Beetroot DOES lower your blood pressure! You weren’t expecting that were you? Well, this is based upon some small studies, but it looks promising. Unlike some other supplements, we even have an explanation why it works. So why aren’t we doctors recommending everybody to take it? What on earth have we found to put us off this time?
Well, the first obvious thing is that the studies so far have been relatively small. But they are consistent in showing benefit and, as I mentioned above, we have good reason to expect them to. Beetroot contains a substance called inorganic nitrate which relaxes the walls of your blood vessels. Relaxed (wider) blood vessels means lower pressure inside them. Some of the traditional medicines we use for blood pressure work by a similar mechanism.
So, here’s the ‘but’ you’ve been waiting for… The problem we face is born from our ignorance about blood pressure itself. We know that lowering a high average blood pressure will generally reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes. However, it is the risk of heart attacks and strokes that we are really interested in. If we were to lower your blood pressure but you were still just as likely to have a heart attack or stroke then that would be a waste of time!
As you are no doubt aware, doctors have a myriad of different types of drug to try to lower your blood pressure. Whilst they all do lower your blood pressure, they differ when it comes to how well that translates into reducing heart attacks and strokes. But why? Surely lower blood pressure will always mean lower heart attacks and strokes?
This is where our ignorance about blood pressure starts to become apparent. We don’t know why there is this difference in benefit among the drugs we use. We are beginning to understand that blood pressure variability is important and we know that different drugs have different effects on this. This may have something to do with it. But currently we don’t have a standard way to measure that. Instead we stick to measuring average blood pressure – it’s not perfect, but it’s as good as we’ve currently got.
In time, we will hopefully learn more about blood pressure and understand why different drugs which all lower average blood pressure don’t have the same effect on the risk of heart attacks and strokes. But in the meantime, what can we do to ensure we are using the best treatment for blood pressure that not only lowers the numbers but also translates this into less heart attacks and strokes?
Slow and expensive
Unfortunately, the only answer we currently have is to do slow, expensive trials involving large numbers of people. This allows us to give lots of people something (a medication, beetroot, or whatever) and then see if less of them have heart attacks or strokes. That generally takes years and many thousands of people.
So, although lowering blood pressure is good, it is currently just the start in working out how a treatment might help people. Beetroot is taking the first steps and it looks promising. Hopefully someone will take it further and we may eventually be able to recommend something that doesn’t come from the pharmacy!