If climbing Mount Everest is on your bucket list, you may want to add beet juice to your grocery shopping list. A recent study by Bakker et al. published in Nitric Oxide suggests that drinking beet juice may help prevent symptoms of altitude sickness like headache, fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, poor appetite, and insomnia.
The onset of high altitude illness occurs when your brain and other body tissues are starved for oxygen. As elevation increases the partial pressure of oxygen in the air decreases, meaning there is simply less pressure to move the oxygen from the air into our lungs, blood, and body tissues. Standing atop Everest at 8848 meters (29,029 ft) would feel like you were breathing 6% less oxygen than compared to sea level! Beet juice is a natural source of inorganic nitrates, which are metabolized inside the body to nitric oxide.
Nitric Oxide is essential for normal functioning of the vasculature and is a potent vasodilator, allowing for greater blood flow and oxygen delivery to tissues. Bakker and colleagues hypothesized that drinking beet juice might prevent the reduction in artery function that typically occurs at high altitudes. Their study participants drank either beet juice or a placebo and ascended from 1370 m elevation to 4200 m elevation. As expected, participants on the placebo experienced a decline in artery function, measured by an ultrasound test called flow mediated dilation (FMD). Amazingly, when participants drank the beet juice the altitude-induced drop in FMD was prevented! In addition to increased NO production and vasodilation, beet juice might also help prevent altitude sickness by improving the efficiency of oxygen usage within the mitochondria of the cells.
Researchers have found that the body can produce more energy per molecule of oxygen consumed when supplemented with beet juice. The application of this finding has been tested among athletes who have consistently shown the ability to race faster in time trial style events and to go longer before reaching exhaustion by adding beet juice to their pre-competition regimens.
Therefore, if you are an athlete competing at high elevation, you really want to get on the (beet) juice. If you plan on hiking, skiing, or climbing mountains, the safest way to acclimatize to the altitude is to ascend slowly. Your body has natural compensation mechanisms that help you adjust to the “thinner air.” However, it can take weeks before these fully kick in. To boost your body’s acclimatization process, prevent high altitude illness, and feel as spry as a mountain goat in the Andes, follow these dietary strategies:
• Eat at least 8 servings of vegetables and fruits per day, especially leafy greens and berries which are high in micronutrients and antioxidants.
• Avoid high-fat and heavily salted foods, as they can actually impair arterial function by slowing blood flow and decreasing NO production.
• Drink enough fluid to ensure adequate hydration but do not over-hydrate. The best way to monitor fluid status is by the color of your urine which should be clear to pale yellow in color without any foul odor.
• Avoid alcohol which can interfere with respiratory function and disrupt normal sleeping patterns.
• Pack BeetPerformer Beet Juice in your backpack and drink a can daily to wash down your GORP (Good Old Raisins & Peanuts).
Tara Martine, MS, RD, LDN is the Health Promotion Registered Dietitian at Tyndall Air Force Base and the female overall winner of the 2014 Savannah Rock N’ Roll Marathon. Tara earned her BS in mathematics from The College of William and Mary. She holds a Master’s degree in nutrition from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a member of The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics as well as the Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition practice group. Her areas of expertise include sports nutrition, weight loss, and plant-based nutrition.