Beets, bacteria and your (micro)biome
By Austine Siomos, MD
If you’re like me, you don’t love thinking about the crowds of bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract; however, gut bacteria or “microbiome” are big right now in research and worth the attention.
As I’m planning our garden for this year, I am excited about the possibilities. Usually about half of my plants actually grow, and half of those are eaten by Bambi. Despite all this the anticipation is still wonderful. Gardening is great for many reasons, and one of them is that it is good for your microbiome.
The human microbiome or microbiotia is fascinating and fairly new in common knowledge of the human body. Bacteria and other nonhuman life (bacteria, archaea, fungi and viruses) are most commonly known for their negative effects on humans. Historically this was the main area of scientific study, and for good reason. The first bacteria ever discovered was the bacteria in a dental cavity on September 17, 1683 when Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in Holland was able to see bacteria using a homemade microscope. This began the study of pathologic bacteria and the relationship to disease.
Now, however, just as much if not more study is going into the microscopic organisms that live on or in our bodies in a normal, non-dangerous way. In 2012, the Human Microbiome Project reached a major goal, by mapping the normal microbial makeup of healthy humans. They used genome sequencing techniques and created a reference database for the boundaries of normal microbial variation in humans.
There is still a massive amount to learn about the microbiome. According to expert Dr. Rob Knight, “We know quite a lot about associations between food and health, we know a bunch of associations between food and microbes, and we know a bunch about associations between microbes and health," but putting all that together is a formidable task.
So with all this, what do we know about the microbiome?
- Although most of us think primarily of the microbiome of the intestines or the gut microbiome, microorganisms live naturally in multiple places, including the skin, mouth gastrointestinal tract, the lung and others.
- We have at least as many microorganism cells as human cells in and on our bodies!
- There is much more variety in our microbiome than in our own human cells. In other words, what makes your health different from your neighbors may have more to do with the DNA of your microbiome than your own DNA.
- There is evidence that the human microbiome correlates with many diseases including autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, cancers such as colorectal cancer, as well as obesity and diabetes.
- A person’s microbiome is stable over time, although we also have some power to change our microbiome with diet and other environmental factors.
The big question that comes up when talking about our microbiome is, what can we do about our microbiome? Can we “hack” our microbiome or is it permanent? The answer, of course, is not completely clear. Science has given some hints so far though.
- Fiber is incredibly important to the microbiome. Our resident bacteria love fiber, and the more fiber in your diet, the better diversity of your good bacteria.
- Antibiotics decrease your microbiome diversity, and multiple round of antibiotics can permanently change your gut bacteria for the worse. Certainly if antibiotics are needed for a serious infection then that is important. Doctors like myself, however, are avoiding antibiotics when possible for this reason.
- Being clean is overrated. Yes, there are times when sterility is important, such as in the hospital or when someone in the house has a weak immune system. In everyday life, however, it is great to get dirty (such as when gardening). If you can eat vegetables or fruits right out of your garden without washing them this is recommended.
Beets can be planted in Montana in May. It can be best to start the seeds inside. Harvest is usually in September. Like other root vegetables, beets can be stored in cold conditions (around freezing) for months. They also keep in the fridge for weeks.
Not only are beets colorful and full of flavor, they are rich in antioxidants, folic acid, potassium, and fiber. They also contain unique antioxidants called betalains, which are currently being studied as a potential weapon in the fight against cancer. Betalains give beets their red hue.
Archeologic proof of beetroot use goes back as far as Neolithic period (10,000-2,000 BC), and has also been found around the time of the third dynasty in Egypt in the third millennium BC. Ancient Greeks cultivated beetroot in 300 BC, although they did not use the roots of the plant and only ate the leaves. But not to worry, they respected the root enough to offer it to the sun god Apollo in the temple of Delphi. They also considered it to be worth its weight in silver. Hippocrates used leaves of beetroot for binding and dressing wounds. The Talmud, written in 4th and 5th century, advises eating beetroot, among other things, for longer life. Romans used beetroot medicinally as a laxative or to cure fever.
Improve endurance in athletes: A large systemic review in 2017 combined 23 articles and concluded that supplementation with beetroot juice can improve cardiorespiratory endurance in athletes by increasing the maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) and improving the anaerobic threshold.
Naturally lower blood pressure and treat hypertension: There are numerous studies demonstrating that beetroot can treat blood pressure. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2017 in the Advances in Nutrition Journal examined more than 40 separate studies and concluded a significant effect of beetroot juice supplementation on systolic blood pressure (SBP) and diastolic blood pressure (DBP). This is thought to be due to the effect of healthy nitrates (not to be confused with nitrites!) present in beets.
Decrease inflammation: Most human diseases include inflammation as a primary issue. Beets contain pigments called betalains, which potentially possess a number of anti-inflammatory properties. Studies in rats with kidney inflammation have demonstrated a reduction in inflammation when the rats are given beetroot juice and beetroot extract. A study published in 2013 in humans with osteoarthritis demonstrated a reduction in pain.
Improve digestive health: One cup of beetroot contains over 3 grams of fiber. Fiber bypasses digestion, feeds the microbiome, increasing the diversity of the microbiome and also adds bulk to stool. This helps with regular bowel movements and prevent digestive conditions like constipation, inflammatory bowel disease and diverticulitis. Fiber is also associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases including colon cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes
Maintain or attain a healthy weight: Beets are low in calories and high in water. This is great for hydration and for satiation. Increasing intake of low calorie foods that are high in fiber and water has been associated with weight loss in many studies. Furthermore, despite their low calorie content, beets provide protein, up to 3 grams per cup of beets.
Beet Salad with Mojito Dressing
Note: Fortunately, because they keep so well, beets are available year round. They are lovely in spring and summer salads. This salad has a nice green sauce using tahini or sesame seed butter.
4 large beets or 5-8 small beets
mint leaves for garnish
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup lime juice
6 tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons water
1 small garlic clove, peeled
salt and pepper, to taste
optional: toasted sunflower seeds or nuts for a nice crunch on top of the salad
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. To roast the beets, coat the beets with olive oil and wrap each beet with a clove of garlic in aluminum foil or parchment paper. Roast in the oven until a fork goes in easily. The time will vary from 40-60 minutes, and possibly longer for large beets.
- Combine the dressing ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth
- Once the beets have cooled, slice them in ¼ inch thick slices and arrange in an attractive display
- Drizzle the beets with dressing
- Garnish with mint leaves and optional toasted nuts or sunflower seeds
First published in 406 Woman magazine, April/May 2018
About Dr. Siomos
I am a pediatric cardiologist at Rocky Mountain Heart & Lung in Kalispell. I trained first to become a pediatrician and then specialized in the study of pediatric hearts. I see children from before they are born until they are ready to see an adult cardiologist. I am passionate about the health of all children and families. My goal for all children is to promote healthy habits and avoidance of those types of heart disease that are generally considered to be adult problems.