Priming the Proton Pump

Priming the Proton Pump
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To understand how beets could reduce the oxygen cost of exercise while improving athletic performance, one must review the biochemistry of energy production (ATP synthase), and the body’s conversion of nitrates to nitrites into nitric oxide.

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What could possibly be in beet juice to so revolutionize the field of sports physiology? First, a quick biochemistry breather. Our body uses oxygen to create ATP, the energy currency of our bodies. Every time we think; every time we blink; every time we flex a muscle; we use up ATP, which has to be replenished by breathing more oxygen—or we die.

The enzyme that makes ATP (ATP synthase), deep inside our cells, is literally a microscopic rotary mechanical motor. Oxygen causes the flow of protons, and like a water wheel in that flow, the enzyme turns, and makes ATP. Like any motor, it’s not perfectly efficient. There’s some slippage of the gears. There’s proton leakage out the edges. But it’s an extraordinary mechanism.

Okay, so where do beets come in? Well, beets offer one of the most concentrated sources of dietary nitrate, which is absorbed in our stomach, and then actively concentrated and pumped back into our mouth through our salivary glands, because our body knows that there are special commensal bacteria that live on our tongue.

Our tongue bacteria take these nitrates, and convert them into nitrites, which are then re-swallowed, absorbed again, and then make their way to our cells, and then converted into a third compound—nitric oxide, which then acts on the proton pump to either reduce the slippage, or plug up the leaks, or even take the place of oxygen in the whole contraption.

We’re still not sure, but this is why they think beets are able to reduce the oxygen cost of exercise, while improving athletic performance.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is transcript contributed by Bruce A. Hamilton.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

What could possibly be in beet juice to so revolutionize the field of sports physiology? First, a quick biochemistry breather. Our body uses oxygen to create ATP, the energy currency of our bodies. Every time we think; every time we blink; every time we flex a muscle; we use up ATP, which has to be replenished by breathing more oxygen—or we die.

The enzyme that makes ATP (ATP synthase), deep inside our cells, is literally a microscopic rotary mechanical motor. Oxygen causes the flow of protons, and like a water wheel in that flow, the enzyme turns, and makes ATP. Like any motor, it’s not perfectly efficient. There’s some slippage of the gears. There’s proton leakage out the edges. But it’s an extraordinary mechanism.

Okay, so where do beets come in? Well, beets offer one of the most concentrated sources of dietary nitrate, which is absorbed in our stomach, and then actively concentrated and pumped back into our mouth through our salivary glands, because our body knows that there are special commensal bacteria that live on our tongue.

Our tongue bacteria take these nitrates, and convert them into nitrites, which are then re-swallowed, absorbed again, and then make their way to our cells, and then converted into a third compound—nitric oxide, which then acts on the proton pump to either reduce the slippage, or plug up the leaks, or even take the place of oxygen in the whole contraption.

We’re still not sure, but this is why they think beets are able to reduce the oxygen cost of exercise, while improving athletic performance.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is transcript contributed by Bruce A. Hamilton.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Video thanks to Said Sannuga.

Doctor's Note

What sports physiology revolution am I talking about? See my video, Doping With Beet Juice. Daily viewers of NutritionFacts.org may recognize nitric oxide, featured a few weeks ago in The Power of NO. If bacteria on our tongue play a critical role in this process, what would happen to vegetable-enhanced athletic performance if we made the mistake of swishing with an antiseptic mouthwash? Find out in Don’t Use Antiseptic Mouthwash.

And Happy Valentine’s day, everyone! Check out my blog post: Atkins Diet and Erectile Dysfunction for tips on extending one’s love life, as well as the life of your love.

For more context, check out my associated blog post: Using Greens to Improve Athletic Performance.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

15 responses to “Priming the Proton Pump

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  1. What sports physiology revolution am I talking about? See yesterday’s video, Doping with beet juice. Daily viewers of NutritionFacts.org may recognize nitric oxide, featured a few weeks ago in The power of NO. If bacteria on our tongue play a critical role in this process, what would happen to vegetable-enhanced athletic performance if we made the mistake of swishing with an antiseptic mouthwash? Find out in tomorrow’s video, and in the meanwhile please feel free to check hundreds of my other videos on more than a thousand subjects. And happy Valentine’s day everyone! Check out my blog post Atkins Diet and Erectile Dysfunction for tips on extending one’s love life as well as the life of your love.

    1. Hi MacSmiley,

      Good question. He is talking about the proton pumps that are present in the electron transport chain in the inner membrane of all of our mitochondria (the powerhouse organelle of the cell). These pumps are what keeps the ATP factory working and producing, day in, day out. The proton pumps in your stomach are similar in that they are utilizing hydrogen as well, but for a completely different purpose. Hope that clears it up!

  2. I love the film clips you’ve inserted in your videos the last couple of days: the chest with the beating heart yesterday and the ATP-synthase animation today. Kudos and Great job!

    1. As noted in my video about the oxalates in turmeric versus cinnamon (Oxalates in Cinnamon), it’s not just the amount that matters but also how well particular oxalates are absorbed, and the bioavailability of oxalates in beets is relatively poor (6 times less so than spinach, for example). Cooking the beets could cut levels about 25% but for the rare person with a condition like idiopathic calcium nephrolithiasis (a type of kidney stones) that needs a low-oxalate diet, a better high-nitrate vegetable choice would be arugula.

  3. I read in the book “The Nitric Oxide (No) Solution” that kale is the top source of nitrates, far better than beets. I wonder if with kale one gets the same effects as with beets, perhaps improved proportionally?

  4. Dear Dr. Gregar, excellent video..as always. However I wonder could you the source of the diagram shown at 1:05? It shows the systemic metabolism of nitrates & nitrites?

    Many thanks…

  5. Your website is really slow. I have watched videos here before. It’s a great site, but today I can’t watch anything. Are you having issues?

  6. Dr. Gregor, A bike-racing friend of mine now swears by beet juice and has a juicer ready at all his race venues. But I just found bottled beet & purple carrot juice in the grocery store. Will pasteurization ruin the beneficial effect, and if so, is it know by how much? Sure would save time and compost if a partial substitute for home-juiced.

    1. Most of the studies on beets and athletic performance have used pasteurized “Beet It, James White Drinks.” I am only aware of one study using whole cooked beets: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22709704 This study was positive for “individuals seeking performance benefits to obtain nitrates from whole vegetables”.

      I would recommend eating the whole cooked beets for health and to enhanced athletic performance. For health benefits of the whole food versus the juice see Dr. Greger’s video: http://nutritionfacts.org/video/juicing-removes-more-than-just-fiber/

      My half marathon personal best had been 1:14:30s. After eating an oatmeal breakfast with one cooked, chopped beet in it, I had one of my best performances of my life: 1:11:17 for the ½ marathon which is a 5:25 pace/mile. I have been a fan of carb loading with beets before a race ever since.

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