If you've been told you have high blood pressure (hypertension), you are not alone. In fact, almost half of adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure. This is important, because hypertension is the most commonly occurring risk factor for strokes and heart attacks. It is also one of five risk factors for metabolic syndrome. Other risk factors include increased waist size, low levels of HDL (the "good" cholesterol), high triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia), and high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). If you have three of those risk factors or more, you meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome.
What Exactly is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is made up of two numbers. The top number (systolic) is the pressure in your arteries during a heartbeat. The bottom number (diastolic) is the pressure in your arteries while your heart is resting between beats. Here is a great video (4:31) with visuals that explains How Blood Pressure Works.
When the pressure in the vessels gets too high each time your heart contracts, over time it causes inflammation and plaque build-up (atherosclerosis), which narrows (vasoconstricts) and hardens the arteries (arteriosclerosis). This means to do its job, the heart has to work that much harder, causing extra strain on the heart, arteries, and organs, which increases your risk for heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and other conditions.
How High is too High?
Guidelines from the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) now classify blood pressure in phases:
- Normal: Less than 120/80 mm Hg
- Elevated: Systolic between 120-129 and diastolic less than 80
- Stage 1: Systolic between 130-139 or diastolic between 80-89
- Stage 2: Systolic at least 140 or diastolic at least 90 mm Hg
- Hypertensive crisis: Systolic over 180 and/or diastolic over 120
What can I do to Lower my Blood Pressure to Normal?
The good news is that the first recommendation to decrease blood pressure is lifestyle changes which we all have control of. I know firsthand this can work. When I first discovered I had Stage 2 hypertension, I was more than a little surprised, however I knew that my father had hypertension and was on medication beginning in his 40's. While I worked on lifestyle changes, I was able to wean off medication and my blood pressure has been in the normal range for over 10 years. With lifestyle changes and guidance from your healthcare provider, this could be your story too.
Lifestyle changes that can lower blood pressure naturally include:
- Eating healthfully. This can also lead to a body mass index (BMI) in the normal range, and improve the other markers of metabolic syndrome. While a diet low in fat and including whole grains is conventional wisdom, recent evidence suggests low carbohydrate diets are more effective in reducing weight and the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Adding some form of exercise in your daily routine. Something as simple as brisk walking for 30 minutes most days of the week can make a difference.
- Decreasing stress levels. Exercise can help with this, but other strategies include meditation, quality sleep, reducing triggers, and simply doing more of the things that bring you joy.
- Quitting smoking. Besides decreasing blood pressure, studies show people who don't smoke live longer lives.
- Decreasing salt consumption. The AHA recommends no more than 2,300 mg (about a teaspoon) of sodium per day, with an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day. However, 90% of Americans eat more sodium than recommended--3,400 mg per day on average. Once you bring more whole foods into your diet, you will realize just how over-salted packaged foods are. Always taste your food first before automatically adding salt. Also, consider replacing table salt with pink Himalayan salt which has lower concentrations of sodium and includes many other naturally occurring minerals.