Dozens of studies now suggest that the nitrates in vegetables, such as beets and green leafy vegetables, may help not only sick people “as a low-cost prevention and treatment intervention for patients suffering from blood flow disorders” like high blood pressure and peripheral vascular disease, but also healthy people as an effective, natural performance-enhancing aid for athletes. Most of the studies were done with beet juice, though, which is why I was so delighted to see a study on whole beets, which showed the same benefit. But what about studies on whole green leafy vegetables?
There was a study a while ago suggesting that one of the reasons the Okinawans in Japan looked forward to many more years of good health at the same age at which many Americans and Europeans were dying is all the nitrate in their green leafy vegetables, which tends to bring down blood pressures. The reason I didn’t report on this at the time is because I had never heard of the vegetables in the study. I know what chrysanthemum flowers are, but I didn’t think most of my viewers (or I) would be able to find garland chrisantemum, ta cai, chin gin cai, Osaka shirona, nozavana (or nozawana) pickles, or water dropwort at the local store.
What about less exotic greens, like frozen spinach? Researchers wanted to test the immediate effects on our arteries of a single meal containing a cooked box of frozen spinach, for both arterial stiffness and blood pressure. First, they needed a meal to increase artery stiffness and pressure, so they gave people a chicken and cheese sandwich, which lowered the elasticity of their arteries within hours of eating. But, when they added the spinach, the opposite happened. After chicken and cheese, the force the heart had to pump went up within minutes, but the spinach kept things level. So, a meal with lots of “spinach can lower blood pressure and improve measures of arterial stiffness.”
That’s great for day-to-day cardiovascular health, but what if you want a whole food source that can improve your performance when you’re out hiking, for example? Beets and spinach aren’t the most convenient of foods when you’re out and about. Is there anything we can add easily to our trail mix? Well, if you look at a list of high-nitrate vegetables, you see celery, endive, lettuce, Swiss chard, and the like—not much you can just stick in your pocket. But what about fennel? That’s on the list. Could fennel seeds (which actually aren’t seeds at all, but the whole little fruits of the fennel plant) be the convenient, high-nitrate source we’re looking for?
Fennel seeds are “often used as mouth fresheners after a meal in both the Indian sub-continent and around the world.” You’ll typically see a bowl of fennel seeds, sometimes candy-coated, as you walk out of Indian restaurants. When you chew them, you can get a significant bump in nitric oxide production, which has the predictable vasodilatory effect of opening up blood vessels. This makes them a cheap and easy way to carry a lightweight, nonperishable source of nitrates. Researchers singled out mountaineers, thinking chewing fennel seeds could help maintain oxygen levels at high altitudes and help prevent HAPE—high altitude pulmonary edema—which is one of the leading killers of mountain climbers once you get more than a mile and a half or so over sea level. Don’t confuse HAPE with HAFE, though, which is caused by the expansion of gas at high altitudes—a condition known as high altitude flatus expulsion or “Rocky Mountain barking spiders.”
Fennel seeds may help with that, too, as they’ve been used traditionally as a carminative, meaning a remedy for intestinal gas. “Fennel has also shown antihirsutism activity,” combatting excessive hair growth in women, the so-called bearded woman syndrome. Indeed, applying a little fennel seed cream can significantly reduce it.
If fennel seeds have such a strong hormonal effect, should we be worried about chewing them? There have been cases reported of premature breast development among young girls drinking fennel seed tea a couple times a day for several months. Their estrogen levels were elevated, but, after stopping the tea, their chests and hormone levels went back to normal.
Current guidelines recommend against prolonged use in vulnerable groups—children under 12 and pregnant and breastfeeding women—and perhaps your pet rat, as rodents metabolize a compound in fennel called estragole into a carcinogen, but our cells appear able to detoxify it.
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations—2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not to Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.