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Diet and Lifestyle Options for High Blood Pressure

Research has shown that treating high blood pressure can go a long way toward preventing heart attacks and stroke. Although many of my patients find it hard to believe, changing just a few things about your diet and lifestyle can lower blood pressure as much as tough-to-take drugs can.

 

If you have mild or moderate hypertension, if you're on the border line, or if hypertension has made its mark on your family over the years and you're simply worried you're going to fall prey, take a good look at the suggestions offered below. Some immediate attention to your diet and lifestyle habits can yield great rewards not so far down the road.

 

Dietary Advice

 

ADOPT A "LOW-PRESSURE" DIET

 Eating right can make a big difference in your blood pressure. While there are plenty of "gimmicky" diets out there, I believe that simply maintaining a well-balanced regimen that's high in fruits and vegetables, packed with fiber, and low in saturated fats can help keep your blood pressure (and the threat of heart disease) in check. Here are a few comments, however, about the heart-healthy diets my patients ask me about most often.

  • The DASH diet. DASH stands for "Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension." This low-fat program, tested during a clinical trial of 459 people with elevated blood pressure, is rich in fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products, and low in saturated and total fat. It was found to lower blood pressure to levels similar to those achieved by drugs. Interestingly, the greatest decreases were in African Americans. For more about this diet, you can contact the National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which sponsored the trial.
  • The Mediterranean diet. This "diet" (it's actually more like a lifestyle), with its emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, beans, and olive oil, derives from the cuisine of several countries, including Spain, southern France, Italy, Greece, and parts of the Middle East. It was dubbed "healthy" after scientists discovered that people who lived along the Mediterranean had appreciably lower incidences of obesity and heart problems (as well as cancer) than people in other parts of the world. If you take anything away from this diet, it's that monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil and canola oil, should unequivocally replace butter and margarine in your cooking.
  • Dr. Dean Ornish's diet. Named after the well-known California doctor who originated it, this program for reversing heart disease is distinguished by its very low-fat component (only 10% of calories from fat) and near-vegetarianism. It's especially effective for people whose heart problems are a little more advanced, but it has also been shown, not surprisingly, to help reduce blood pressure. Many people who follow the program are able to reduce or discontinue their blood pressure medications. However, I urge you not to do so without consulting your doctor first. It's important to note that Ornish's program also includes exercise, yoga, smoking cessation, and support group meetings.

GET MORE POTASSIUM THROUGH FOODS

Scientists have long known that potassium helps maintain blood pressure. According to the latest studies, people who regularly consume high-potassium foods, such as bananas, avocados, and yogurt, have lower blood pressure than those who don't.

 

For example, in a recent review of 33 studies that examined the effect of potassium on blood pressure, researchers discovered that participants who started out with normal blood pressure and then added 2,340 mg of potassium daily were able to lower their risk of developing high blood pressure by 25%. The reductions were ultimately greatest for people who already had high blood pressure.

 

CUT BACK ON SALT

The sodium in salt (sodium chloride) can raise your blood pressure in two ways. By causing the body to retain water, sodium increases blood volume and thus blood pressure. Sodium also causes smooth muscle contraction and constriction of small blood vessels, which is associated with a greater resistance to blood flow. Still controversial, however, is the underlying mechanism by which sodium constricts blood vessels.

 

Some people—30% to 50% of the population, especially African Americans, the elderly, and those with a family history of hypertension—are especially salt-sensitive. People in these groups can lower their blood pressure dramatically by reducing salt. Since we have no way to identify salt-sensitive people for sure, cutting back on salt is a first-line tip for anyone with hypertension.

Foods high in sodium include cheese, smoked meats, canned soups, salty snacks, frozen dinners, and fast food. Also keep in mind that anything with sodium in its name can be a problem. A few of the sources of sodium commonly added to packaged foods include: onion salt, baking powder, baking soda, brine, garlic salt, kelp, monosodium glutamate, and soy sauce.

 

ELIMINATE CAFFEINE AND REDUCE ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION

While moderating your alcohol intake has been proven to lower blood pressure, the question of coffee has taken longer to answer. Does coffee raise blood pressure or doesn't it? A recent analysis of 11 studies showed that indeed it did. The problem ingredient—caffeine—isn't confined to coffee, however. Colas, chocolate, cocoa, tea, and many over-the-counter and prescription drugs contain the substance. Once you've withdrawn from caffeine do it slowly to prevent headaches water-processed decaffeinated green tea makes a stellar substitute. This tea provides an armory of antioxidants, which scour out cell-damaging rogue oxygen molecules called free radicals.

As far as alcohol is concerned, don't go overboard. If you are a man, have no more than two drinks a day. If you are a woman, one drink is best. Stick with beer or wine rather than hard liquor, and opt for red wine over white. Red wine is an excellent source of the flavonoids known as proanthocyanidins (or PCOs), which help prevent blocked arteries.

 

Lifestyle Tips

 

SCHEDULE REGULAR AEROBIC EXERCISE

Exercise is the elixir—the closest thing we've got to the fabled fountain of youth. What makes me say that? A regular program of brisk walking, jogging, swimming, biking, or even weeding for 20 minutes at least three times a week, has been shown to lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure an average 6 to 7 mm Hg. Plus, exercise helps you maintain a healthy weight (see below) and reduce stress.

 

MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT

A landmark study of 52 communities all over the world showed that, aside from age, weight had the highest correlation to high blood pressure. I know from my patients that losing weight seems like the highest health hurdle of all. And yet they perk up when I tell them that just shedding 10 pounds will lower their numbers by an average 4 mm Hg for systolic pressure and nearly 3 mm Hg for diastolic.

Exercise seems to be the key that turns the rusty lock of weight loss, especially when coupled with the Mediterranean, Ornish, or DASH diet. So pick a diet, start moving, and go for it.

For more information, see the Healing center for weight loss.

 

CONSIDER WHETHER YOU HAVE SLEEP APNEA

Preliminary research suggests that skimpting on sleep can raise blood pressure significantly. While you may realize you're missing your full eight hours due to too many late-night activities, what you may not know is that, according to studies, half the people with high blood pressure have sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a condition that occurs when flabby throat muscles temporarily close up until the sleeper struggles briefly awake and starts breathing again. That struggle causes the heart to pump wildly, sending blood pressure skyrocketing. Night after night of such hypertensive sleep eventually wrecks the arteries, heart, and organs, and causes heart attacks and strokes.

If you think you may have this condition (symptoms include breathing cessation interrupted by loud bursts of snoring, as well as morning headache), talk with your doctor. It is easily diagnosed and corrected with the help of a sleep specialist.

 

DON'T SMOKE

If you smoke, the best thing you can do for your blood pressure is to stop. The nicotine in cigarettes goes straight to the brain, which reacts by telling the adrenal glands to release adrenaline. Adrenaline narrows the blood vessels, which makes the heart pump harder and under greater pressure, which damages vessel walls.

Smoking causes at least 30% of all heart-disease related deaths each year. Moreover, smokers have a 50% higher risk of stroke than nonsmokers and more than a 50% risk of heart attack.

Join a program to help you stop smoking. When you quit, your risk of heart attack and stroke goes down almost to that of nonsmokers after five years. 

Date Published: 02/08/2006
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