What affects 75 million Americans and costs the nation $48.6 billion each year?1 The answer - high blood pressure, also known as the “silent killer,” and it is running rampant throughout our society. In fact, though you might not be aware of it, you’re likely to know several people with high blood pressure because an astounding 1 out of every 3 adults has it.1 And because high blood pressure often has no symptoms at all, totally unbeknownst to you, you might even have it!
Thankfully, high blood pressure (also referred to as hypertension) can be treated, and therefore the 54% of people with high blood pressure who don’t have it under control1 have several options to consider in getting their pressure to a normal level. If you or your loved ones suffer from high blood pressure, there are many ways to approach the problem. In this article, you’ll learn what blood pressure is, what blood pressure measurements mean, and what the causes and effects are regarding blood pressure issues. Furthermore, you’ll learn how to lower your blood pressure through diet, lifestyle changes, and supplements.
What is Blood Pressure?
In the simplest of terms, blood pressure is the pressure of circulating blood on the blood vessel walls.2 When your heart beats, it pumps blood through your veins and arteries. The amount of pressure being put onto your artery walls by the blood flow force determines your blood pressure. If the amount of pressure being pushed onto the artery walls is excessive, this causes high blood pressure, which is also referred to as hypertension.10
Hypertension occurs when the heart has to push hard to get the blood flow through your arteries. Picture a water hose connected to a tap. If the tap is turned on to a slow flow, the water will begin to move through the hose gently, and the hose will continue to lay on the ground unmoving. But if the tap is turned on full blast, the water will burst through the hose causing the hose walls to expand. The tap is working hard to push that water through. This is exactly how hypertension works. When the artery walls have pressure on them due to a hard flow of blood, the heart is working hard, and this leads to hypertension.
How is Blood Pressure Measured?
Blood pressure is measured by using two numbers: the systolic number and the diastolic number. The systolic number (the top number) measures the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats. The diastolic number (the bottom number) measures the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart is in between heartbeats.8 The measurements are expressed in millimeters of mercury and are written as mmHG. For example, a
- normal blood pressure measurement is 120/80 mmHG.
So, which number is more important – systolic or diastolic? The official answer is neither. However, it’s typical that more attention is put on the systolic number because as you get older (50 and over), the systolic numbers tends to rise steadily due to the large arteries becoming more stiff, the long-term build-up of plaque in the arteries, and the increase in cardiac and vascular disease.12 That’s right; not only do our joints get stiffer with age, but so do our arteries.
Why Should We Care About Blood Pressure?
We need to care about our blood pressure because it significantly increases the risk of serious health conditions, such as heart attacks and stroke. Nearly 1,000 deaths occur each day due to high blood pressure related conditions.1 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:1
- 7 out of 10 people having their first heart attack have high blood pressure
- 8 out of 10 people having their first stroke have high blood pressure
- 7 out of 10 people with chronic heart failure have high blood pressure
Blood pressure is a preventable risk factor; therefore, we have control to prevent it from becoming high. Ensuring our artery walls don’t have unnecessary pressure put on them due to hard blood flow is well within our power of control. Ultimately, maintaining a normal range in blood pressure is imperative in order for us to stay alive longer. However, it’s so easy for us to not think about what’s going on inside our body, especially when it comes to our heart, our arteries, and our blood circulation. Because we don’t actually feel the blood flowing throughout our bodies, we don’t think about any problems that our heart and arteries may be dealing with. Can you imagine what it would be like if we could literally feel our blood flow? We’d likely be a lot more responsive in ensuring the flow is as smooth as liquid through a straw.
Having high blood pressure doesn’t put us in immediate danger, meaning if you wake up one day and have high blood pressure, you’re not going to suddenly have heart failure. But if you have high blood pressure that remains uncontrolled, several unwanted consequences can occur, including:
- mild to severe heart problems,
- loss of vision,
- painful extremities, and
- sexual dysfunction
Hypertension: The High to Low of Blood Pressures
Generally, there are no symptoms of high blood pressure, which is why it’s often referred to as the “silent killer.” However, for those who have very high blood pressure, symptoms that can be felt are severe headaches, fatigue, vision problems, chest pain, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat, blood in urine, and a pounding sensation in the chest, neck or ears.30 When it comes to blood pressure, you can fall into one of three categories: high, normal, and low. High = bad Normal = good Low = good (unless there are unwanted symptoms)
Differences in Blood Pressure Ranges
High Blood Pressure:
In November 2017, the American Heart Association issued a guideline that says high blood pressure (hypertension) is any measurement higher than 130/80 mmHG.9 Nearly one half of the American population over the age of 20 has hypertension, and there are 3 stages of hypertension:10
- Stage 1 – Systolic (top) number is 130-139 OR diastolic (bottom) number is 80-90. If your pressure falls into these numbers, consider making a lifestyle change within your diet by reducing your sodium intake and increasing your protein and vegetable consumption.
- Stage 2 - Systolic (top) number is 140 or higher OR diastolic (bottom) number is 90 or higher. If your pressure falls into these numbers, along with making lifestyle changes through diet, consider increasing your weekly physical activity or taking supplements.
- Hypertensive Crisis - Systolic (top) number is higher than 180 AND/OR diastolic (bottom) number is higher than 120. If your pressure falls into these numbers, consult your doctor immediately.
- Elevated Blood Pressure:
An elevated blood pressure reading consistently has a systolic (top) number of 120-129 AND a diastolic (bottom) number of less than 80. If you fall into this category, beware! You are likely on the road to hypertension.
- Normal Blood Pressure:
A normal blood pressure reading, according to the American Heart Association, is lower than 120/80 mmHG.10 If you fall into this category, great! It’s important, though, to stay in this range, and the only way you’re going to know if you are in this prescribed range is to check your blood pressure regularly. Just take a quick trip to the drugstore where you’ll find that handy blood pressure machine (don’t worry, it’s usually tucked in the corner where nobody can see you, if you’re worried about that kind of thing).
- Low Blood Pressure:
A low blood pressure reading is generally anything under 120/80, and most doctors will tell you that the lower, the better.13 The only time you need to worry about your blood pressure being too low is if you’re not feeling quite right. Low blood pressure symptoms include:
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Dehydration and unusual thirst
- Lack of concentration
- Blurred vision
- Cold, clammy, pale skin
- Rapid, shallow breathing
What Can Cause Low Blood Pressure?
Pregnancy, decrease in blood volume, certain medications, heart problems, endocrine problems, severe infections, allergic reactions, nutritional deficiencies, and prolonged bed rest are all possible causes.13 Remember, if your blood pressure is low and you’re not feeling any symptoms, you’re all good. Feel free to brag to your friends! If you’re not feeling well, eat a snack that is higher in sodium (canned olives are a great choice!), but if your symptoms are consistent, contact your doctor.
Results of High Blood Pressure
Although there usually aren’t any symptoms, there are very serious side effects of high blood pressure which can include:
- Heart Attack – A heart attack occurs when blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart is severely reduced or entirely cut off, and this happens when the arteries are so plugged up that blood flow can’t push through efficiently. According to the American Heart Association, every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack.3 In just the couple of minutes it’s taken you to read this far, several people have suffered a heart attack.
- Heart Failure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5.7 million adults in America have heart failure, and about 50% of those people die within 5 years of the diagnosis.14 If the heart is working too hard in trying to circulate the blood throughout the entire body, the heart could enlarge and stop the supply of blood flow.3 Your blood is your lifeline for survival – appreciate it, take care of it, and love it.
- Stroke – A stroke occurs when blood flow to an area of the brain is cut off. Like the heart, the brain needs oxygen from the blood, and without oxygen, brain cells begin to die, thus causing a stroke. Strokes are the number 5 cause of death in the U.S.4 There are 100,000 miles of blood vessels in the brain. The distance around the world at the equator is only ¼ that distance.5 That’s a lot of mileage in the brain in which a blood vessel can be blocked.
- Kidney Disease or Failure – Blood needs to be filtered (cleaned) by the kidneys for our survival. High blood pressure can damage the arteries around the kidneys, which makes it difficult for the kidneys to filter the blood.3 In just one hour, your kidneys receive about 120 pints of blood.6 Imagine 120 pints of water lined on a table just waiting to be consumed. Think you could do it in an hour? Yes, your kidneys can out drink you!
- Vision Loss – Loss of eyesight can occur when strain or damage is done to the blood vessels in your eyes.3 That’s right, even those tiniest of blood vessels in the eyeball can be affected by blood pressure.
- Sexual Dysfunction – In men, erectile dysfunction can occur due to high blood pressure, and in women, a low libido can occur.3 If blood flow is compromised and having a difficult time getting to the genital region , sexual playtime will likely be compromised as well.
- Angina – Chest pains are referred to as angina. If your heart is having to work harder to get the blood to it, chest pains can occur.3 Your heart is a strong muscle, but even strong muscles can’t work hard all the time. Imagine having to pedal a bike up a really long hill (like miles long). Your legs would start burning and hurting within minutes, and you’d have to take a little break, maybe by walking the bike up the hill. It’s the same with your heart; it needs a little time to relax to prevent feeling burned out and painful.
- Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) – When there is a narrowing of the peripheral arteries to the lower extremities, this is referred to as PAD. Symptoms include cramping, pain, or fatigue in the legs or hips while walking or climbing stairs 11. Atherosclerosis (AKA fatty deposits on the artery walls) causes PAD. The arteries have fat clinging to the walls, which leads to a narrowed artery, which leads to blood flow having a difficult time getting through the artery (this is high blood pressure), which leads to painful hips and legs.7 Blood trying to get through those fatty arteries would be like you trying to swim in a pool of Jell-O – very energy exerting!
Causes of High Blood Pressure
What causes high blood pressure? There are several risk factors that increase your chances of developing or maintaining high blood pressure. Though not all of the factors are in your control, the good news is that several of the factors are well within your capability to change. Let’s whip through the factors you can’t do anything about, and then we can move onto changing your life.
- Risk factors that cannot be changed:
- Genetics/Race/Ethnicity – There is absolutely nothing you can do about having a family history of high blood pressure, nor is there anything you can do to change your race or ethnicity. African Americans in the U.S. rank the highest with 43% of men and 45.7% of women having high blood pressure.1 Look into your background to learn if you’re at a higher risk for hypertension.
- Age – Yes, it's true that age is yet again a risk factor in developing a health problem. There’s no escape.
- Gender – Sorry, men, but your gender is more prone to high blood pressure than women up to the age of 64. After the age of 64, the tables turn, and women are more likely to develop high blood pressure.16
- Risk factors that can be controlled:
- Smoking – Smoking is a risk factor for countless health concerns, so quitting will not only lower your blood pressure, but it could change other health issues you may have, or will have, in the future. Plus, think of all the money you’ll be saving!
- Being Overweight – Carrying too much weight can put a strain on your heart, as well as your circulatory system, that can cause very serious health problems. Strain on your heart makes it work harder, and the harder your heart works, the more likely you are to develop high blood pressure.
- Unhealthy Diet or Lifestyle – There are several things in an unhealthy diet and lifestyle that contribute to high blood pressure.
- If your diet is high in sodium (salt), you’re more at risk to have hypertension. When you consume excess sodium, it pulls water into your blood vessels, and this causes an increase in the volume of blood. The more volume in blood, the harder the heart has to push it through your arteries.17
- If you drink too much alcohol (more than 1-2 a day), your blood pressure could increase. Alcohol constricts blood vessels and increases the contractions of the heart.18 Once again, the harder your heart has to work, the more likely you will develop high blood pressure.
- If you aren’t getting adequate physical activity, then you are doing a disservice to your heart and circulatory system.16 Because your heart and circulatory system are directly tied to your blood pressure, if you aren’t doing right by them, you aren’t doing right by your blood pressure. We all know that getting regular exercise benefits us in countless ways, no matter how much some of us don’t like doing it. But if you think about it, even if it’s no fun to exercise while you’re doing it, don’t you feel better after it’s done?
- High Cholesterol – Cholesterol circulates in the blood, so as your cholesterol level rises, your blood pressure may be rising right along with it.19 Having high cholesterol may not be entirely your fault, as for many people it’s genetic. And if it is genetic, talk to your doctor about your options to lower it. Lowering your cholesterol could very well lower your blood pressure. It’s a win-win.
- Risk factors that can be difficult to control:
There are a few factors that are difficult to control. In other words, you can’t really do anything about the risk factor to change it, but you can alleviate it.
- Sleep Apnea – When the upper airway becomes blocked during sleep, airflow stops, and this is known as sleep apnea. When the airflow stops, the blood-oxygen levels drop, which increases the strain on the cardiovascular and circulatory system.20 When that happens, it makes the heart work harder, thus causing high blood pressure. There are many things that can cause sleep apnea, such as neck circumference, narrowed airways, being male, being older, and genetics. So, you can’t really change those things, and therefore, you’re dealing with sleep apnea. However, you can help to alleviate the sleep apnea by wearing a CPAP mask.
- Stress – It happens to everyone; stress pops into our lives and there’s nothing we can do about it. When stress hits, our body produces a surge of hormones that increases our blood pressure because our heart tends to beat faster and our blood vessels narrow. Though we can’t prevent stress all of the time, what we can do is find ways to manage the stress. Yoga and meditation are great stress relievers! Whatever you do, don’t turn to the very things that cause high blood pressure like drinking and smoking.
- Chronic Kidney Disease – This is a disease that can be CAUSED by high blood pressure but also can be the CAUSE of high blood pressure. The kidneys have an important job, which is to filter the blood. If the blood flow is having a hard time getting to the kidneys, there can be an increase in blood pressure. And if the kidneys aren’t able to filter the blood, an increase in blood pressure can occur. Chronic kidney disease is challenging to control, but in can be controlled with medications and some lifestyle changes, all of which your doctor can discuss.21
How to Reduce High Blood Pressure Without Medication
Perhaps you’ve noticed your blood pressure inching toward the elevated or hypertension range. What are some natural ways to lower blood pressure? The very first thing you should do is get moving, as in get your body physically moving. A mere 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week (that’s just 2.5 hours a week!) can lower your blood pressure and improve your overall heart health.22 Another added benefit of exercise is the effect of losing weight. Losing weight can also help to lower your blood pressure. If you lose just 5% of your body mass, your blood pressure will decrease.22 For example, if you weigh 170lbs, you would only need to lose 8.5lbs to decrease your body mass by 5%. You can do it!
Along with getting some exercise, consider some stress management techniques. Stress is a prominent force in life that will increase your blood pressure, so learning to manage stress can definitely help with getting those blood pressure numbers lower. One proven technique is listening to soothing music. A study at the University of Florence in Italy showed that listening to music can decrease the systolic pressure (the top number) by 3.2 points after just 7 days, and a total of 4.4 points after 4 weeks.23 If listening to music isn’t your thing, think about doing some meditative practices, such as tai chi or yoga. Calming your body and mind through medication can decrease stress hormones that are playing havoc on your blood pressure.23 Lastly, if possible, just try and work less. Keep in mind that you’re just one person, and you need to take care of yourself in order to do all the things you need to do.
Lower Your Blood Pressure by Knowing What to Eat and What to Avoid
Now that you’re getting your body moving and your mind in a calm state, let’s talk about what you put into your body and what you can avoid putting into your body in order to help lower your blood pressure. A healthy diet and lifestyle is a must. First, if you smoke, stop smoking. For decades, smoking has shown to increase the risk of heart disease and do damage to the blood vessels.22 If your heart is battling heart disease and your blood vessels are damaged, your blood pressure is going to be raised. Second, if you have more than 1-2 alcoholic beverages a day, you need to cut down this indulgence. Alcohol is tied to 16% of high blood pressure cases across the globe.22 But the good news is that you don’t have to give up alcohol all together. In fact, a study was done at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in which it was found that a small alcoholic drink a day might actually decrease your blood pressure versus not having a drink at all.23 So, go ahead and indulge in the one glass of wine a night, just ensure the glass isn’t overflowing.
Foods that Help Lower Blood Pressure
- Dark Chocolate – Do a happy dance because dark chocolate is on the menu! Because of the flavanols found in dark chocolate, blood vessels become more elastic, thus leading to easier blood flow. Easier blood flow equals lower blood pressure. To get the benefit, have 1 ounce every day and make sure it has at least 70% cocoa.23
- Potassium-Rich Foods – Potassium reduces the effect of salt in your body (we’ll get to the horrors of salt in a minute), and it decreases tension in your blood vessels. Excellent potassium-rich foods include: milk, yogurt, fruits (especially bananas, apricots, oranges, melons, and avocados), fish, potatoes (regular and sweet), green vegetables, and beans. Aim for getting 2,000-4,000mg of potassium a day.23 An easy way to get your potassium is to have a delicious morning smoothie; throw in some milk, fruit, and spinach, and you’ll have a great start to your day.
- Hibiscus Tea – The tart, cranberry-flavored hibiscus tea has been shown to lower systolic pressure (the top number) by 7 points in 6 weeks.23 If you drink 3 cups of hibiscus a day, (add a little honey to really sweeten it up!) you’ll help your blood pressure drop.
- High-Protein Foods – We’ve heard all of the positive things protein does for us, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that protein is also great for lowering our blood pressure. Protein is the building block of our bones, muscles, skin, and blood, as well as our cartilage, organs, and hair. In 2014, a study was done that showed people who were eating on average 100 grams of protein daily had a 40% lower risk of having high blood pressure.24 Excellent sources of protein include: fish, chicken, beef, eggs, beans, nuts, and cheese. Have some protein at every meal and a little in your snacks, and you’ll be on your way to a healthy body along with lowered blood pressure.
Food to Avoid if You Have High Blood Pressure
- Sodium – Most of us associate sodium (salt) with high blood pressure. Unfortunately, sodium plays a huge role in the American diet because of all the processed and prepared foods that surround us. In several studies, sodium has been linked to high blood pressure.22The American Heart Association recommends only consuming 1,500 mg/day or less of sodium.10 To reduce your sodium intake, cut back on processed foods (you know, most all the foods found in the middle of a grocery store), and focus instead on the “foods of the earth” (the foods found on the perimeter of the grocery store).
- Caffeine – There’s been some debate on whether or not caffeine consumption causes consistent high blood pressure. However, according to Jim Lane, PhD, (a research professor at Duke University), caffeine mixed with stress can exaggerate the effects on the body, which includes the heart pumping harder and blood vessels tightening.23 Those two effects are prime things to raise your blood pressure. Better safe than sorry when it comes to caffeine, so switch out that caffeinated coffee with decaf.
- High-Carb Foods – Studies have shown that high-carb lifestyles can lead to being overweight. As mentioned already, being overweight can increase blood pressure, so cutting out the carbs can give you a double win by resulting in both a lower weight and a lower blood pressure. A study done in 2010, did a comparison of the effects on blood pressure between doing a low-carb diet and a low-fat diet.24 Guess which one resulted in lower blood pressure? That’s right - the low-carb diet is the winner! Those on the low-carb diet decreased blood pressure by 4.5-5.9 mmHg, while the low-fat diet only decreased blood pressure by 0.4-1.5 mmHg. That’s a significant difference!
3 Blood Pressure Supplements that Help
Along with lifestyle and diet changes, there are supplements used to lower blood pressure. Arjuna, Hawthorn Berry, and Ashwagandha are superb supplements to consider.
- Arjuna has been nicknamed “Guardian of the Heart’ for its support of the cardiovascular system. The use of Arjuna stems from India, where it has been used since the 7th Century BC in Ayurvedic medicine to help with heart health issues.25 Today, Arjuna continues to be used for cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, chest pain, and high blood pressure. Studies have concluded that Arjuna is a potent antioxidant that has demonstrated aiding in decreasing plaque in the arteries.26 If plaque is decreased in the arteries, the blood can flow smoother, which can result in a decrease in blood pressure.
- Hawthorn Berry is used for maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system, specifically for diseases of the heart and blood vessels by improving the volume of blood being pumped out of the heart during contraction and widening the blood vessels. Also, Hawthorn Berry strengthens and supports elasticity of the blood vessels which not only has the ability to widen the blood vessels but it relaxes them (particularly the blood vessels farther from the heart), and this allow for easier blood flow, which then can reduce blood pressure.27
- Ashwagandha is an herb that has been found to have a strong calming effect on the body and mind.28 Stress and anxiety are reduced with the use of Ashwagandha,29 and as we’ve discussed, stress is a key factor in having high blood pressure. Therefore, if the body and mind begin to feel less stress, blood pressure should follow suit.
When to See Your Doctor?
Monitor your blood pressure regularly, and if it is consistently high, make an appointment to talk to your doctor. You and your doctor can review all options to treat your high blood pressure. Everyone is different, so what might work for one person might not work for another. Thankfully, there are a lot of options at your disposal. And most importantly, contact your doctor immediately if your blood pressure is 180/120 or higher, or if you have feelings of a heart attack or stroke. We’d love for you to share any tips you have about heart health or blood pressure. Share with the LifeSeasons community and support our belief that knowledge is power and our community our life source.
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