Research Gets the Pulses Racing

Manitoba crops can improve vascular health

Dr. Peter Zahradka has the utmost respect for cardiac surgeons at St. Boniface Hospital and elsewhere, but, he says, “I’d like to be able to put them out of business.”

Dr. Zahradka, Principal Investigator, Molecular Physiology, Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine, spends many hours in his lab at St. Boniface Hospital’s Albrechtsen Research Centre investigating how Manitoba pulse crops can help him achieve his goal. He starts from the premise that keeping blood vessels as elastic as possible is the key to success.

“I’ve said it for many years now: a heart attack is caused by a disease of blood vessels. A stroke is caused by a disease of the blood vessels. If you work on the heart, you’re working after the heart attack and my personal view is I would rather prevent the heart attack from happening in the first place; prevent the stroke from happening in the first place.”

“I would rather prevent the heart attack from happening in the first place.”

His lens extends beyond basic cardiac care. Dr. Zahradka and his colleagues also shine a light on rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, and type 2 diabetes. Atherosclerosis (the stiffening of the arteries) is a common factor in all of these. When the vessels stiffen, these and other conditions are more likely to occur. Heredity is a factor; so are age and obesity.

That all said, Dr. Zahradka is excited about the prospects of pulse crops and buckwheat to help address the issue. Pulses are the dried seeds of specific legumes, including lentils, chickpeas, dried peas, and beans – staples of the Canadian prairies.

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“We know that pulses are good for our blood vessels. We’ve got that now. We’ve done it in studies at the laboratory level and we’ve done it in studies in people,” says Dr. Zahradka, who has worked at St. Boniface Hospital since 1991. “For the life of me, I could not get more excited over the fact that we actually have something that could make stiff arteries more flexible and reversing them back down to youth. It’s almost an anti-aging type of effect.”

We all know that lentils are good for us because our grandparents told us so based on what they observed and assumed. Now, thanks to laboratory and clinical research, we know for certain. As with all such discoveries, the challenge now is to get the word out to the medical community, government, and the general public in a way that influences public health – and the economy.

“Farmers would be happy to grow this material. Processers would be happy to supply the material. I’m sure there are stores that would be happy to sell the material,” says Dr. Zahradka of the potential market impact. “We don’t have the money to take it from that concept stage to develop the actual product that we can market. Are we happy? Oh wonderfully happy. Are we frustrated? Yes, we’re very frustrated because it’s the ultimate dream to take your research and make it relevant to the general public. I can talk about it all I want, but really what I want people to do is to be able to go to the store and get something that we know will actually help their health, that will keep them alive longer – and not only alive, but in better health than they would otherwise be.”

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The research started in 2006 and focused on why pulses were good for you, what they actually did in the body, and what is the right amount to take.

“The people on our first study had peripheral artery disease, which meant that they had atherosclerotic lesions in their legs, which prevented good blood flow reaching their leg muscles and going down to the ankle. A lot of the people with that kind of condition have difficulty walking a big distance because their legs start to cramp because they don’t get enough oxygen for their muscles to be working properly. They are also subject to problems with their feet, amputations, and they are 10–20 times more susceptible to a heart attack or stroke,” explains Dr. Zahradka. “Think of essentially coronary artery disease, with the lesions in your coronary arteries causing a heart attack. Well, these are causing problems with the legs. The issue is it’s the same disease whether it affects your heart, your brain, or any other vessel in your body, it’s just where it comes first. It’s still the same disease.”

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In one phase of their research, Dr. Zahradka and his colleagues determined that consuming half a cup of mixed beans, or half a cup of green or yellow peas, or half a cup of chickpeas, or half a cup of red and green lentils – every day – will improve blood flow to the legs. The foods simply unstiffen the arteries.

Dr. Zahradka is grateful for the experience of conducting his research at St. Boniface Hospital, and grateful for the funding he has received from St. Boniface Hospital Foundation. He’s been hard at work for 25 years, has made important progress, but still seeks to learn more about functional foods and human health. His curiosity has never diminished.

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“If you’re not curious, you’re dead. That’s my personal view. That’s what life is all about – learning, constantly learning, and that’s what I am doing right now, still,” he says. “Even though I’ve just turned 60, I’m still learning and I want to keep learning and I want other people to learn.”

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