The Keys to Healthy Blood Pressure

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Millions of Americans are living with a deadly killer. The name of the villain: high blood pressure or hypertension. Many people who have high blood pressure don’t know it, because this disease is frequently asymptomatic. Even worse, others are aware that their blood pressure is a problem but aren’t able to get it under control, because they aren’t compliant in taking their medication. As a result, they’re at increased risk for heart disease, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, and stroke, as my patient Jeff discovered.

  • Get a blood pressure checkup by your physician or at your local pharmacy to determine if you’re in a healthy range.
  • Stock up on potassium- and magnesium-rich fruits, vegetables, and/or supplements.
  • Consider taking specific supplements to help lower your blood pressure.

Potassium to the Rescue

In addition to reducing your risk factors (such as excess weight, smoking, stress, and poor diet), here’s a simple plan that has improved blood pressure for many of my patients: eating more fruits and vegetables. Why? Because these foods are excellent sources of the mineral potassium, a key element in balancing sodium’s effect on the body.

A few examples of potassium-rich produce include

  • bananas
  • orange juice
  • beans of any type
  • spinach
  • avocadoes
  • green leafy vegetables, like Swiss chard and kale
  • nuts
  • figs
  • papayas
  • cantaloupes
  • dates
  • dried apricots
  • guavas
  • peaches

You could take potassium supplements — as I recommend below — but increasing fruit and vegetable intake also provides a long list of healthful nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

If you’re not sure where to start with fruits and veggies, check out books and websites about the Mediterranean diet. Studies have repeatedly shown that the overall health benefits of this eating plan go far beyond reducing blood pressure. Or look into the DASH diet, developed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) also focuses on fruits, vegetables, grains, and healthy fats. Supplements especially designed to replicate a diet rich in fruits and vegetables are another option.

Nutrients to Consider for High Blood Pressure

  • Potassium: As I mentioned earlier, potassium is very helpful for lowering blood pressure, as well as for proper muscle function. I recommend 4,000 mg per day, but most of that should come from food sources. In addition, you may want to take supplements. These are typically sold in 99 mg capsules or tablets. Try 99 mg twice per day.
  • Magnesium: 350 to 500 mg per day
  • Calcium: 1,000 to 1,500 mg per day
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: 2 to 4 grams of fish oil per day
  • Vitamin D: 1,500 IU per day
  • CoQ10: 100 to 200 mg per day

Blood Pressure 101

Blood pressure readings measure two things: systolic and diastolic pressures. These are usually written with systolic first, diastolic second — for example, 180/100 mm Hg (mm Hg stands for millimeters of mercury). The systolic number indicates the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart contracts. The diastolic number is the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart is at rest. (By the way, if you don’t know what your blood pressure is, many pharmacies now offer free screenings or have easy-to-use blood pressure devices so you can do it yourself.)

Blood Pressure Guidelines

The two measurements used to gauge blood pressure are systolic and diastolic readings. Occasional spikes in blood pressure — such as “white coat syndrome,” which occurs when patients experience stress during visits with medical professionals — aren’t true hypertension. A diagnosis of high blood pressure involves consistently high readings.

Blood Pressure Readings

  • Low blood pressure (hypotension) = Less than 90 (systolic), Less than 60 (diastolic)
  • Normal = 90–119 (systolic), 60–79 (diastolic)
  • Prehypertension = 120–139 (systolic), 80–89 (diastolic)
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) = 140+ (systolic), 90+ (diastolic)

A number of factors, including age and genetics, affect blood pressure. While we can’t change our birth dates or family histories, we can do a great deal to alter other blood pressure risk factors, including:

  • Excess weight
  • High levels of stress
  • Lack of exercise
  • Poor diet
  • Smoking and too much alcohol

Heart disease and diabetes are also risk factors. But there are steps you can take to remedy those conditions, and doing so not only helps lower high blood pressure but improves overall health, too.

Since high blood pressure has few symptoms (which is why it’s often called a “silent killer”), my patients are often surprised to hear they have a problem. Lack of symptoms is the reason some patients don’t take the condition seriously. Unfortunately, other than a blood pressure reading, there’s no way to show people that their hearts are working too hard or that their arteries have “hardened” from plaque deposits. Stiff, less elastic arteries make the heart work even harder.

The Sodium Connection

Aging affects all the organs, as well as the circulatory system. That said, we still have the power to ease the burden in many ways. In the case of high blood pressure, cutting back on sodium is my number one recommendation. Even individuals with normal blood pressure can benefit from consuming less sodium, especially those who currently have (or have a family history of) heart disease or diabetes.

The typical healthy adult under age 40 should consume no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily (the equivalent of one teaspoon of salt), according to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For at-risk groups, including African Americans, those with hypertension, and anyone over age 40, that figure is 1,500 mg, about half of the 3,400 mg most people get in the Standard American Diet (SAD).

Apparently, food manufacturers didn’t get that memo — how else to explain the ridiculously high levels of sodium in frozen dinners, many soups, and packaged foods? And don’t get me started on fast foods! A simple cheeseburger at a popular fast-food outlet is loaded with a whopping 750 mg of sodium. Order a double cheeseburger, with 1,150 mg of sodium, and you’ll almost reach the total daily sodium allotment with just one dish! If you’re serious about lowering blood pressure, be prepared to do some detective work in the supermarket and when eating out.

Drug Trade-Offs

Wouldn’t it be easier to take blood-pressure-lowering medication? Sure, but there’s a major trade-off. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s important to review all possible side effects before starting any medication, and blood pressure drugs are no exception. Diuretics (drugs that increase urination to flush water from the body) and medicines that reduce blood pressure have powerful side effects. Lightheadedness, which increases the risk of falling, is just one. High blood sugar, brain shrinkage, and a sluggish metabolism are a few of the others. Then there’s the depletion of B vitamins, essential for a healthy nervous system. And a reduction of other vitally important minerals can cause dizziness. Furthermore, several large, respected studies show that individuals with mild to moderate elevations in blood pressure who avoid prescription drugs fare better in terms of heart attacks than those who take drugs. Personally, I think choosing a low-sodium diet over these potentially serious side effects is a no-brainer.

Also, keep in mind that some medications increase blood pressure. These include certain antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, and even nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen. If this could be a problem for you, discuss the possibility of switching to a different drug with your physician.

One last thing: Several recent studies have shown that yoga is effective in lowering blood pressure. Yoga has many other health benefits, and there are a number of different methods — something for just about everyone. If your physician has given you the go-ahead on activity, check out some local yoga classes or rent a DVD to try yoga at home.

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to reduce high blood pressure. I hope you’ll make it a point to get yours checked soon, so you can correct any potential problems. It worked for Jeff, and it can work for you, too.

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