Green veg: a one-stop-shop for a healthier life?

3 December 2014        

A bunch of leafy green kale

In a recently published study researchers showed how eating more leafy greens can thin the blood and help oxygen get where it is needed in the body more efficiently. 

We funded pioneering research at the Universities of Cambridge and Southampton which proved the beneficial effects of spinach, kale and beetroot on the heart and body. Researchers have shown how nitrates, small chemicals found in these veg, play such a big role. 

These findings highlight how a simple change in diet could help alleviate symptoms of people suffering from certain heart defects, high blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack. It could also help people with cardiovascular conditions associated with living at high altitude.

Getting oxygen where it is needed

Some congenital heart defects cause blood to bypass the lungs, where it usually picks up oxygen, and pumps deoxygenated blood back around the body. This blood is unable to supply organs and tissues with the oxygen they require to work efficiently, and the medical term for this is hypoxia. Hypoxia is also a major symptom of many other cardiovascular diseases and a major factor in altitude sickness. 

The body responds to low oxygen levels by making more red blood cells. Red blood cells are vehicles that transport oxygen around the body, and therefore an increase in red blood cells should result in a large capacity to carry oxygen to where it is needed, matching demand. 

However, if the body is starved of oxygen for a long time like it is during some heart diseases, and at altitude, too many red blood cells are produced and this makes the blood very thick. When blood becomes too thick it is no longer able to pass through all the small veins and arteries and therefore cannot efficiently supply organs and tissues with the oxygen they need to work. This can be fatal. 

The researchers, working with Xtreme Everest, have filmed this phenomenon using a special camera, capturing blood flowing through capillaries at sea level and at 6400 meters above sea level.

In this new study researchers show that when rats are in a low oxygen environment, their livers produce lots of erythropoietin, a hormone that stimulates formation of red blood cells, and the rat’s blood became more viscous, as expected. However, when rats were fed an amount of nitrates similar to people eating a few more green vegetables their livers could function normally when using less oxygen.

Because their livers could function efficiently at low oxygen levels they no longer produce as much erythropoietin, this resulted in fewer red blood cells being produced and the blood remained thin. The thin blood was able to carry enough oxygen to all corners of the body because it could now flow through all of the small blood vessels efficiently.

How eating veg can help

The only downfall is some people don’t like vegetables!

Dr Tom Ashmore
Researcher on the study

Dr Murray is keen to see if the same phenomenon occurs in people and has said:

“Reducing the thickness of blood, without compromising the amount of oxygen delivered to organs and tissues, may help prevent blood from unnecessarily clotting, reducing the risk of a stroke or heart attacks in patients with existing cardiovascular diseases as well as in healthy individuals.”

Dr Ashmore, who carried out the studies, also suggests that patients suffering from mild hypoxia may help alleviate symptoms of their own condition by eating more vegetables that are high in nitrates:

“The best thing about nitrate is that it is not expensive, treatment is not invasive and not much is needed to observe a significant effect. The only downfall is some people don’t like vegetables!”

Professor Jeremy Pearson, our Associate Medical Director, said:

“It has long been thought that nitrate-rich vegetables have cardiovascular benefits. This research suggests that a previously unsuspected mechanism by which nitrate controls red blood cell production is important. These findings add to the evidence that dietary nitrate promotes cardiovascular health.”

This study was also funded by Research Councils UK, The WYNG Foundation, EU framework 7 inheritance project, and the Wellcome Trust.

Simply eating your vegetables this Christmas can help you fight for every heartbeat, but if you want to help others do the same please donate.