A person may feel fine, but the high pressures when uncontrolled, can be slowly killing someone. Chronic high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) increases the risk of developing several conditions like stroke, heart attack and heart failure (a condition where the heart does not pump normally). In addition, hypertension is a leading cause for kidney failure and can lead to dialysis. Despite all of the potential health problems associated with hypertension, there is hope. One can often lessen or prevent one’s need to use blood pressure medication with everyday long-term lifestyle changes.
Knowledge is power
People can’t solve a problem if they don’t know it exists. Many people have hypertension but do not know it. Start with getting blood pressure checked and encourage friends and family members to do the same. A normal blood pressure is considered to be 120/80 or less and hypertension is usually diagnosed when one’s blood pressure is greater than 140/90. It is estimated that over one-third of U.S. adults have hypertension. These numbers are higher in the African-American community with close to half of African-American adults living with hypertension.
Eat your minerals
Eating a diet rich in minerals like magnesium, calcium, zinc and potassium, has been shown to lower blood pressure. How does one eat a diet rich in minerals? Eating whole foods, especially lots of fresh vegetables, is a start. Avoid processed foods (think anything that comes in a box or bag and that is made in a factory) as they usually contain added salts and sugars. Most people have heard of the benefits of salt reduction for blood pressure control. However, sugars have also been shown to increase water retention, which may in the long term contribute to elevated blood pressures. Many of us eat a lot of wheat products and there is increasing awareness that many people are sensitive to these products and not able to digest them well. In addition, other grain products (like brown rice, quinoa, amaranth) are even richer sources of important vitamins and minerals than wheat products. Consider adding some new grains to your diet for variety and health benefits.
Adopt an eating plan (notice I did not say diet)
Diets don’t work.
But changing the way you eat permanently does. This is usually a gradual process and there are some specific eating strategies that provide guidance and have good evidence for blood pressure lowering. One plan is the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). In short, this plan is high in vegetables and fruits and low in sodium, total fat and saturated fat. There are abundant free resources available regarding the DASH plan on the internet.
Another eating plan that has been shown to lower blood pressure (in addition to decreasing blood sugar and improving cholesterol) is the Mediterranean Diet.
This diet is similar to DASH but also puts an emphasis on healthy fats. Specifically, it encourages the use of olive oil and nuts. Research has shown that regular use of olive oil in cooking is associated with improved blood pressure control. There are many resources available for the Mediterranean Diet, including versions that adapt to different cultures. Additional information can be found at www.oldwayspt.org.
Some medications can worsen blood pressure
There are some medications that can worsen blood pressure control and it is important to know this so that you can avoid or use them as little as possible. Many over-the-counter cold medicines or decongestants contain drugs (e.g. pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine) that can raise blood pressure. Long-term use of some pain medications can be hard on the kidneys and increase the risk of more blood pressure problems.
Stress can have big impacts on our physical life. Finding ways to manage and lower your stress level is important to all areas of your health and can improve your blood pressure.
This should come first on my list but I did not want folks to stop reading the article if they are resisting quitting. Quitting smoking is a huge benefit to one’s health. In fact, the risk of developing a heart attack or stroke is higher in smokers than in non-smokers even with similar blood pressure elevations. It is a challenging addiction to break, but, it can be done. There are lots of resources out there to support you, many of them free. The Minnesota Quit Plan offers free online and telephone smoking cessation counseling 7 days a week at www.quitplan.com or (888) 354-PLAN or talk to your healthcare provider.
There are many things that you can do to lower your blood pressure. When combined, many of these strategies have been shown to be as effective as blood pressure medications. With time and consistent practice using these strategies, you may be able to prevent or reduce your need for blood pressure medication and gain other benefits too like more energy or weight loss. However, remember that implementing these changes can take time. So be patient with yourself and if you are already taking blood pressure medications keep taking your medication and consulting your healthcare provider about monitoring your lifestyle changes.