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Tech Digest: Benefits of Fasting and Beets as a Legitimate Super Food

 -- Published: Monday, 28 September 2015 | Print  | Disqus 

By Patrick Cox 

Excuse me if I ramble on today. Finishing the book project, on top of my writing and research routine, is putting a lot of pressure on me, so Iím sort of making it up as I go. Another consequence of a busy work schedule is that I occasionally skip a workout. I didnít do that today, however, for several reasons.

The most obvious is that exercise is one of the most effective anti-aging therapies known. Iíve previously cited some of the studies that show the inverse correlation between strength and mortality. In simple terms, that means the stronger you are, the longer you are likely to be healthy and alive. Not exercising, in my opinion, is as self-destructive as smoking.

So I started the day by setting a ďPRĒ for deadlifts. PR in fitness circles is the acronym for ďpersonal recordĒ and I did three sets of five deadlifts at a heavier weight than Iíve ever lifted before. If you donít know what a deadlift is, this video shows good form for the exercise.

This amuses me because I wouldnít have predicted 30 years ago, when I was in my 30s, that I would be the strongest in my life today. Iím more convinced than ever that this has a lot to do with the nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) precursors Iíve been taking for several years, though I wonít revisit the science again today. Iíve written about these compounds and their effects on cell health and performance extensively. Animal studies, in fact, have shown that aged muscle cells undergo a quite remarkable rejuvenation when NAD+ levels are restored to youthful levels.

Something, however, was different this morning. First of all, I finished my third cycle of an extremely low calorie five-day fasting mimicking diet (FMD) yesterday. For five days, I lived on about 40% of the calories needed to maintain my ideal body weight. This regimen, of course, is based on research by Dr. Valter Longo, the Edna M. Jones Professor of Biogerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology and director of the USC Longevity Institute.

If I continued to consume that level of calories, I would eventually die, but Longo has shown that five-day FMDs on a monthly basis reduced cancer and extended life spans in animals. This article in USC News gives a good overview of Longoís research. For obvious reasons, he couldnít do life span studies in humans, but the people who did FMDs as part of his study exhibited the same kinds of improvements as the animals. This includes improved mental function, immune system function, glucose processing, improved blood pressure, and the selective loss of visceral adipose tissueóthe belly fat that crowds organs and carries particular health risks. Moreover, both human and animal subjects demonstrated no loss of lean muscle mass.

For anybody serious about strength training, this last point is a seeming miracle. Everybody who seriously lifts ďknowsĒ that dieting results in the loss of both fat and muscle. The FMD regimen apparently manages to avoid this problem.

My nutritional biologist wife, incidentally, insists that I point out that this is an experimental diet that needs clinical validation. She, however, has done the FMD regimen with me and reports the same benefits. Longo himself wonít recommend the program until itís approved by the FDA as an adjunct to cancer therapies. This is the right attitude for a scientist because someone in ill health might experience problems while doing the FMD regimen and blame the diet. So, whatever you do, donít emulate the kind of diet described in the study titled, ďA Periodic Diet that Mimics Fasting Promotes Multi-System Regeneration, Enhanced Cognitive Performance, and HealthspanĒ that can be downloaded at this link. At least refrain from doing it for now. Seriously. Donít do it without talking to your doctor.

I have no idea if the FMD will be approved by regulators, but I believe this is the first true breakthrough in nutritional therapy. The title of the paper may seem technical or mundane, but it isnít. There are powerful and expensive drugs that donít accomplish the benefits demonstrated in that study.

I think, by the way, that the reason FMD is so effective is that it emulates the conditions our ancestors experienced and adapted to. I suspect, in fact, that FMD will eventually be shown to be a superior anti-aging strategy to chronic calorie restriction (CR), which is currently the most effective anti-aging therapy extensively studied. There are more effective therapies in the pipeline, but they havenít yet reached mainstream research.

FMD works, Iím convinced, because it emulates nutritional conditions experienced by our primitive forebears. They did not live in permanent CR or even paleo diet lifestyles, rather they went through alternating periods of near starvation and abundance. When the tribe killed the bison or found the field of edible plants, everybody ate really, really well. At times, howeveróespecially in winterópeople were hungry and survived on diets that would have killed them in the long run.

This cycle of feast and famine seems now to approximate the ideal nutritional lifestyle. As Iíve previously written, itís become increasingly apparent that modernity has abolished the extended periods of hunger that our bodies need to maximize metabolic health. CR, standard paleo, and the common intermittent fasting strategies donít really replicate those conditions. FMD, however, seems to.

So, I was really interested to see what my workout would be like right after my third five-day period of pretty severe calorie restriction. By happenstance, the day following the FMD was deadlift day. The deadlift is widely considered the ultimate exercise. Done correctly, the deadlift involves nearly every muscle in the bodyófrom handgrip through the neck and lats, to the small muscles of the lower legs and feet. After a heavy deadlift day, I can feel it even in my abs.

I love deadlifts and I hate them. I know how good they are for me and I look forward in theory to deadlift day. In practice, though, every time I chalk up, cinch in my belt, and stare at that bar on the ground, Iím filled with a dread verging on panic.

But yesterday, everything was easy and I set a new PR. There was one other variable in the equation, however. An hour or so before lifting, I downed a pint of beet juice.

Thereís been a lot of buzz over the past few years about the nutritional value of beets for athletes. Hereís an article from the University of Exeter last year about the remarkable increases in endurance experienced by athletes using beet juice as a supplement. At least one publication has stated that a diet rich in beets produces similar results to blood dopingóthe practice of augmenting red blood cells to improve aerobic capacity. This can be done with drugs or by transfusing the athletesí own red blood cells, collected long before a competition.

Perhaps because Iím so impressed with the effects of FMD, I began to think more about beets and wonder why I wasnít eating more of them. Beets have high levels of bioavailable nitrate, a component used in the production of nitric oxide (NO), the gaseous neurotransmitter that provokes vasodilation or the widening of blood vessels. Increasing nitric oxide production does not just improve athletic performance, it reduces blood pressure and thereby the risk of heart disease and stroke. Lack of NO contributes to eye diseases such as macular degeneration as well as erectile dysfunction and other diseases.

One recently published study out of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis specifically tested beet juice on patients with heart disease. The benefits, according to one of the researchers quoted in this MedLinePlus article, were comparable to two or three months of resistance or strength training. That isnít insignificant because it could give heart patients the ability to climb stairs and get out of chairs. Hereís the link to the source paper, ďAcute Dietary Nitrate Intake Improves Muscle Contractile Function in Patients with Heart Failure: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Randomized TrialĒ in the journal Circulation: Heart Failure. Hereís a link to a Washington University article about the study.

Another study documenting the benefits of beet juice was performed by The University of Exeterís Sports and Health Sciences department. Published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, it is titled, ďBeetroot juice and exercise: pharmacodynamic and dose-response relationships.Ē This study focuses on athletic performance and optimum doses. According to the researchers, a dose containing 0.6g natural dietary nitrate delivers maximum benefits, which peak after about 2.5 hours and disappear after 12 hours. Maybe the most interesting aspect of the Exeter study is that researchers found improvements in cognitive function, perhaps due to improved circulation in the brain.

So it really seems that beet juice may help prevent diseases caused or complicated by age-related decreases in NO production. We know that even small reductions in blood pressure can have significant long-term benefits. The University of Edinburgh study referenced in this Boots WebMD article, for example, showed that exposure to sunshine increases nitric oxide production by some process other than vitamin D absorption, yielding lower blood pressure and improved cardiovascular health. So get a little sun, even if youíre taking vitamin D supplements.

Beets can also upgrade your ability to perform exercise, meaning that it will help you become more fit faster by improving your ability to lift weights, walk, run, or perform some other form of physical training. So beets can reduce the risk of disease through several avenues, directly and indirectly, while making you smarter by improving blood circulation in the brain.

Turning to the Expert

So I called Frank Jaksch, the CEO and co-founder of ChromaDex, which is what I usually do when I have a question regarding recent research into nutritional or nutraceutical developments. ChromaDex has turned the full panoply of scientific tools to the analysis and production of naturally occurring compounds.

Though there is increasing interest in naturally occurring compounds, ChromaDex was the first company to provide the services that have long been available for researchers studying synthetic chemicals for researchers studying natural products. As the primary supplier of pure natural compounds for research purposes, Jaksch now sits at the locus of information about research conducted on natural products in academia, as well as the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.

So I asked him if there were any beet extract products that he would recommend. Jaksch surprised me by answering ďno.Ē Rather, he suggested that the best way to get the benefits of beets is to eat the food version, whether itís in the form of juice or cooked beets.

This makes sense, though, for several reasons. First, the research indicates that consuming more than the optimal dose has no therapeutic value and itís relatively easy to take those doses in food form. Secondly, it would be possible to consume toxic levels of beat nitrate if it were taken in the form of a concentrated supplement.

Happily, I love my wifeís borscht, which came down to her from a Ukrainian or Belarusian grandmother. My favorite beet recipe, though, is a variation of this version of a Moroccan beat salad. I donít boil the beets though. I live in Florida so I cook them on the grill in a heat proof container to capture the juices. Also, I add quite a bit more cumin, garlic and lemon juice than the recipe recommends, and I throw in a little xylitol for sweetness to complement the acidity of the lemon.

As I write this, itís early in the morning and Iíve already had a particularly long day with several taxing conference calls. I notice, however, that Iím alert and relatively energetic. The FMD and the beet juice are both known to increase cognition, and I take other supplements that have the same effect. At this point, itís getting difficult for me to separate their effects, but I know one thing for sure: not that long ago, I wouldnít have been feeling or thinking as well as I am right now. We live in pretty wonderful times. Wait. Thatís more than one thing.

Patrick Cox

To begin reading Patrickís Tech Digest newsletter for free each Friday, simply click here. At Patrickís Transformational Technologies site, you can join Tech Digest by entering your email address at the top right of the page. 

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