A few years ago, more than 45 million Americans developed hypertension overnight. Okay, not exactly — but it probably felt that way to those people whose borderline-but-fine blood pressure numbers quite suddenly entered the too-high zone.
The change came when the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association (AHA) announced new guidelines that lowered the definition of high blood pressure requiring treatment (lifestyle changes and possibly medication) from 140/90 mm Hg to 130/80 mm Hg. That translated into 1 in every 2 U.S. adults having hypertension, a potentially deadly condition that increases the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Hypertension also disrupts immune system function and increases vulnerability to infection — something we all worry about more and more these days. Worse, 11 million Americans have hypertension and don’t even know it because it typically has no symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control, meaning they’re unaware they need to take certain steps to protect their health.
Now for the good news: It’s entirely possible to lower your blood pressure levels enough to diminish the related health risks and reduce or even stop taking blood pressure medications. That’s not to say it’s wise to avoid medications for uncontrolled hypertension — it’s not.
But all the medications have significant side effects, plus they don’t treat the vascular changes that contribute to hypertension. Instead, medications only have the capacity to artificially block processes associated with hypertension, so if you don’t take the medication, your blood pressure goes right back up.
By contrast, a natural approach addresses the underlying causes of hypertension. It takes time, of course, but with the right lifestyle modifications and supplements, most of the vascular changes that lead to hypertension such as arterial plaque formation and reduced elasticity are reversible. There have even been patients with severe atherosclerosis (a hardening and narrowing of the arteries) — to the point of not being candidates for bypass surgery — who have reversed the vascular changes and restored normal cardiovascular function.
If you’re one of the 108 million Americans who have (or suspect you have) hypertension, here are the five natural steps I recommend for getting your blood pressure under control so you can enjoy a healthy future.
Eat a Healthy Diet.
“Healthy diet” means a lot of different things to different people, so here’s how I define it, particularly when I’m talking to someone with high blood pressure:
- Minimize processed and fast foods. They tend to be loaded with refined carbohydrates and sugar — both of which contribute to weight gain, a prime risk factor for hypertension. Extra pounds lead to increased fatty tissue in the vascular system, which means the heart has to work harder to pump and blood pressure levels rise. Even a 5-pound gain is enough to increase your blood pressure, but fortunately, avoiding processed and fried foods can help you maintain a healthy weight.
- Reduce saturated fats. These are the unhealthy, artery-clogging fats found mostly in animal products such as red meat, full-fat dairy, and butter. They’ve been shown to raise levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and lower “good” LDL cholesterol, a combination that increases hypertension risk.
- Cut back on salt. Sodium disrupts fluid balance in the blood, making it a major contributor to high blood pressure and heart disease. The AHA recommends limiting your intake to 2,300 milligrams (or 1 teaspoon) per day, which doesn’t take long to hit — processed and fried foods like bread, pizza, and French fries are loaded with it.
- Eat mostly vegetables and plant-based foods. For starters, it’s a great way to check off the first three items on my healthy diet list, as veggies and fruits are naturally low in salt, saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, and sugar. Plus, plants are loaded with beneficial plant compounds called phytochemicals, many of which — such as anthocyanins in berries and quercetin in onions, apples, and grapes — are linked with promoting healthy blood pressure.
- Stick to one alcoholic drink (or less) per day. Consistent binge drinking (defined as consuming five or more drinks on the same occasion for men, or four or more for women) and long-term heavy drinking can lead to chronic hypertension. Research shows alcohol can lead to hardening in the arteries as well as weight gain. The latest guidelines suggest women limit themselves to one drink per day, and men to two (though that may soon drop to one as well).
Move Your Body More.
The science behind exercise’s ability to impact blood pressure is strong and clear: Getting 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week can significantly lower blood pressure levels. In fact, it’s enough to lower your systolic blood pressure — the top number in your reading, which measures the force your heart exerts on your arterial walls each time it beats — by 4 to 9 mm Hg, the equivalent of some blood pressure medications!
Perhaps 150 minutes sounds like a lot, but know that you can break it up throughout the week and still reap the benefits. Even shorter 10- to 15-minute stints count. And if you’re not sure what moderate-intensity exercise looks like, here are some ideas for inspiration:
- Brisk walking
- Playing tennis
- Roller skating
- Doing yard work like raking or pushing a mower
- Bike riding
Take the Right Herbs.
Like fruits and vegetables, herbs are packed with beneficial phytochemicals — but herbs actually have even higher amounts and greater varieties of phytochemicals because they haven’t been cultivated out by modern agricultural techniques. While many have heart health benefits, here are my top recommendations for promoting healthy blood pressure:
- Cat’s claw: Long used in traditional herbal medicine for promoting normal blood pressure as well as healthy immunity and cognitive health, cat’s claw contains a phytochemical called rhynchophylline that’s been shown to help inhibit the formation of plaque on arterial walls.
- Garlic: A number of studies have linked garlic with healthy blood pressure, including one that found it reduced systolic pressure by 10-12 mm Hg, and diastolic pressure by 6-9 mm Hg. (Diastolic pressure is the bottom number in your reading, which measures the force your heart exerts on your arterial walls as your heart relaxes between beats.) While fresh garlic tastes great and delivers some benefits, you’d have to eat way too much to get the full effects, so I recommend supplementing with 200 mg a day.
- Hawthorn: Hawthorn is known as a tonic, or a substance that has an overall positive effect on a particular organ system — in this case, the cardiovascular system. It promotes healthy circulation and normalizes blood pressure by dilating blood vessels; it helps normalize LDL cholesterol levels; it supports healthy heart muscle contractions; and more.
- French maritime pine bark: Found on pine trees off the southwest coast of France, French maritime pine bark contains potent antioxidants and other chemical compounds that promote the integrity of blood vessels, which in turn supports healthy blood flow and pressure.
- Japanese knotweed: This tenacious plant is an excellent source of resveratrol, which offers potent antioxidant properties and ample heart health support. Resveratrol dilates blood vessels, promotes healthy blood flow, and helps normalize cholesterol levels.
Stay Stocked Up on Omega-3s with Krill Oil.
If you haven’t yet heard of or tried it, krill oil is a rich source of EPA and DHA, two essential omega-3 fatty acids. (EPA and DHA are also found in fish oil, but krill’s omega-3s are better absorbed by the body, plus the oil has exponentially higher antioxidant levels.)
EPA and DHA have been shown to play an effective role in maintaining healthy blood pressure levels. For instance, one research analysis in the American Journal of Hypertension found that supplementing with omega-3s was as effective at reducing blood pressure as exercising more or reducing salt or alcohol intake.
Does that mean you can take krill oil and replace your regular workouts with a burger and fries? Nope. But combined with a healthy diet, krill oil may help you see even greater blood pressure benefits, plus it’s great “insurance” for those occasional treat days.
Find Ways to Blow Off Steam Daily.
If high-stress days make you feel like your blood’s boiling, well, you’re kind of on to something. Stress does release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that cause heart rate to increase, blood vessels to constrict, and blood pressure to rise.
In this case the jump in blood pressure is only temporary, but chronic stress does contribute to other behaviors — drinking, munching on salty snacks or sweets, foregoing your daily walk — that can contribute to full-blown hypertension. In other words, it’s past time you put yourself and your mental health first.
So, please, set aside some time every day to dial down your stress levels, whether that’s by taking a walk or a nap, calling a friend, watching a favorite sitcom, reading a good book, or whatever healthy thing you like to do to chill out. Your heart, body, and mind will thank you for it!
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