As the heart pumps blood through the arteries (large blood vessels), it pushes the blood against the arterial walls with a force that is measured as “blood pressure.” High blood pressure is defined as a reading above 140/90 mm Hg (systolic/diastolic). (Systolic pressure – the first number – measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart contracts. Diastolic pressure – the second number – measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart is relaxing between beats and filling with blood.) Research now suggests that “high-normal” blood pressure (130 to 139 over 85 to 89) can also raise the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Normal blood pressure is “120 to 129” over “80 to 84”, and optimal blood pressure is less than 120 over 80.
Excessive pressure makes the heart work harder, increasing its oxygen demands and contributing to angina, and can eventually lead to an enlarged heart (cardiomegaly), as well as damage to blood vessels in the kidneys and brain.
Hypertension, therefore, increases the risk of heart attacks, stroke and kidney disease.
Hypertension is the most common form of cardiovascular disease in America, affecting about 50 million people – that’s close to one out of four adults. The good news is that hypertension is easy to detect, and can often be improved or controlled with natural remedies for high blood pressure and changes in diet and lifestyle.
Causes and Symptoms
Hypertension is often called a “silent killer” because even severe, uncontrolled high blood pressure usually has no obvious symptoms.
The elderly are at increased risk for hypertension, and high blood pressure can occur as the arterial walls lose their elasticity with age and cause the pressure of the blood moving through the arteries to rise. In most cases (those known as “essential hypertension“), doctors cannot pinpoint the precise cause of high blood pressure. However, they do know that certain factors can increase the risk of developing high blood pressure:
- Stress can cause hypertension by activating the sympathetic nervous system, causing the arteries to maintain a more rigid tone.
- Eating large amounts of sodium can cause excess water retention, expand blood volume and ultimately increase blood pressure.
- Caffeine acts as a cardiovascular stimulant and raises blood pressure.
- A diet low in calcium, magnesium and potassium can increase blood pressure.
- Insulin resistance can increase blood pressure by causing the kidneys to retain sodium.
- Regular alcohol intake can increase blood pressure.
- Being overweight increases blood pressure.
- Medications. Some prescription drugs, including steroids, birth control pills, decongestants, NSAIDS and diet pills, can raise blood pressure. Some over-the-counter medicines, such as those containing licorice root, ephedra, guarana, kola nut, yerba mate, ginseng and Yohimbe, may also raise blood pressure.
Suggested Lifestyle Changes for High Blood Pressure Treatment
- Limit your caffeine intake. The caffeine in coffee, tea and sodas can contribute to high blood pressure.
- Limit alcohol intake. Blood pressure increases as your body metabolize alcohol.
- Avoid processed foods. These are the biggest sources of sodium in today’s diet.
- Maintain optimal weight. Even small amounts of weight loss can improve blood pressure.
- Relax. Meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and biofeedback are all relaxation techniques that can help lower blood pressure.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking contributes to all cardiovascular diseases – and many other life-threatening conditions as well.
- Exercise. As little as 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, like walking, can be one of the most effective natural remedies for high blood pressure.
- Check your meds. Discuss your current medications and their risks of increasing blood pressure with your doctor.
Nutrition and Supplements
The DASH diet, developed by researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute is based on a large-scale research study that identified the foods that affect blood pressure (visit www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash/new_dash.pdf for more information). The most important parts of the DASH are generous amounts of fruits and vegetables and low-fat or fat-free dairy products that provide adequate calcium. The diet is also relatively low in fat and sodium. DASH researchers have shown that diets rich in potassium, calcium and magnesium, and low in sodium (2,400 mg or less), play an important role in high blood pressure treatment. People with high blood pressure should incorporate the components of the DASH diet into their daily routine.
In addition, make sure you do the following to lower high blood pressure:
- Eat 8 to 10 servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
- Choose low- or non-fat dairy foods, consuming two to three servings per day.
- Limit animal protein to 6 oz per day, emphasizing lean sources.
- Say no to salt. Those with salt sensitivity or family history of hypertension may benefit from reducing salt to about one teaspoon a day (2,400 mg).
- Use garlic, which has a modest effect on lowering blood pressure and may help relax blood vessels.
- Consume 4 to 5 servings of nuts, seeds and dry beans per week (2 Tbsp nuts or seeds, or 1/2 cup cooked dried beans).
- Eat plenty of fish. Include at least three servings of fish a week, emphasizing cold-water fish like wild Alaskan salmon and sardines, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Take fish-oil supplements if you cannot get enough omega-3-rich foods.
- Take calcium and magnesium. Inadequate intake of both of these minerals has been associated with high blood pressure. Women should get between 1,000 and 1,200 mg of calcium a day from all sources, while men may want to get no more than 500-600 mg daily from all sources.
- Take vitamin C. A supplement of this antioxidant vitamin has been shown to lower blood pressure in people with mild to moderate hypertension.