Health Take-Away: Treating the root causes of high blood pressure

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High blood pressure, or hypertension, is one of those widespread conditions to which people too readily surrender as if it's their genetic destiny. "Mom had it. Dad had it. I'm showing signs of it. So, I'll just take my magic pill every day and maybe I'll be lucky enough to avoid heart disease."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, family history can be a factor, but it's not the deciding factor in whether or not you develop high blood pressure. Avoiding it is well within your control if you manage its root causes, and that means making the right lifestyle choices and avoiding environmental exposures that can inflame hypertension. As with so many conditions, inflammation is a central factor in high blood pressure.

Hypertension is a classic silent killer — symptomless, often until it's too late. All of us should get our blood pressure taken regularly. Under the guidelines updated in 2017, pressure is considered normal if the top or systolic number (measuring pressure your heart exerts while beating) is less than 120, while the bottom or diastolic number (measuring pressure in your arteries between beats) is less than 80. Pressure is considered elevated at 120-129. It's considered stage 1 high blood pressure at 130-139/80-89. Stage 2 high blood pressure is 140 or higher/90 or higher.

Here are some top tips on getting your pressure under control:

- Avoid processed, chemically enhanced foods. So many of our foods today are packed with preservatives, harmful industrialized fats, and loaded with excess sugar and salt. But there are plenty of healthy foods to be found. Take time to read the ingredients label and choose foods free of those additives.

- Eat a DASH diet. It stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and is widely available online. DASH emphasizes portion size, loading up on fruits and vegetables, and cutting bad fats, added sugars and salt.

- Lose weight. For every two pounds you shed, you can expect a one-point drop in your systolic (upper number) blood pressure.

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- Boost your potassium. Foods rich in this nutrient offset the effects of salt and ease tension buildup in your blood vessel walls. Bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes, halibut, spinach and fat-free yogurt are just a few of the high-potassium foods to choose.

- Get more sunlight. Research shows that sunlight alters levels of nitric oxide in the skin and blood, reducing blood pressure.

- Exercise. Just 90 to 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity — a brisk walk around the block, a bicycle ride, swimming, hiking or snow-shoeing — can dramatically improve your blood pressure.

- Avoid prolonged stress. When under stress, your body produces a surge of hormones that temporarily increase blood pressure. That's OK short-term; it's your body's way of managing stress. But if you suffer from chronic stress, you need to find ways to reduce it.

- Be careful with over-the-counter pain medications. If you have high blood pressure, talk to your doctor about which pain relievers are right or wrong for you. Ibuprofen and naproxen may increase your blood pressure, while acetaminophen and aspirin may be safer choices for getting the same relief.

- Drink moderately and don't smoke at all. Alcohol and smoking (either tobacco or marijuana) are risk factors in so many health conditions, and high blood pressure is no exception. These substances are super inflammatory and must be taken seriously.

- Give and get more hugs. Research has shown that hugging and holding someone in a trusted relationship may be an effective antidote in reducing stress, fear and anxiety — and actually lowering blood pressure. This physical closeness releases oxytocin, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland, primarily known for increasing bonding, social behavior and closeness between parents, children and couples. The more hugs, the better your pressure.

Lisa Laramy, R.N., C.D.E., C.H.W.C., C.P.T., is a Wellness at Work program manager with Berkshire Health Systems.


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