Many studies looking at the impact of nutrition on brains, cognition, or risk of dementia focus on long-term consumption of a specific food or beverage. It is less common to see immediate benefit from short-term changes in diet. But this is what researchers found when they examined the impact of drinking beet juice in conjunction with a six-week exercise program.
Beet juice was chosen for this study because it contains high amounts of nitrates, which have been associated with cardiovascular benefits. In this study, researchers looked directly at changes in the brains of 27 older men with high blood pressure who were assigned to drink normal beet juice as part of an exercise program, compared to those who completed the same program but were given a placebo juice with nitrates removed. Participants were asked to drink 2.4 ounces of their juice once a day, an hour prior to exercising on the days that their exercise class was held. The classes consisted of three 50-minute sessions of moderately intense walking three times a week. At the beginning and end of the six weeks, each participant was given an MRI scan.
When researchers looked at the two groups’ brains following the exercise course, the beet juice group showed greater brain plasticity than the placebo group in the areas of the brain examined. They write that the combination of beet juice and exercise “resulted in neuroplasticity that substantially exceeded exercise alone,” and note that the average number of new secondary connections in the beet juice participants’ brains resembled that of a much younger population. The researchers suggest that these changes are due to the beet juice enhancing exercise tolerance and performance, which also impacts blood flow to the brain. Though these results did not reach statistical significance (likely due to the small number of participants and short duration of the exercise class), the beet juice group also showed a trend towards greater cardiovascular fitness than the placebo group as well.
Based on this study, high-nitrate foods or beverages appear to give a surprisingly large brain boost when consumed in conjunction with exercise.
Petrie M, Rejeski WJ, Laurienti PJ, et al. Beet root juice: an ergogenic aid for exercise and the aging brain. Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences Medical Sciences. (2016). DOI:10.1093/gerona/glw219