate were lost. The take home message here is go easy on the Listerine!

Also, studies have shown that germ-free mice (no bacteria in the gut) do not effectively produce NO. Furthermore, rats supplemented with lactobacilli probiotics in conjunction with a nitrate load resulted in a 3-8 fold NO increase in the small intestine. It is studies like these that have lead researchers to believe that our microbiome plays a key role in the production of NO from dietary nitrate. In fact, it has been theorized that some of the beneficial effects of probiotics might be mediated through NO. 

The studies are fascinating, but inevitably lead to more questions: What is the optimal beetroot/nitrate dose? Would particular probiotic strains plus beetroot, augment the production of NO more than the beetroot alone? Are microbiomes of various dietary patterns more conducive to NO production?

What we do know is this: beetroot improves select performance parameters via NO, and our microbiome plays an integral part in the production of NO. More studies will lead to even better insights, but it is obvious that if you want more out of your beets and sports nutrition, it pays to take care of your gut.