75 million people currently living in the United States have hypertension, or high blood pressure — around one quarter of the total population. Ever since you were a kid, every doctor’s visit has included a blood pressure reading. The nurse wraps the cuff around your upper arm, pumps it up until it squeezes you tight, and then slowly lets the air out until she gets a reading — two numbers, neither of which you totally understand. So what DO these numbers actually mean? What is the connection between blood pressure and heart health? Why do so many Americans have high blood pressure? And most importantly, what can you do to lower your blood pressure or avoid hypertension altogether?
Blood pressure is a measurement of, quite literally, the pressure of blood as it’s pumped through the major arteries by the heart. Think of water pressure when you’re in the shower. A shower head with high water pressure shoots out more water per second. Low pressure means less water per second. Blood pressure works the same way and is even measured the same way — in millimeters of mercury, or mmHg, a standard unit of fluid pressure. The first number, or your systolic blood pressure, is the
pressure of blood being pumped through the arteries while your heart is contracting, or beating. The second number, your diastolic blood pressure, is the pressure in between beats while your heart is filling with blood and preparing to contract again. Hypertension is defined as a systolic blood pressure greater than 140 mmHg OR a diastolic blood pressure greater than 90 mmHg, recorded on a consistent basis. Normal blood pressure is defined as a systolic blood pressure of less than 120 mmHg AND a diastolic blood pressure of less than 80 mmHg.
How fast and hard your blood is getting pumped through your arteries on a daily basis makes a difference when it comes to cardiovascular health. Continuous wear and tear on the arteries due to high blood pressure leads to a narrowing and stiffening of the arteries, which is one of many contributing factors to heart attack and stroke. Many factors that influence general health, including obesity, activity, diet, smoking, and alcohol intake cause the heart to work harder, pumping out blood at a faster rate, which results in hypertension. It is generally more helpful to think of high blood pressure as a symptom or indication of poor health and not as a direct cause of disease.
Hypertension can also run in families. Certain individuals may have a genetic predisposition to higher blood pressure, even when accounting for lifestyle factors. A *mostly* healthy individual with high blood
pressure may or may not experience any side effects or an increased chance of heart attack or stroke if he or she is otherwise in good health. When blood pressure increases over time as you age is when you should be more concerned, as this is a sign of declining health, and you become much more likely to develop disease. This is why it is important to assess your blood pressure over time. A dramatic increase in blood pressure can be a warning sign that you aren’t as healthy as you think.
Because hypertension is generally a symptom of poor health rather than a cause, blood pressure medication can only go so far to improve the health of a hypertensive patient. It is true that lowering one’s blood pressure through medication can mean taking less of a toll on one’s arteries, but you are in no way addressing the many causes of high blood pressure by going on medication. Blood pressure medications can also have unfortunate side effects, including frequent urination, erectile dysfunction, generalized weakness, fatigue, leg cramps, asthma, cold hands and feet, depression, insomnia, coughing, skin rash, loss of taste, constipation, dizziness, headache, irregular heartbeat, heart palpitations, swollen ankles, drowsiness, anemia, dry mouth, fever, diarrhea, heartburn, stuffy nose, nightmares, excessive hair growth, fluid retention, joint pain, swelling around the eyes, and stomach pain — and this is by no means an exhaustive list.
When an individual exhibits poor nutrition, inactivity, obesity, high alcohol intake, smoking, lack of sleep, high caffeine intake, or a number of other lifestyle factors, the body naturally raises the blood pressure. We do this to improve circulation during periods of low nutrition and high stress. The circulatory system is how the body gets nutrients, oxygen, and the many necessary organic compounds that are vital to life out to every cell in the body. When stores of these substances are low, cells begin to die. As an emergency response to prevent cellular death, the body raises the blood pressure to get nutrients and oxygen out to the cells faster. There are many situations, as in during exercise, when this is a positive thing. Cardiovascular exercise generally increases the need for oxygen, so temporarily raising one’s blood pressure helps get oxygen to the cells faster. However, when the body is in chronically poor health, hypertension becomes a permanent state and can lead to other health concerns such as arteriosclerosis.
In order to avoid this problem completely, it is important to keep the body in good working order. As mentioned above, high blood pressure is caused by physical stress. This may mean poor nutrition, inactivity, drug use including alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, exposure to environmental toxins such as
lead and cadmium, lack of sleep, emotional stress, electromagnetic stress (looking at screens all day), and illness. The BEST and most effective way to prevent (or reverse) hypertension is to minimize all of these stress-inducing factors as much as possible. However, if you have already been diagnosed with hypertension or prehypertension, there are a number of things you can do to reduce your blood pressure — without resulting to medication.
What You Can Do
- Increase Magnesium and Potassium Intake: Sodium and salt intake are often connected to high blood pressure in the dominant paradigm. In about 30-50% of hypertensive patients, lowering one’s salt intake has an effect on lowering blood pressure. It is important to note that this only applies to sodium chloride, or table salt. Other sources of sodium, such as sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, do not have an impact on blood pressure. Because not every hypertensive patient benefits from salt reduction in the diet, it is quite likely that it is actually an imbalance of electrolytes that results in high blood pressure. Raising one’s intake of potassium and magnesium can have a similar or even more profound effect on lowering blood pressure as restricting sodium intake.
- Reduce Sugar Intake: High sugar intake (10% or more of total caloric intake) has been linked to elevated blood pressure, particularly in individuals considered to be carbohydrate-sensitive. A diabetic, hypoglycemic, or insulin resistant individual will likely experience elevated blood pressure when his or her diet contains 10% or more of total calories from sugar.
- Watch Your Caffeine Intake: Caffeine has a significant impact on blood pressure, especially in men with borderline hypertension. For hypertensive individuals who consume five or more cups of coffee per day, eliminating coffee from the diet has been shown to reverse hypertension completely.
- Practice Moderation When Drinking: Similarly, there is a strong positive correlation between high blood pressure and alcohol consumption. In moderate-to-heavy alcohol users with hypertension, eliminating or significantly decreasing alcohol consumption has been shown to lower blood pressure dramatically.
- Determine Allergens: Consuming allergenic foods can raise blood pressure significantly. If you’ve never been IgE or IgG tested for food allergies or sensitivities and you have high blood pressure, then having this test done may indicate foods to avoid in order to lower your blood pressure. Undergoing an elimination diet followed by individual food challenges can give you this same information, although this route may be difficult and inconvenient for the average person.
- Eat Your Veggies: Across various trials, the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), Mediterranean diet, whole foods vegetarian diet, and raw foods diet have all been correlated with a reduction in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. In all four cases, this is likely due to a decreased consumption of poor quality animal foods and processed foods as well as increased micronutrient levels from higher fruit and vegetable intake.
- Try These Super Foods: Consumption of onions, garlic, whole oats, soy, pomegranate juice, and dark chocolate have all been linked to a reduction in blood pressure due to a variety of biochemical mechanisms.
- Avoid Refined Oils: Cooking with polyunsaturated oils at high temperatures produces a variety of toxic by-products that can lead to increased blood pressure. Hypertensive patients should avoid cooking with vegetable oil, canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil for this reason. Raw sesame oil exhibits some antihypertensive properties, although cooking with sesame oil is not recommended due to its high content of polyunsaturated oils.
Amp Up Your Nutrients: Increasing one’s intake of several micronutrients and antioxidants, whether through diet or through supplements, has been shown to reverse and prevent hypertension. These include potassium, magnesium, coenzyme Q10, vitamin D, vitamin C, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids, vitamins B1, B2 and B6, folate, lycopene, L-arginine, and vitamin E. A deficiency of any of the aforementioned nutrients can lead to hypertension. Hypertensive patients will not benefit by further increasing their intake of any nutrient in which they are already replete.
- Identify Other Factors: Hypertension can result from a number of other conditions, including hypothyroidism. This is called secondary hypertension. In most cases, addressing any health condition that leads to hypertension will ultimately reverse the hypertension as well.
- De-Stress: Chronic stress is a major contributor to high blood pressure. Taking part in calming exercises such as yoga and meditation can make a significant difference for hypertensive patients.
- Get To Bed: Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep is another major contributor and is associated with emotional stress. If you have high blood pressure, do your best to sleep for 7-9 hours per night. Getting sufficient sleep will minimize stress as well as make it easier to reduce one’s caffeine intake.
- Gaby, Alan R. Nutritional Medicine. Fritz Perlberg Publishing. Concord, NH. 2011.
- Batch, Phyllis A. Prescription for Nutritional Healing, 5th Edition. Avery Publishing. New York, NY. 2010.