I think the majority of us in this day and age can safely say that we’ve found ourselves in quite a few situations that either “stressed us out”, or “made our blood pressure rise”. It’s now such a normal way of life to rush through the day not thinking twice about what it’s doing to our bodies and minds. Then one day your doctor hands you your meds to lower your blood pressure and even this very act has a certain normalcy to it….makes you think about where our society is headed.
Today I’d like to talk about blood pressure and how you can take med-free steps to control it.
Short on time? Read the Conclusion
Blood is pumped by the heart into the blood vessels and as it flows it “pushes” against the vessel walls as it makes its way to the organs and tissues. The strength of this push – the pressure exerted by the flowing blood against the walls – is called blood pressure. High blood pressure is termed “hypertension” and low blood pressure is “hypotension”. I found this chart which I thought was helpful in knowing where you stand (if you’ve ever had your blood pressure measured):
The ideal blood pressure for a risk free, healthy life would be 120/80 or lower (generally lower is considered better) where the upper value 120 (systolic) is the highest pressure the blood exerts on the vessel walls while the heart is pumping, and 80 (diastolic) is the lowest pressure exerted while the heart rests between beats.
If your value falls in the 120/80 – 140/90 (pre-high blood pressure) you should take steps to lower it. Anything above the ideal blood pressure range increases the risk of heart disease or stroke.
Values in the “low” range could have one or both of the systolic and diastolic values low. For example, 115/50 would be considered low blood pressure.
Blood pressure varies throughout the day, lowering when you rest and rising when you’re active. The body is very sensitive to changes in BP and works to either raise or lower the pressure to bring it back to normal (homeostasis). When this natural tendency towards homeostasis in terms of blood pressure is affected or does not happen fast enough we end up with either hyper, or hypotension
Some people naturally have low blood pressure and exhibit no signs or symptoms. In this case low BP is not a health risk. If your BP drops to a point where you feel faint or dizzy then it warrants your attention and that of your physician.
Symptoms of low BP:
- Fatigue, dizziness/light-headedness, Fainting
- Cold, clammy, pale skin
- Nausea, blurred vision, lack of concentration
- Rapid, shallow breathing
Some causes of hypotension are:
Pregnancy, dehydration, severe allergic reactions, low blood sugar, thyroid disorders, Pulmonary embolism, central nervous system disorders like Parkinson’s disease, Infections, Anemia.
Having your blood vessels try and manage high blood pressure is much like trying to use a garden hose to handle the pressure of a fire hose – you’re bound to run into a bit of trouble there. Here’s what can happen:
- Damage to eye vessels leads to blindness
- Damage to kidney vessels could lead to you on dialysis
- Damage to brain vessels lead to stroke or Alzheimer’s
- Damage to vessels in the limbs (legs and arms) and internal organs lead to peripheral vascular disease (leading to open sores that do not heal, ulcers, gangrene due to inadequate blood supply to the affected areas, and in some severe cases amputation may be necessary)
For each increment of 20 mm Hg (a blood pressure measurement), your risk of cardiovascular disease doubles!
(Apologies if the images below are unclear – clicking on them will open up a legible copy)
Preventable causes of death in the U.S. (Image source: Danaei G, et al. The preventable causes of death in the United States: comparative risk assessment of dietary, lifestyle, and metabolic risk factors. PLoS Med 2009;6:e10000058.)
High blood pressure, a global risk factor
Unfortunately unlike hypotension, hypertension sneaks up on you with no symptoms. The risk of a person developing hypertension is dependent on sex, age and racial-ethnic background:
- As they age, women are more likely to suffer from hypertension than men
- People of African origin are genetically more inclined at having higher blood pressure.
- Even children and adolescents are not exempt from developing hypertension.
But lifestyle can influence those factors to a large extent – for example, though Indians as a population have in the past ranked low in a worldwide survey (World health statistics 2012), a large part (limited data is available) of the population now suffers from high blood pressure according to cardiology outpatient surveys, experts at the Public Health Foundation of India and Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurgaon. This, they say, is attributed to risk factors such as physical inactivity and low levels of awareness in terms of good diet.
Controlling it all
- Drinking plenty of fluids
- Increasing sodium intake as sea salt (which also contains other minerals – avoid the processed kind) and potassium intake (beans, bananas, avocados, mushrooms, potatoes with skins, dark leafy greens, squash, nectarines). *
- Stand up slowly from seated
- Learn to recognise the symptoms of a dizzy spell or fainting, sit down with your head between your knees or lie down. This helps to raise your blood pressure again.
- Coffee is a temporary treatment
- Tulsi/Holy Basil (My personal favourite) tea is a better alternative to coffee. It helps to relieve stress and boost your immune system. It is also rich in Vit A, Vit C , Magnesiun, Potassium, manganese, calcium and iron
- Eat small meals frequently – a rainbow diet with plenty of fruit and veggies will give you all the necessary vitamins and minerals. Whole grains help to keep your blood sugar levels steady and keep your blood pressure from falling. Include garlic and beetroot in your diet. Spices such as turmeric, cumin, cayenne pepper are helpful in stimulating circulation. Onion and horseradish root should also do the trick.
- Physical activity that stimulates blood flow is good to raise blood pressure.
- Stay lean – Fat cells produce substances that produce inflammation in the heart and blood vessels.
- Workout – Exercise alone can lower your BP by about 4 mm Hg. It decreases the sympathetic nervous system activity, lowers insulin production and increases elasticity of the blood vessels. Cardio, high intensity, low intensity, resistance training. You name it, if you’re moving your body enough, you’re definitely on the right track to lowering BP. If you suffer from high BP and have been physically inactive for a while, start slow and build up your workout intensities. Again, check with your general practitioner.
- Cut down on alcohol and quit the cigs – Smoking has been known to raise BP. Alcohol in small amounts can help in lowering BP but think twice before you think that binge drinking night out with the gals/lads on an empty stomach is going to benefit you. Alcohol activates the sympathetic nervous system, increases the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) and decreases the production of nitric oxide which is required to keep your blood vessels elastic.
- Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition – eliminate processed foods. Add more plant foods to your diet to increase your intake of arginine, lycopene, folate, fibre, magnesium, potassium, sulphur and vits C & E.
Here’s a helpful table the guys at Precision Nutrition put together:
|Plant foods rich in vitamins C and E:green leafy vegetables, broccoli, potatoes, peas, oranges, mango, olives, avocado, tomatoes, apples, carrots, nuts, seeds, whole intact grains
||Plant foods rich in arginine:lentils, chickpeas, black beans, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, Brazil nuts, coconut, walnuts, almonds, sesame seeds
|Plant foods rich in lycopene: tomatoes, grapefruit, salsa, watermelon, guava, baked beans
||Plant foods rich in folate: leafy greens, lettuce, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, lentils
|Plant foods rich in fibre: beans, peas, nuts, seeds, whole fruits, whole vegetables, whole grains
||Plant foods rich in magnesium:black beans, broccoli, peanuts, okra, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, spinach, oats, artichokes, banana, barley, buckwheat, navy beans, corn, raw chocolate (aka cacao)
|Plant foods rich in potassium:apricots, avocado, banana, beets, potato, dates, melon, Brussels sprouts, oranges, pears, peanuts, raisins, spinach, squash
||Plant foods rich in sulfur compounds:garlic, onions, leeks, brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower), nuts; onions and garlic in particular are high in sulfur compounds that increase nitric oxide production
So basically eating a variety of fruit and veg, nuts and seeds, whole grains, beans and peas should provide you with plenty of dietary ammo to fight hypertension. If you eat dairy, make it a low fat option and for those with a sweet tooth, small amounts (10-30 grams/day) of dark chocolate may help increase blood vessel elasticity.
- Get some sunshine – sunshine = vit D = good in helping to lower BP. I was surprised to hear from a paediatrician in India that Indians suffer from vit D deficiency! She explained that it was due to everyone wanting “fair” skin and them shying away from the sun or slathering on layers of sunscreen that’s led to the deficiency.
- Get plenty of omega-3 fatty acid through flax, chia and hemp seeds. Walnuts are a good source too. Although I don’t promote eating meat, I do respect everyone’s choices and so will say that oily fish and wild game are non-vegetarian options (be wary though, adding meat to your diet has been shown to raise BP). Omega-3 fatty acid is known to increase blood vessel dilation whilst Omega-6 (already abundant in our diet) causes vessel constriction.
- Cut out the sugar and reduce your salt intake *
- Destress – yoga, meditation and breathing exercises are a wonderful, enjoyable way to relax and centre ourselves. If these don’t float your boat, then pick an activity you truly enjoy , set sometime for yourself every day/week and make it all about “you”.
* Sodium is naturally present in fresh vegetables albeit in varying quantitites:
High sodium (more than 140 mg/serving): Spinach, swiss chard.
Low sodium (35 – 140 mg/serving): Artichokes, sweet potatoes, radishes, celery, carrots, broccoli and bell peppers.
Very low sodium (less than 35 mg/serving): Brussels sprouts, lettuce, mushrooms, cabbage, cauliflower, green onion and tomatoes.
Sodium free (5 mg/serving or less): Asparagus, cucumber, corn, green beans, avocado, potatoes and summer squash.
Hypo or hypertension isn’t the end of the line for the people diagnosed with it. Good nutrition and plenty of exercise can go a long way to controlling or reversing the problem. Vegetables naturally contain varying levels of sodium. So if you are hypo/hypertensive, you may choose to control your sodium intake by choosing the appropriate veggies.
In a society obsessed with food and treating ailments with medication, taking a step back and observing your life without any judgement (as if you were a 3rd party looking in), might just show you what it is you need to change. That in my opinion is the best diagnosis anyone can give you. Don’t fight your body, accept where it is today and treat it with care. Befriend it again and work with it towards a healthier, happier future.
Making lifestyle and diet changes are by no means easy especially if you’ve been doing things a certain way for as long as your can remember, but with guidance and support, and incorporating habits one at a time at your own pace you can make those big changes and be successful at keeping them up. These changes become your new lifestyle – your new way of doing things.