Best Brain Foods: Greens and Beets Put to the Test


“Best Brain Foods:
Greens and Beets Put to the Test” The production in our brain of
nitric oxide—the open sesame molecule that dilates our blood vessels and
is boosted by the consumption of nitrate-rich vegetables—and the
role of nitric oxide in the control of nerve functioning has been comprehensively
investigated in lab animals. However, little evidence on its role
in human brain function existed… until it was put to the test. Feed people lots
of green leafy vegetables with some beet juice to boot, and then measure cerebral blood flow. See that spot there with improved flow? That’s a critical brain area known
to be involved in executive functioning. OK, but improved blood flow
doesn’t necessarily translate into improved cognitive function. For example, feed people tart cherries,
and despite some indication of improved blood flow, this
didn’t appear to manifest as improved cognitive performance. And indeed, some of the initial
studies were disappointing. Give people over a cup
of cooked spinach and no immediate boost in the ability
to carry out simple tasks, but that may be because the
tests weren’t hard enough. Give people a similar battery
of simple tasks after consuming cocoa and no significant effect. But put people through a more
demanding set of tasks, and you can see acute improvements
in cognitive performance after cocoa consumption. The tasks they’re talking about
is like counting backwards in 3’s for minutes at a time. What if you tried doing that
same thing after drinking two cups of organic beet juice,
which has about the same amount of nitrate as two cups
of cooked arugula? Significantly improved performance,
in terms of more correct answers on the sustained subtraction task. These results suggest
that a single dose of nitrate-rich vegetables
can modify brain function, and that this is likely
to be as a result of increased nitric oxide synthesis. OK, but how do we know it’s the nitrate? Beets are packed with all
sorts of phytonutrients like the betalain red pigment. One way to tease it out
would be to come up with some kind of nitrate-
depleted beet juice— has all the other stuff in beets,
but just missing the nitrate— to see if that works just as well,
and that’s exactly what researchers did. They developed a nitrate-
depleted beetroot juice placebo. And compared to that, within
two weeks of supplementation with the real stuff
this group of diabetics got a significant improvement
in reaction time. Now we’re just talking
13 milliseconds here, but other interventions
like balance training that only increased reaction
time like 7 milliseconds were associated with
significantly lower fall risk. And of course, in athletes,
those fractions of a second can sometimes make a difference. At very high exercise intensities,
cognitive task performance deteriorates, with a pronounced detrimental
effect on reaction time, and that may be just when
you need it the most. Like you’re playing football or something and need to make rapid
appropriate decisions while simultaneously going all out. And once again, beets to the rescue,
significantly reducing reaction time; so, not only improving
physical performance but mental performance as well. Yeah, but can it improve the
structure of your brain? Things like cognitive training
and aerobic exercise can actually affect the
structure of the human brain. There’s something called
neuroplasticity, where your brain can adapt,
changing its configuration as you like learn to
play piano or something. We used to think only
younger brains could do this, but now we know it can occur
in the aging brain as well. Can’t “beet” that—or can you? We didn’t know… until now. Here’s your brain before and after a six-week exercise program,
measuring connectivity between various parts of
your brain that control movement. No big change. But, what about the same
amount of exercise before… and after drinking some beet juice too? Big difference. The exercise plus beetroot juice group developed brain networks
that more closely resembled those of younger adults,
showing the potential enhanced neuroplasticity conferred by combining exercise and nitrate-rich vegetables.