Blood pressure is a critical indicator of your heart health, and why it’s important to pay close attention to it. Here’s what you need to know about the risks, and the lifestyle changes that benefit it.
This past November, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology issued new guidelines for when high blood pressure should be treated. For the first time in 14 years, there’s no more “prehypertension”.
If your blood pressure is running over 130/80, you officially have high blood pressure.
Perhaps you’ve never given much thought to your blood pressure, especially if it’s been spot on for most of your life. But as you get older and deal with more stressful aspects of in life, it can affect your blood pressure. Maybe not quite high enough to require medication, but it may be something to keep an eye on it. And this can affect even those who eat well, exercise most days, and do all the right things to stay healthy.
So why is this important to pay close attention to?
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is the leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Damage to your blood vessels occurs every time your pressure is elevated, and the new guidelines are meant to help people become more aware earlier. And through earlier awareness, it may help prevent the damage that would occur if you waited for a later diagnosis.
So what are the risk factors to be aware of for high blood pressure?
- Age – blood pressure starts to increase in your mid to late 40s, and tends to increase as you get older
- Race – African Americans tend to develop high blood pressure more frequently than people of other racial backgrounds
- Family history of heart disease and hypertension
- Individuals under chronic stress – long-term release of stress hormones can increase blood pressure
- An unbalanced diet containing more processed foods, higher sodium, and saturated and trans fats
- Other health conditions like kidney disease, diabetes and heart disease – they’re all associated with increased risk of hypertension
One notable recommendation within the new guidelines is the focus on lifestyle changes first, and medication only if necessary. Like all meds, blood pressure medications come with their side effects, so it’s always worth it to work on diet, exercise and stress management first. Even if an individual receives only partial benefits from lifestyle changes, it may still mean reduced medication usage, or one with fewer side effects if necessary. Here are a few lifestyle changes that you start today to reduce your blood pressure naturally.
1. Focus on a plant-based diet.
Research on the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet shows that eating at least 9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day can reduce blood pressure about as much as medication. Fruits and vegetables are high in potassium, which helps to balance sodium in your cells to reduce pressure in your blood vessel and has shown to lower risk for stroke. Try to incorporate at least one piece or serving of a fruit or vegetable (or both) into each snack, and include about ½ plate of fruits and vegetables into all your meals.
Also focus on eating nitrate and nitrite-rich vegetables (not to be confused with the other types of nitrates and nitrites that are found in processed meats) . Nitrates and nitrates from vegetables help to relax and dilate blood vessels throughout your body and increase blood flow. Although it’s a short-term effect, eating more nitrate-rich vegetables like beets, cabbage, leafy greens, and vegetable juices, can reduce blood pressure for a few hours. Recent studies have also shown that those who drank beetroot juice showed an immediate effect on lowering blood pressure. By eating plant-based foods consistently, you’ll see their regular benefits.
2. Have your Omega-3s.
The Omega-3 fats EPA and DHA found in fish can reduce inflammation along with your blood pressure, which reduces your risk of heart disease, stroke, and other inflammation-related diseases. Consider taking a 3,000 mg of an Omega-3 fish oil supplement each day, especially if you don’t eat fatty fish like salmon or sardines twice each week.
3. Limit your sodium intake, while improving your potassium intake.
If you’re eating more fruits and vegetables, you’re already taking a positive step toward reducing salt and enhancing potassium intake. Sodium can be found in abundance in processed foods – anything that comes in a package, can, or especially from a fast food restaurant. If you’re over 50, or at higher risk, aim for no more than 1,500 mg/day. Check your food labels for sodium content. If you see that a food has more than 400-500 mg in a serving, see if there’s a lower-sodium option.
4. Exercise regularly.
Get moving at least a little bit every day, with a standard recommendation of 30-60 minutes a day, 3-5 times a week. Get your heart pumping at a moderate intensity for a few times a week, and mix it up with some strength training. Because life happens, on the days when you can’t fit it in, try to build more activity into your day by parking further away, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or even just doing a quick sprint or two up and down the block. Every little bit helps.
5. Get plenty of sleep
It goes without saying that when you don’t sleep well, you don’t feel well, and your body just doesn’t work well. In fact, research has shown for decades that a strong link between insomnia and hypertension exists. Reevaluating your daytime decisions or nighttime routines leading up to bedtime can help you find what works best for you in getting a good night’s rest.
By keeping a balanced lifestyle, you can keep your heart healthy for years to come.
Adapted from the original article.
Anne Danahy, MS, RD is a Scottsdale-AZ-based registered dietitian and nutrition communications consultant specializing in women’s health and healthy aging. Anne is passionate about teaching people how to make the science of nutrition more delicious on their plates. Visit her at Craving Something Healthy.