Beetroot may have a bad reputation for staining clothes but it may be worth adding to your shopping list as we uncover its health benefits, among others, in this week’s Nutrition News.

Read the latest nutritional research here.

Beetroot for heart health

During and after menopause, the body produces less oestrogen, often leading to poorer blood vessel function and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. A new randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover clinical trial from The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) suggests that consuming beetroot juice daily may improve blood flow through blood vessels and support heart health generally.

The study, discussed in the article “Daily beetroot juice intake could help protect heart health after menopause”, involved 54 postmenopausal women. However, the final analysis included only 24 women: 12 in early postmenopause and 12 in late postmenopause. Participants were non-smokers, had a resting blood pressure below 130/80 mmHg, a BMI between 18.5 to 35 kg/m2, fasting LDL cholesterol below 160 mg/dL, haemoglobin A1C below 6%, and normal fasting blood sugar. They were not taking any cardiovascular medications or hormones at the time of the study.

Participants consumed two 2.3-ounce bottles of concentrated beetroot juice at the study's start, followed by one bottle daily for one week. Each bottle delivered the same nitrate level as three large beets. After a few weeks, they received nitrate-free beetroot juice as a placebo. Researchers used Doppler ultrasound to assess the effect of beetroot juice on brachial artery blood flow before and after consumption. They found that blood flow improved with daily nitrate-rich beetroot juice, but the effect faded within 24 hours of the last bottle.

Menopause reduces oestrogen levels, which in turn diminishes oestrogen's cardioprotective effects. This accelerates the development of heart disease risk factors such as increased LDL cholesterol, vascular stiffening, and high blood pressure. Oestrogen also serves as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, helping reduce the development of plaques that can lead to heart attacks. Consuming nitrate through plants can help increase nitric oxide availability in the body, aiding blood vessel function.

Leafy greens, stem vegetables, herbs, and root vegetables are the best sources of dietary nitrate. Plant-based nitrate is preferable to meat-based nitrate for heart health support. Although promising, larger trials are needed to confirm these findings and to consider recommending beets as a menopause support for women as part of a heart-healthy diet.

The keto diet for cognitive health

The ketogenic diet has its enthusiasts and critics, but it undeniably affects memory in older subjects. Research from Buck Institute and the University of Chile, reported in the article “How the ketogenic diet improves healthspan and memory in aging mice” has uncovered how this high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet supports memory and cognitive health. The study identifies a new molecular signalling pathway that enhances synapse function, explaining the diet's benefits on brain health and ageing. These findings suggest new strategies for targeting memory support without relying on the ketogenic diet itself.

"Our research shows that the ketogenic diet broadly benefits brain function, providing a mechanism to maintain and enhance this function during aging," said Christian González-Billault, PhD, senior author and professor at the Universidad de Chile and Buck Institute. John Newman, MD, PhD, who collaborated on the study, added that starting with older animals still improved brain health, with changes occurring relatively quickly.

Previous studies have shown that calorie restriction extends lifespan, but the new research indicates that it's more about cellular signals responding to nutrient availability. Ketone bodies—acetoacetate, β-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), and acetone—produced in the liver during glucose shortages play a crucial role.

This recent study aimed to determine how the ketogenic diet affects the brain at a molecular level. Subjects fed a diet of 90% fat and 10% protein showed improved memory function. Neurophysiological and behavioural tests confirmed the diet's benefits, which were linked to changes in synapse proteins in the hippocampus. The team discovered that BHB activates the protein kinase A pathway, crucial for synapse activity, suggesting BHB's role as a signalling molecule.

"This study connects ketone bodies' molecular mechanisms to brain improvement," said Newman. The next step is to explore whether BHB alone or targeted manipulation of the protein kinase A pathway can replicate these memory benefits without needing a ketogenic diet.

Folate may increase placenta size in expectant mothers

Folate, commonly referred to as folic acid, which is its synthetic form, plays a crucial role in the synthesis, repair, and methylation of DNA. Most research has focused on the effects of folate supplementation during the periconceptional period on foetal development, with less emphasis on how folate use during pregnancy affects placental development.

A study reported in the article “Folic acid may increase placenta size: Study” aimed to explore the impacts of folate supplementation at different stages of pregnancy on placental parameters at delivery. Conducted between May 2013 and September 2014, the study included 2,708 pregnant women from Ma’anshan City, Anhui Province, China. Information on folate use from one month before conception through delivery was collected, and placental length, width, and thickness were measured.

Multivariable logistic regression analysis assessed the effects of folate supplementation at different pregnancy stages on placental parameters. Propensity score weighting was used to enhance comparability between folate supplementation groups. Compared to non-users, folate supplementation before conception was associated with increased placental width (0.241 cm, 95% CI: 0.052–0.429, p = 0.013) and surface area (6.398 cm², 95% CI: 1.407–11.389, p = 0.012). Additionally, FA use in early and middle pregnancy was linked to increased placental thickness (0.061 cm, 95% CI: 0.004–0.117, p = 0.036; 0.066 cm, 95% CI: 0.004–0.129, p = 0.038).

Folate, as a carrier of one-carbon units, is essential in one-carbon metabolism, converting homocysteine to methionine and promoting the synthesis of S-adenosylmethionine (SAM), a crucial methyl donor in the body. Folate deficiency hinders nucleic acid synthesis and amino acid metabolism, impacting cell division and protein synthesis, particularly in rapidly dividing embryonic tissues. Pregnant women require significantly more folate due to the rapid development of the foetus and placenta, as well as increased blood volume.

The study's findings suggest that folate supplementation as a preconception support improves placental width and area, while supplementation during early to mid-pregnancy as an antenatal support increases placental thickness. However, further research is necessary to confirm these findings and understand the mechanisms behind them. Given the importance of maintaining high folate levels throughout pregnancy, continuous folate supplementation is recommended to support placental and foetal health.

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Alison Astill-Smith author Alison is the Founder of Metabolics who writes about Metabolics updates, events and natural healthcare. Her experience and passion for natural supplements and healthcare comes from her years of experience as a practising osteopath, having founded Metabolics in her search for high quality, natural products in her own work. Alison has been a qualified and practising Osteopath since 1981 and regularly gives seminars on a range of healthcare subjects to the wider practitioner community helping share her knowledge and experience.