One in three adults in the United States has high blood pressure – which puts its sufferers at risk for heart disease and stroke, the No. 1 and No. 3 leading causes of death in the nation. The condition is also a major risk factor for congestive heart failure and kidney disease. However, a diagnosis of high blood pressure does not automatically mean you have to take pills the rest of your days. It can be controlled naturally, and when blood pressure is managed, medication is often unnecessary.
Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against blood vessel walls. The more blood the heart pumps, and the narrower the arteries, the higher the blood pressure. It’s possible to have high blood pressure, or hypertension, for years with no symptoms. It typically develops over a long period of time and eventually negatively affects everyone who has the condition. Fortunately it’s easily detected.
Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). A typical normal blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg, or “120 over 80.” The first number represents the pressure when the heart contracts and is called the systolic blood pressure. The second number represents the pressure when the heart relaxes and is called the diastolic blood pressure.
Blood pressure levels:
- Normal – less than 120/80
- At risk (prehypertension) – 120/80 to 139/89
- High – 140/90
The strain caused by hypertension can lead to an enlarged heart, arteries that are scarred and less elastic, and chronic organ damage like kidney disease or dementia. According to the American Heart Association, 77 percent of Americans treated for a first stroke have blood pressure higher than 140/90. And 69 percent of Americans who have their first heart attack have blood pressure higher than 140/90.
Visit www.heart.org to use the AHA’s risk calculator to find out your chances of having a heart attack, stroke, heart failure, or kidney disease. There are several factors that can contribute to and increase high blood pressure including:
- Age – risk increases with age
- Race – hypertension is more common among blacks
- Family history – HBP runs in families
- Obesity – the more a person weighs, the more blood needed to supply oxygen and nutrients to tissues
- Sedentary lifestyle – inactivity leads to higher heart rates
- Smoking – nicotine raises blood pressure temporarily and damages the lining of artery walls
- Salt – too much sodium causes the body to retain fluid, increasing blood pressure
- Alcohol – heavy drinking damages the heart
- Stress – high levels can lead to an increase in blood pressure
- Certain chronic conditions – these include high cholesterol, diabetes, kidney disease and sleep apnea
Plus, while men and women are equally likely to develop hypertension, HBP affects more men under the age of 45 and more women over the age of 65.
The statistics are daunting and the risks – some within our control and some not – are associated with many common behaviors. However, it’s important to note that high blood pressure is easily managed with positive behavioral changes. And when those modifications are effective, many times medication is unnecessary.
A key component to managing HBP is staying at or achieving a healthy weight. That means eating well and exercising regularly.
A healthy diet includes managing salt intake. Some people who suffer from hypertension are particularly sensitive to salt. Since there’s no way to measure a salt sensitivity, everyone with high blood pressure is encouraged to limit sodium intake. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, this means 1,500 mg of salt – half the average American intake. (Half a teaspoon of salt contains about 1,200 mg of sodium.) Potassium can also help control sodium. It balances the amount of sodium in a body’s cells. If you don’t eat enough potassium, too much sodium can accumulate in the blood. Potatoes and bananas are both good sources of potassium.
Exercise helps the heart use oxygen more efficiently. That means it doesn’t have to work as hard to pump your blood. A cardio workout, such as power walking, for at least 30 minutes most days of the week is an ideal way to keep weight under control and lower blood pressure.
Managing stress is also a key part of avoiding hypertension. Exercise and a healthy diet help, as well as getting plenty of sleep each night. Try slow breathing techniques and meditation to help with relaxation and to decrease stress hormones. Consider yoga and tai chi as calming activities.
Other strategies for managing hypertension naturally include:
- Limiting alcohol to no more than one drink a day for women (and everyone over age 65) and two drinks a day for men.
- Stopping smoking – ask your doctor for help. It speeds up the process of hardening of the arteries.
- Switching to decaf coffee.
- Indulging in dark chocolate. The confection contains flavonols that help make blood vessels more elastic. Try a half ounce a day and make sure it contains at least 70 percent cocoa.
- Seeking help for snoring. Loud snoring is a symptom of sleep apnea. Those who suffer from sleep apnea were found to have high levels of aldosterone, a hormone that can boost blood pressure.
Practicing a healthy lifestyle can help many people who suffer from hypertension avoid medication. However, if your blood pressure is higher than 140/90 it’s likely your doctor will prescribe medication. Talk with your doctor about the best strategies to get your HBP low enough to stop taking medicine. And if it’s been more than two years since your blood pressure was checked, make sure to schedule an appointment today.
High blood pressure was listed as a primary or contributing cause of death for 326,000 Americans in 2006. In 2010, it was estimated that the condition cost the U.S. $76.6 billion in healthcare services, medications and missed days of work. However, hypertension is preventable. Avoid being part of the statistics by managing your health naturally using the best practices within your control.