A substance called nitrate, which is abundantly found in vegetables like beetroot, spinach and lettuce, boosts the cellular power plants of the muscles, known as the mitochondria.
Inorganic nitrate has been linked for half a century to negative health effects, but contrary evidence has emerged more recently. Prior research has shown how nitrate is converted by the body to NO, a molecule that’s involved in many numerous functions of the body, such as cell metabolism, the immune defence and blood pressure regulation.
For this study, healthy people were given nitrate equivalent of 200-300g of lettuce or spinach for 3 days, after which they performed a cycling task. Thigh muscle samples were then analysed and compared to similar samples from the same people after having taken a placebo instead. Following ingestion of nitrate, a considerable improvement was observed in mitochondria efficiency, which used less oxygen and generated more of the energy-rich molecule ATP.
The mitochondria play an important role in the metabolism of cells, and improved function of the mitochondria almost certainly has many positive effects on our bodies, and could explain a number of vegetables’ health benefits.
Because the study results reveal that nitrate reduces oxygen consumption while exercising, they are of sports-physiological interest. They’re however also of potential significance to diseases which involve mitochondrial dysfunction, like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The researchers have also demonstrated that the blood pressure of healthy people is reduced by nitrate, and components of the metabolic syndrome, a pre-stage of diabetes, is counteracted in laboratory animals by nitrate. Other research in animal models has shown that nitrate and nitrite has protective effects against stroke and heart attack.