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The flowers, produced on dense spikes, are wind-pollinated, and the fruit is a cluster of hard nutlets. The nominate subspecies, Beta vulgaris vulgaris, has been selectively bred into the cultivars beetroot, sugar beet, chard and fodder beet.
Various cultivars have been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times. Hippocrates advocated using the leaves as binding for wounds.
The Romans used it as a treatment for fevers and constipation and employed the juice, in particular, as an aphrodisiac.
Beetroot contains high concentrations of glutamine, which is the most abundant amino acid in the bloodstream. The body is able to produce it endogenously, but deficiencies can occur due to impaired detoxification mechanisms (eg, following trauma, in cancerous states and in chronic protein catabolism).
This amino acid is the main metabolic fuel for enterocytes in the small intestine, and plays a major role in the first line of immune defence in the intestine as well as in the body as a whole.
Glutamine deficiency has been implicated in immune dysfunction, because the amino acid serves as a main precursor of nucleotide synthesis, as well as an energy source for rapidly dividing cells, such as immune cells following an immune threat.
Red beet fibre fed to rats was also found to cause a pronounced increase in the activities of several enzymes, including superoxide dismutase and catalase, in the colon, liver and erythrocytes. This suggests that beet fibre aids detoxification function in the intestine, blood and liver.
In addition, dietary red beet fibre reduced the incidence of precancerous lesions in the rat colon.
Researchers at the University of Exeter have demonstrated that resting blood pressure was reduced in subjects after exercise, following the administration of beetroot juice. It was found that the high nitrate levels present in the juice caused a reduction in oxygen uptake, which allowed people to boost their stamina by 16 per cent.
High levels of nitrate in the beetroot juice are converted via nitrites to nitric oxide, which acts on the blood vessels walls to reduce blood pressure.
Incidentally, as aficionados of the French republican calendar (see The 13-year revolutionary calendar) will be aware, 25 October, or the fourth day of Brumaire, is Beetroot Day.