HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE isn’t like a sharp pebble in your hiking boot. You can’t feel it. That’s one reason why hypertension is called “the silent killer.” There might be no outward symptoms, so unless you have it checked, you don’t know you have it.
Over time, high pressure damages arterial walls, causing health problems including blindness and kidney failure.
One out of every three American adults is living with hypertension, and more people receive treatment for high blood pressure than almost any other illness, according to the American Heart Association. Fortunately, there are effective medications to help manage hypertension. To avoid the need for drugs, however, focus on the big three risk reducers: don’t smoke, keep alcohol consumption low and lose weight if you are heavy.
“If high blood pressure isn’t due to an adrenal or kidney issue, then it’s truly about lifestyle, the choices you make with diet and exercise, and how you live your life,” says Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist and co-author of Lower Your Blood Pressure Naturally (Rodale Books, 2014).
What exactly can you do to lower your blood pressure and reduce risks of related complications? First, know your numbers by having your blood pressure checked regularly. (See “Off the Cuff” to help make sense of these numbers.) Here are some simple, natural lifestyle changes you can start making today.
1. Lose Weight.
Blood pressure tends to increase as your body weight increases. A protruding belly is a key indicator of “metabolic syndrome,” a gang of risk factors that includes high blood pressure along with high blood sugar and high levels of triglycerides. Men are at risk if they have a waist measurement of 40 inches or more; women should be concerned if their waist measures 35 inches or more.
Abdominal fat is particularly dangerous because it secretes chemicals that can cause blood-vessel constriction, increasing the risk of high blood pressure. But even a modest reduction in weight — just 10 pounds — can significantly improve your health.
2. Stop smoking and limit alcohol.
The fact that nicotine boosts blood pressure and keeps it elevated may not come as a surprise. But did you know that having three, four or more adult beverages immediately boosts blood pressure, and drinking that much regularly can keep it high? A double whammy: heavy drinking (beer, wine and mixed drinks all count) makes matters worse by causing weight gain.
3. Put down that saltshaker.
University of Helsinki researchers reviewing dozens of health studies found that high intake of sodium correlated with a shorter life. Conversely, people who changed their eating habits and reduced dietary sodium by 30 percent lived an average of seven years longer than those who kept the sodium levels in their diets high.
What to do? Cut processed foods out of your diet. Frozen dinners and canned soups contain a third to more than half of the 1,500 mg the American Heart Association recommends we limit ourselves to per day. Other sources of big-time salt per serving: packed deli meats (200 to 300 mg), pretzels (385 mg), boxed cereals (250 mg), one slice of pizza (760 mg), breads and rolls (230 mg), and cottage cheese (918 mg).
4. Get off your butt.
Exercise is an important tool for deflating hypertension because physical activity makes the heart pump blood more efficiently, easing pressure on your arteries. New research in Hypertension, a journal of the American Heart Association, suggests that clocking more than four hours of exercise per week could drop your risk of having high blood pressure by close to 20 percent.
5. Take a chill pill.
When stress triggers your “fight or flight” hormones, the heart beats faster and blood vessels constrict, causing a short-term rise in blood pressure. By learning to manage your stress levels, you can reduce the effect on your blood pressure.
6. Eat mineral meals.
Certain key minerals, namely potassium, magnesium and calcium, lessen the effects of that troublesome mineral sodium and help lower blood pressure. Stock up on foods that are rich in all three. This includes avocados, bananas, broccoli, red bell peppers and white beans.
7. Try DASH.
It stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,” a strategic eating plan that has been shown to reduce blood pressure as much as medication does. The basis of the plan is to reduce fat intake to less than 27 percent of total calories, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, shun processed grains for whole grains, choose low-fat and non-fat dairy products, and reduce consumption of red meats.
JEFF CSATARI is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Belly Off! Diet.
LEARN MORE ways to be healthy at scoutingmagazine.org/health.