What is high blood pressure?With every heartbeat, blood flows from your heart to the rest of your body through your arteries. Blood pressure is the force of that blood pushing against your artery walls. Blood pressure is at its highest during a beat. This is called systolic pressure. In between beats, when the heart is at rest, pressure falls. This is your diastolic pressure. These two numbers make up your blood pressure reading, expressed as systolic over diastolic (for example, 120/80 mmHg). Your blood pressure normally rises and falls throughout the day. If it stays high for too long, though, the constant force on your arteries can create microscopic tears. These tears can turn into scar tissue, providing the perfect lodging place for fat, cholesterol, and other particles—collectively called plaque. Buildup of plaque narrows the arteries, which requires your heart to work extra hard to push blood through. This can ultimately result in heart disease, stroke, hardened arteries (atherosclerosis), kidney damage, and various other problems. By and large, hypertension is a lifestyle disease. Don’t get me wrong…there are factors you can’t control, such as genetics, age, and race (African Americans have higher risk). But for the most part, you can blame bad diet, lack of exercise, poor sleep habits, uncontrolled stress, smoking, excessive drinking, and obesity. Considering half the nation is either overweight or obese, the rise in blood pressure among 20- and 30-somethings makes perfect sense.
Why is it dangerous?No matter your age, race, or sex, untreated hypertension is a ticking time bomb. Most people experience no symptoms, so you may have high blood pressure and not know it. Eventually, it will hurt you…possibly even kill you. This is why you have to treat it right away. Like so many diseases, the pharmaceutical industry has turned hypertension into a condition that can be managed by taking pills, rather than cured through lifestyle changes. Common blood pressure medications don’t solve the root causes of hypertension and have terrible side effects (including dizziness, headaches, fatigue, sexual dysfunction, and heart arrhythmia). Not worth it, in my opinion. Especially when you can lower your blood pressure naturally and without side effects.
Drugs and Medications: Not the AnswerWouldn’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. Light-headedness, 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, anti-anxiety drugs, and even non-steroidal 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.
Why is high blood pressure on the rise?There’s no doubt, high blood pressure is a huge, growing problem in America. I see it in my patients all the time. And there are three main reasons we’re seeing an uptick in blood pressure problems—none of which is an absence of drugs. Diet. Americans are eating more and more salt-laden packaged foods. And that’s hurting our hearts. Eating too much sodium, most of which enters our diet as salt, wrecks the body’s balance. Extra sodium in your blood interferes with your kidney’s ability to draw water out of your blood—leading to that bloated feeling you get after a salty meal. Think about that bloating inside your body—it creates pressure. And up goes your blood pressure. And you’d be shocked by how much salt is in processed foods—even those you wouldn’t think of. A plain medium bagel, for instance, has 430 mg of salt—almost 20% of your recommended daily intake. Four pancakes have 730 mg of salt. A slice of white bread has 240 mg, and even a cup of cottage cheese contains 819 mg of salt! Those aren’t foods you think of as salty—but they are. Since salt is a natural preservative, you’ll find it in high quantities in anything that isn’t sold fresh. But salt isn’t the only danger packaged foods bring. Bisphenol A—BPA—is a chemical used in making plastics, cans, and a variety of other containers. Many of which are used for food. And one study found that 92% of Americans have BPA in their blood. Little wonder, since it’s been found in our food too—things like canned soups or canned green beans. The problem with that? BPA mimics estrogen in your body—and estrogen plays an important role in regulating blood pressure. So all that BPA is driving America’s numbers up. That’s just the tip of the iceberg with BPA, but it’s a very important tip. Stress. So many of my patients complain to me about feeling overwhelmed. By everything. The modern world is constantly vying for your attention from eighteen different places. Since the Great Recession, most of my patients tell me how worried they are about their jobs, their finances. All this pressure creates stress. Stress creates cortisol. And cortisol is a hormone that controls blood pressure. More stress equals higher readings. Sleep. 45% of Americans report not getting enough sleep over the previous week. 35% say the sleep they do get isn’t any good. And when you don’t sleep enough, your body doesn’t regulate your stress hormones properly. That is part of the reason you feel bad and are more irritable when you don’t get proper sleep. But lack of sleep also causes your blood pressure to rise
Natural Remedies to High Blood PressureThere are many ways to keep your blood pressure in check. One of the most important is performing your own blood pressure monitoring.
Be your own doctorHaving an accurate account of your blood pressure over time is the first line of defense in preventing heart attack, stroke, and even death. And the only way to accomplish that is to monitor your blood pressure at home. The conclusion of a late 2014 study says it all: Clinical blood pressure measurements alone are not specific or sensitive enough to be used as the main tool in diagnosing or treating hypertension. Another study found that home monitoring helps confirm cases of white coat syndrome and masked hypertension (the opposite of white coat, when readings in clinical settings are normal, but high elsewhere). Home monitoring is also a better predictor of potential heart issues. The researchers stated that home blood pressure monitoring should have a primary role in diagnosis and treatment of hypertension. Why? Well, having your blood pressure taken at your doctor’s office is merely a snapshot of what’s going on in your arteries at that very specific moment in time. But home monitoring provides a longer-term view and offers a much clearer picture of your blood pressure fluctuations over time.
Steps to Successful At-Home MonitoringI recommend home monitoring to all my patients who have (or are at risk for) high blood pressure and heart disease. That way they can gauge how effectively their prevention or treatment program is working. I even tell people who have perfectly normal blood pressure that it doesn’t hurt to measure themselves every once in a while. (You can usually do this at your local pharmacy.) Knowing where you stand puts you in much greater control of your health. Here are some tips to assure the most accurate readings at home.
- Buy an automatic monitor that goes around your upper arm (as opposed to your wrist or finger), and make sure the cuff fits properly. (Insurance may fully or partially cover a monitor; check with your provider.)
- Before your first use, have your doctor or nurse check to make sure you are using it properly. Also test your monitor’s accuracy by having your doctor take a reading, then do a self-reading.
- Take your blood pressure twice a day—morning and evening. At each reading, take two to three measurements (spaced about one minute apart) to make sure they are similar.
- Thirty minutes prior to measuring, avoid caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and exercise. Also be sure you have an empty bladder.
- Position your left arm properly by resting it on the table or chair arm at heart level. Place the cuff on your bare skin, not on top of clothing.
- Don’t talk or think about stressful situations during the readings.
- If your monitor doesn’t record your readings automatically, be sure to log them.
- Sit quietly and calmly for at least three to four minutes beforehand. Make sure to leave your legs and ankles uncrossed before and during the reading.