fMRI shows beetroot juice before exercise helps older brains

Using resting-state MRI functional brain network organization, scientists at Wake Forest University revealed that drinking a beetroot juice supplement before exercising improves performance in the brain of older individuals, mirroring the operations of a younger brain.

"We knew, going in, that a number of studies had shown that exercise has positive effects on the brain," said W. Jack Rejeski, PhD, study co-author in a statement. "But what we showed in this brief training study of hypertensive older adults was that, as compared to exercise alone, adding a beet root juice supplement to exercise resulted in brain connectivity that closely resembles what you see in younger adults."

The researchers noted that additional work will be needed to extend these findings, but suggest that what individuals eat while aging could be extremely important to maintaining brain health and functional independence.

The study, published in Journals of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, is the first experiment, according to Rejeski to test the combined effects of exercise and beetroot juice on functional brain networks in the motor cortex and secondary connections between the motor cortex and the insula, which support mobility.

The study featured 26 participants aged 55 and older who did not exercise, had high blood pressure and took no more than two medications for their condition. The individuals drank a beetroot juice supplement called Beet-It Sport one hour prior to a moderately intense, 50-minute walk on a treadmill, three times a week for six weeks. Half of these participants had Beet-It containing 560 mg of nitrate, while the other half received a placebo Beet-It with a small amount of nitrate.

Beets contain a high level of dietary nitrate, which turns into nitrite, and then nitric oxide (NO) when consumed. NO increases blood flow in the body, and various studies have proven that it can help with exercise performance in people of different ages.

"Nitric oxide is a really powerful molecule. It goes to the areas of the body which are hypoxic, or needing oxygen, and the brain is a heavy feeder of oxygen in your body," said Rejeski.

As you become more active, the brain’s somatomotor cortex, the area that processes information from the muscles, sorts out the cues entering from the body, thus resulting in exercise strengthening the somatomotor cortex. So with beetroot juice and exercise combined, more oxygen is delivered to the brain creating an environment for strengthening the somatomor cortex.

Researchers found that post-exercise, participants had similar levels of nitrate and nitrite in the blood before drinking the juice, however, those who had beetroot juice had much higher levels of nitrate and nitrite than the placebo group following exercise.