Being diagnosed with high blood pressure, or hypertension as your doctor may call it, can be scary and dangerous, but the good news is may able to control it with proper diet and lifestyle changes. Hypertension affects one out of three people in the U.S., and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the prevalence of high blood pressure is around 40% worldwide, (2008).
Blood pressure is a silent and insidious disease and can creep up without you being aware. Blood pressure is measured with two numbers—the top number is the “systolic” measurement, and the bottom number is the “diastolic” measurement. The systolic number measures the pressure of blood against the walls of the blood vessels as it is pumped out. The diastolic measurement represents the pressure in blood vessels when the heart rests between beats. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg).
Blood Pressure levels are currently diagnosed like this:
- Normal–90-120 over 60-80
- Pre-hypertension—120-130 over 80
- Hypertension—140+ over 90
- Hypertensive crisis—180+ over 100
Why Does It Matter If You Have High Blood Pressure?
Having high blood pressure means that your arterial walls have stiffened or constricted due to a variety of factors. High blood pressure raises the risk for deadly heart disease, strokes and aneurysms (dangerous bulging of arterial walls). If these bulging areas rupture, you can have a hemorrhagic stroke or a ruptured aneurysm, which is often deadly.
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
While not a lot is known about the causes of high blood pressure, several key things come into play. Genetic factors do not CAUSE high blood pressure, but they can make you more likely to have blood pressure issues. Lifestyle factors definitely contribute to high blood pressure. The most common causes include:
- Diet high in processed and starchy foods/low in veggies
- Being obese or overweight
- Drinking alcohol
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Sodium intake (controversial)
Signs and Symptoms
The problem with high blood pressure is that it generally has no obvious signs or symptoms, so many people may have high blood pressure and not know it. Measuring your blood pressure is quick and painless, so everyone should check it on a regular basis. A hypertensive crisis may cause some people to experience a headache or dizziness, but even then, there may be no symptoms. A hypertensive crisis is when BP is at 180 or more systolic, and this can be a potentially serious and fatal condition, so it is important to monitor your BP on a regular basis.
Conventional Treatment for Hypertension
Most conventional medical practitioners will recommend medication, even for borderline hypertension. Blood pressure medications are especially effective at lowering dangerously high blood pressure. But these medications do not address the underlying causes of high blood pressure, they only treat symptoms. Blood pressure medications can also have unwelcome side effects as well. Below are the most popular types of medications and their side effects:
- Diuretics-These drugs simply help the kidneys flush excess fluids and sodium from our body by increasing urination, thereby lowering blood volume and blood pressure. Mild hypertension is often treated with diuretics alone. Side effects include: frequent urination, mild dehydration and loss of potassium, fatigue, weakness, and erectile dysfunction. Thiazide diuretics reduce HDL cholesterol, increase triglycerides and total cholesterol, and increase insulin resistance.
- C.E. Inhibitors-Angiotensin Converting Enzyme Inhibitors block the hormone angiotensin that causes blood vessels to constrict. Side effects can include a dry cough, fatigue, headache, skin rash, loss of taste, and increased potassium levels.
- Beta Blockers-Slow down the heartbeat by blocking adrenaline and noradrenaline in the nervous system. Beta blockers relax blood vessels and help to restrict production of angiotensin. Beta Blockers side effects include: cold hands and feet, fatigue, weakness, sleep disturbance, erectile dysfunction, depression and constipation.
- Calcium Channel Blockers-Calcium in the cells causes heart and blood vessels to contract. Calcium channel blockers decrease the heart’s contraction and increase blood vessel dilation. Side effects include: headache, constipation, rash, nausea, flushing, edema, depression, dizziness, erectile dysfunction, and possible liver enzyme abnormalities.
Hypertension is dangerous if uncontrolled, increasing your risk for blood vessel damage, kidney damage, heart attack and stroke, so do not ignore it. It needs to be treated. However, using a medical ‘bandaid’ to fix the problem is definitely not the same as addressing the lifestyle factors, dietary factors and stress factors that can cause high blood pressure.
Note: As with all medical conditions, especially one as serious as hypertension, do not discontinue any medications, unless you consult your physician first. Some hypertensive episodes could prove deadly or cause permanent damage to your blood vessels and organs
Underlying Issues Connected with Blood Pressure
Several underlying causative factors have been well-studied regarding their effects on blood pressure. While most of us are aware of the obvious ones listed above, there are some other less obvious factors that can lead to hypertension.
One of the biggest factors in chronic disease that we have seen emerge is inflammation. Inflammation can be tied to most all chronic diseases, including: cancer, obesity, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, heart disease, arthritis, and more. Inflammation is the body’s response to an invader, or irritant. Inflammation can include redness, pain, irritation, and an over-activated immune system. Inflammation can be good, unless it is chronic, then it becomes destructive.
Diets high in sugar, alcohol, and processed foods can cause chronic inflammation in the blood vessels, which is often the beginning of heart disease. The body sends out cholesterol to ‘patch’ up the inflammation in an attempt to soothe the injured areas in our blood vessels.
Recent scientific studies have shown that chronic inflammation tends to happen prior to the onset of hypertension. Hypertension is associated with inflammation; however, whether inflammation is a cause or effect of hypertension is not well understood. C-reactive protein , or CRP is a very common inflammatory marker in blood vessels and serves as an important measurement for heart disease risk. This study, showed that subjects with a CRP of greater than 3 mg/l were at an increased risk of developing hypertension, compared to those subjects with a CRP of less than 1mg/l.
For decades, doctors have been preaching about avoiding sodium, because it was considered a contributing factor in high blood pressure. Salt can cause the body to retain water. When that happens, blood volume goes up and blood pressure goes up.
The uncertainty about the role sodium plays in blood pressure stems from the fact that many of the controlled, well-run scientific studies have been inconclusive regarding the effects of salt on hypertension. For example, some studies have even found a slight increase in health issues from low-salt diets. A recent review of seven studies on sodium and heart disease found that a moderate reduction in salt intake did not reduce a person’s risk of dying or having heart disease.
Highly processed foods are often loaded with salt and full of high fructose corn syrup, chemical preservatives, starchy fillers, and other junk. So, it’s tough to just single out the sodium in these processed foods as being the culprit behind high blood pressure.
Fructose or high fructose corn syrup is in nearly all conventionally processed foods, sodas, juice drinks, and other packaged foods. Fructose is thought to also contribute to the sodium issue.
Dietary fructose causes the kidneys to increase salt absorption, thereby making the body retain more fluids. If you get rid of the high fructose corn syrup, salt in the diet becomes less of an issue.
Up to 75-80% of the sodium ingested by people in North America and Europe comes from processed food. This should come as NO surprise! Only 10-15% of total dietary sodium comes from adding it to food cooked at home. So the key is to avoid processed foods.
The best type of salt to add to foods is pure sea salt or Himalayan salt which has a healthy balance of mineral in it to offset the sodium content.
Electrolytes are essential minerals in the body necessary to stay alive. They conduct electricity are absolutely vital for a number of bodily functions. Electrolytes must exist in a very delicate balance in the body in order to help the body function properly. If this delicate balance gets out of whack, the result is a variety of potentially serious health issues.
Sodium and potassium balance each other, much like a teeter totter. Too much salt depletes potassium, and too much potassium depletes salt. Processed and packaged foods are high in sodium, while potassium is found in fresh vegetables and fruit, so eating lots of vegetables will help you get the potassium you need and help balance out sodium.
Instead of obsessing over sodium, concentrate on eating whole, organic, unprocessed foods that include an abundance of veggies and fruit. Most all veggies and fruit are loaded with potassium which help the body eliminate excess sodium and lower blood pressure.
A diet high in sodium usually means a diet too high in processed foods. A diet high in potassium means you are eating lots of fresh, whole, healthy, REAL foods—which is good for your health, and your blood pressure.
Medical professionals tell their patients to cut back on drinking to lower blood pressure. However, the media and other ‘health experts’ are constantly telling us that alcohol is beneficial to health. So, at what point does alcohol become BAD for us?
The most recent findings about the association between alcohol drinking and hypertension show that it is ‘dose-related’. The greater the amount of alcohol consumed, the greater the rise in blood pressure and hypertension risk. This corelates with many other large studies whose results show that people who report daily intake of only 3 drinks had a higher than average blood pressure reading.
Red wine, white wine, beer and hard liquor all seem to increase blood pressure, with no difference as to the type of alcohol. While red wine does have some health benefits, they do not extend to blood pressure benefits.
Coffee and Caffeine
Coffee, along with other caffeinated beverages such as tea and soft drinks, is heavily consumed worldwide. It is reported that about 80% of adults around the world consume coffee, tea or soda with caffeine.
Way back in 1934, caffeine was found to have an effect on blood pressure, so this is not a new topic. Generally, it is found that the caffeine in coffee and other beverages can cause a short but sometimes dramatic rise in blood pressure—but more so among people who do not normally drink coffee or caffeinated beverages. In studies on people who drank coffee on a regular basis, caffeine only seems to cause a temporary increase of 1-2 points, both systolic and diastolic.
Coffee, especially good organic coffee, grown at high altitudes, is full of antioxidants, and has been shown to be especially beneficial for health, fighting cancer, heart disease and diabetes, as well as anti-aging. However, if you have high blood pressure, ask your doctor if you should limit your coffee drinking.
Stress is our primal ‘fight or flight’ response – our hearts beat faster, our breathing increases, blood sugar is released in our system for easy access, and our peripheral blood vessels constrict. All to make us ready to run for our lives. Unfortunately, our daily lives are full of stress, but we never really need to ‘run’ for our life.
Stress can definitely cause hypertension when the blood vessels constrict. When one stressor is combined with other stressors—work, bills, kids, health issues, etc. the effect becomes multiplied.
Other diet and lifestyle behaviors that people use to deal with stress like drinking alcohol, poor sleep, overeating, smoking, etc. may also be part of the cause of the higher blood pressure readings. Better stress relievers including healthy eating, hiking, running, cycling, camping, meditating, or yoga, may not only be better for your health overall, but actually relieve your stress better as well.
Natural Ways to Lower Blood Pressure
There are many effective and natural ways to lower blood pressure, including lifestyle changes, dietary changes, exercise and stress reduction. On top of those things, the best way to address blood pressure issues is to add healthy supplements that relax the blood vessels, increase nitric oxide in the blood, and decrease inflammatory factors. There are literally dozens of supplements that can help, but here are the top ones that offer the biggest bang for your buck and your health—
Note: Be sure to consult a health practitioner before taking any health supplements, as some may interact with medications such as blood sugar-lowering drugs, antibiotics, blood pressure medications, hormone replacement therapy, and steroids.
Magnesium- It is estimated that 80-90% of the population is deficient on this very vital mineral. Magnesium is one of the essential minerals we need to maintain health.
Most medical practitioners will even admit that magnesium is beneficial if you ask them. Numerous studies have shown a positive connection between magnesium supplementation and a lowering of blood pressure.
The standard dose of magnesium supplementation is 200-400mg per day. It is best to start with small doses and increase gradually to avoid side effects.
Potassium-Potassium will also help to balance out the negative effects of salt or sodium. Potassium helps to pull out excess sodium in the body, which in turns helps to reduce fluid in the body. People with high blood pressure who eat a diet high in potassium will have an average of about a 7-point drop in systolic blood pressure and a 2-point drop in diastolic. Because your body is effectively filtering out sodium and extra fluids, this lowers blood pressure, similar to what prescribed diuretics do. And, if you are eating a diet high in vegetables and fruit you probably won’t even need to take a potassium supplement, because veggies and fruit contain large amounts of potassium.
Curcumin- Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been hailed as one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory supplements available. Many studies have shown that curcumin is highly protective for the heart and blood vessels, helping to reduce blood pressure.
The renin-angiotensin system is the body’s hormonal system in the kidneys that regulates blood pressure. Curcumin helps reduce hypertension by regulating the angiotensin receptors that relax blood vessels. Turmeric has been shown to be as effective as some blood pressure medications. Turmeric is considered safe when used appropriately and according to the label. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D.,
“Adults can take 400 to 600 mg of turmeric extract three times per day or as directed on the product label. The dried spice is not effective for treating specific conditions but is good for general health.”
Avoid taking if you are pregnant, nursing or have liver disease.
Resveratrol—Resveratrol is known as the anti-aging substance found in red wine and other dark skinned fruits. Resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant and a potent polyphenol to protect against free radical damage.
Previous health studies have looked at resveratrol as having properties that protect blood vessels. In this study, resveratrol is looked at as an agent to help lower blood pressure and to help create better blood vessel function. Resveratrol increases the amount of nitric oxide in the blood, which is a very strong vasodilator (increases size of blood vessels to lower blood pressure). Increased dilation of the blood vessels in turn reduces resistance to blood flow, which in turns lowers blood pressure. Standardized supplements for resveratrol come in 20mg to 100mg capsules. It is recommended by most health practitioners to stick with the lower dosage of 20 mg.
Omega 3’s—Omega 3’s are well-known for their benefits for the cardiovascular system, and these benefits extend to blood vessel health as well. Omega 3 fatty acids have been found to reduce blood pressure as effectively as other lifestyle changes including exercise, sodium reduction, and alcohol limitation, according to an analysis of several studies, published in the American Journal of Hypertension. Study findings also showed that those people with the highest measurable serum levels of omega 3 fats had the lowest blood pressure readings.
The fish oil may work by improving blood vessel function and reducing inflammation, among other things. It takes about 1000-2000 mg a day of omega 3’s to those who already have high blood pressure to reduce their numbers.
Paleo Diet and Blood Pressure
Primitive and traditional cultures that rely on the same diets as they did hundreds of years ago, had relatively no problems with blood pressure. This has increased dramatically in modern societies in part because of processed foods and sedentary lifestyle.
Following a Paleo/primal-style diet and eliminating wheat, corn, other refined grains, and sugar, can substantially reduce blood pressure. In addition, risk factors such as weight, waist circumference, C-reactive protein(CRP), glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c), blood pressure, glucose tolerance, insulin secretion, insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles also improve.
Researchers from the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine conducted a study on the possible benefits of a Paleo diet. In this well-designed study, Dr. Frassetto, a Health Sciences Clinical Professor at UCSF School of Medicine, found that only 10 days on a Paleo diet showed positive changes in blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. The Paleo diet benefits for blood pressure did not surprise researchers since the diet was naturally low in sodium and high in potassium.
Top 5 Food that Help Reduce Blood Pressure
Beets—Beets have been found to contain a large amount of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide causes blood vessels to relax and open up, lowering blood pressure and helping the body carry more oxygen to parts of the body where it is needed–like muscles, your heart and your brain.
Watermelon—Watermelon can be a highly effective blood pressure reducer. Watermelons contain lycopene, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, known for protecting the cardiovascular system, bone health, and preventing cancer. Watermelon also contains citrulline, which is an amino acid. Citrulline from watermelon, especially the white part of watermelon, is converted into arginine which helps create nitric oxide to open up blood vessels.
Garlic—Garlic is an amazing food for so many reasons. It contains sulfur compounds, amino acids, massively powerful antioxidants, and tons of vitamins and minerals. It also contains allicin, the kingpin of these natural chemical compounds. Allicin helps reduce blood pressure and prevent heart disease. Garlic also contains unique substances that work like the popular angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. The gamma-glutamylcysteine in garlic is a natural ACE inhibitor without the negative side effects of the pharmaceutical ACE inhibitors.
Note: If you are taking a blood thinner or ACE inhibitor for blood pressure, be sure to consult your physician before beginning garlic supplements
Pomegranate Juice—Pomegranate is another healthy food that has true medicinal qualities, without the negative effects. Pomegranates contain powerful polyphenols that have very strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory abilities. Scientific studies actually show pomegranate juice’s powerfu blood pressure-lowering ability. Both short- and long-term studies show pomegranate’s power to lower blood pressure. Avoid pomegranate juices that contain added sugars.
Green Tea—Already well known as a healthy beverage to drink, add green tea to the list of natural foods that have a medicinal-like effect on high blood pressure. Green tea contains many powerful polyphenol antioxidants that are known for their health-protective benefits. One of green tea’s most powerful flavonoids, EGCG (Epigallocatechin gallate) is responsible for its ability to counteract a variety of diseases and health conditions. Best results occur when drinking about 3-4 cups of high quality green tea a day.
Important Lifestyle Modifications to Lower Blood Pressure
There are a few other lifestyle modifications that have a dramatic effect on blood pressure. One of those is regular exercise. Exercise has been shown to be highly effective on lowering blood pressure, even in patients who have what is termed “resistant hypertension”, which means the patient has high blood pressure and is on 3 or more medications to lower it.
Research suggests a link between sex and lower blood pressure. This effect can be because of the calming brain chemicals released after sex for both parties involved, including serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, nitric oxide and prolactic.
Testosterone, a sex hormone power player for both men and women, could also be key in lowering blood pressure and reducing stress. Studies have shown a link between low testosterone and high blood pressure, while the spikes in testosterone associated with sexual activity might help lower blood pressure.
Meditation is a calming way to increase serotonin, slow the heart rate, induce positive thoughts and lower blood pressure, but meditation alone will not help those with hypertension or prehypertension. However, mediation in conjunction with other positive lifestyle changes can help.
Biofeedback has been shown to help lower blood pressure as well as slowing the heart rate, but unless you address the underlying causes discussed above, biofeedback will not lower blood pressure long term, only temporarily.
High blood pressure and diagnosed hypertension remain a risk factor for heart disease and strokes and can have very serious consequences if left unchecked.
Following necessary lifestyle changes, dietary changes and adding in specific foods and supplements can help to lower blood pressure to healthy levels, possibly without medical intervention. Any significant dietary or lifestyle changes should be discussed with your physician, and careful monitoring of blood pressure should be followed. Some blood pressure medications may need to be modified or reduced.
Following these important guidelines can significantly help lower blood pressure regardless of how high it is. In addition, these lifestyle changes will also help to lessen risk of cardiovascular events, strokes, cancer and obesity.