The human body does not take well to a sudden change in altitude, as travelers and mountain climbers know. If you normally live near sea level but fly to a city like La Paz, Bolivia (elevation: almost 12,000 feet), you might begin to get headaches, feel nauseous or dizzy, or become easily fatigued, due to the changes air pressure levels and the body’s now-limited ability to take in oxygen. In its extreme incarnations, the condition can be deadly.
In the Andes, visitors routinely drink coca tea to cure altitude sickness. Some medications can help prevent its onset, and oxygen treatments can alleviate the symptoms. But those who are determined to visit the highest points in the world might have a new option: beet juice.
At higher elevations, the blood vessels contract. But a new study in the journal Nitric Oxide finds that the root vegetable juice can effectively restore blood vessels whose function has been impaired by the low air pressure in high altitudes, helping the body distribute oxygen.
A study subject drinks beet juice near Mt. Everest. Image Credit: Harald Engan, Mid Sweden University
The body needs a compound called nitric oxide to maintain blood vessel function, but it can’t make it without oxygen. However, beet juice is naturally high in nitrate, which the body can turn into nitric oxide.
In a 39-day expedition to Kathmandu and the Himalayas, 11 volunteers—four women and seven men—drank beet juice with high nitrate levels, and a placebo beet juice with no nitrate. In a double-blind trial, the volunteers had their blood vessels checked by ultrasound, then they drank one of the juices. Their blood vessel function was tested again. Then the next day, they tried the other juice to see how the nitrate affected the body. After drinking the high-nitrate beet juice, their blood vessels were more relaxed than after drinking the placebo juice.
Beet juice may not be enough to get you to the top of Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen, but it might at least make you feel a little better on your mountain vacation.