When it’s time for a yearly checkup, sometimes just heading to the doctor can make you feel sick. Is weight on track? Does the heart still have good rhythm? And the most dreaded of all—how is the blood pressure?
While a clean bill of health is always the desired outcome, if the doctor diagnoses you with high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), try not to get anxious—that will only make the situation worse. The good news is that, through some diet modifications and lifestyle choices, you can actually start to bring your numbers down and get back to “normal.”
What is blood pressure?
The official definition of blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association, is the measure of pressure in the arteries when pumping blood to the rest of the body.
Many people fall within the normal range, but sometimes low blood pressure or high blood pressure will occur. The latter happens when blood flows through the vessels (or arteries) at a rate higher than normal.
Two types of high blood pressure exist: primary and secondary. Primary is the most common, occurring naturally throughout the years as a person ages. Secondary is caused by a separate medical condition or the use of a particular medicine, and it usually goes away after the cause is treated or the medication is stopped.
Although it might be scary to be diagnosed, know that you are not alone. In the United States alone, nearly 30% of adults have high blood pressure, which is about one in three people. Anyone can have it for a any number of reasons—even children.
High blood pressure is sometimes called a “silent killer,” because there aren’t really any symptoms like other conditions might present. The only way to truly know if you have high blood pressure is to go into a doctor and have it regularly checked. This is why it’s a routine part of yearly health examinations, and why they are so important to schedule.
How blood pressure is measured
Any time you go to a doctor or hospital, your blood pressure will be checked. In fact, it’s usually one of the first things a nurse or nurse practitioner will test before sending the doctor in. Everyone is screened in the same way: The medical professional uses a stethoscope or other sensor and a blood pressure cuff. The cuff is tightened around your arm to temporarily stop the blood flow. As it is loosened, and blood starts to flow back, it will make a pulsing sound before becoming silent. The professional will check the number on the pressure gauge at each of those points. This will identify the two types of blood pressure that are key to your veins:
Systolic pressure: When the heart beats, contracting the muscle, and pumping out blood.
Diastolic pressure: When the heart is resting in between beats and refilling with blood.
When a doctor tells you your blood pressure, it will come in two numbers. The systolic number is first and the diastolic number is second. For example, 118/76 mmHg. This example would be read “118 over 76.”
An ideal blood pressure involves a systolic pressure that is below 120 mmHg and a diastolic pressure below 80 mmHg. Know though that your blood pressure is not going to be consistent throughout the day—readings will be different from the moment you wake up, work, and sleep, as well as when you feel excited or nervous. Blood pressure will also naturally increase when you’re exercising, and fall back to a baseline range once the activity is finished.
Abnormal blood pressure
The American Heart Association lists four different stages of hypertension:
- Prehypertension, which involves a systolic pressure between 120-139 or a diastolic pressure between 80-89.
- Stage 1, which involves a systolic pressure between 140-159 or a diastolic pressure between 90-99.
- Stage 2, which involves a systolic pressure between 160-179 or a diastolic pressure between 100-109.
- Stage 3, which involves a systolic pressure above 180 or a diastolic pressure above 110. This requires immediate emergency care.
These are the guidelines for a healthy adult. A child, teen, or person with other unrelated health problems may have a different baseline, so make sure to talk with your doctor to determine what’s healthy for you.
Why high blood pressure is a problem
Although there aren’t any symptoms, high blood pressure can lead to serious problems if not addressed. Without care and health changes, it could lead to damage to the kidneys, heart, and brain:
The kidneys. Adults who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or both of those run a higher risk of having kidney disease. Approximately one third of diabetic adults and one fifth of adults with high blood pressure have chronic kidney disease.
The heart. High blood pressure can eventually harden your arteries, making the flow of blood and oxygen more challenging for your body. This can, in turn, lead to heart disease. People may encounter chest pain, which is sometimes called angina, heart failure (a condition in which the heart can’t get enough blood and oxygen to your vital organs), or a heart attack. Heart attacks occur when blood is blocked and cannot get to the heart, so it then begins to die without enough oxygen. If blood flow is blocked for long enough, severe damage or even death may occur.
The brain. Just as heart problems from high blood pressure can come from a lack of oxygen to the heart, the brain can also suffer from too little oxygen. This can lead to a stroke that destroys brain cells, resulting in disabilities in speech, movement, and basic activities. A stroke can also prove deadly.
When it comes to high blood pressure remember that, with regular check-ups, you will be able to notice changes as they happen and you can address it with your doctor at that time. Sometimes medication might be needed, but other times small lifestyle changes and diet modifications will help bring numbers back down.
Foods for high blood pressure
One of the simplest and most proactive ways to take charge of your health is by eating a wholesome diet. This entails many things, from cutting back on certain bad foods to increasing consumption of other good foods. Here are some tips:
Cut out caffeine
Caffeine can have the power to raise blood pressure as much as 10 mmHg—especially if you only indulge seldomly. For those “caffeine addicts” that drink some form daily, results are more inconclusive, however the possibility of an increase in blood pressure exists. It truly depends on your sensitivity to caffeine, so talk to your doctor about how it can affect your blood pressure.
Just like caffeine, everyone’s reaction to sodium is different, however even a small reduction for most people can produce a drop of 2-8 mmHg. Generally, it’s best to consume fewer than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. To achieve this, make sure to read food labels thoroughly, choose low-sodium alternatives, and also refrain from adding salt to your food. Additionally, try to eat fewer processed foods—salt only occurs in small amounts in natural foods.
Choose the right foods
There are just some food options that can naturally dilate your blood vessels, making it easier for the heart to pump blood and oxygen throughout the body:
- Blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. These fruits contain anthocyanins, which have been proven to lower blood pressure. All you have to do is consume one cup a week.
- Breakfast cereal. Whole grain, high fiber cereals like this are a great breakfast choice and a perfect way to prevent high blood pressure. Large concentrations of fiber have been proven to significantly reduce hypertension.
- Potatoes. These tubers contain potassium and magnesium, both of which have proven useful in fighting high blood pressure.
- Beet juice. Within a few hours of consuming just one glass, you can experience a lower blood pressure reading.
- Low-fat dairy options. For women especially who want to get calcium naturally, low-fat dairy choices are more heart-healthy.
- Dark chocolate. As if you needed a reason to indulge, dark chocolate contains flavonoids, which are natural compounds that dilate blood vessels.
Other ways to manage high blood pressure
Other lifestyle changes can help to manage high blood pressure and get it back down to a safer number. The only factors that you can’t avoid when it comes to blood pressure are your age and family history—everything else can control to keep health in check.
A little bit of physical activity every day will go a long way, especially since those who are overweight or obese have an increased risk of high blood pressure. It’s best to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.
Speak with your doctor to determine what type of exercise plan will work best for you, but some good ideas include jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing, and walking. Even doing household chores counts as an activity that can get the heart pumping. And if you sit in office all day, take walks on your lunch break to keep from being totally sedentary.
In addition to all the other problems it can cause, smoking increases the risk for high blood pressure. Nicotine causes blood vessels to constrict, meaning that the heart has to pump harder to get oxygen to the rest of the body.
Aside from adding unnecessary calories in your diet, more than one or two drinks per day can also affect blood pressure. While an indulgent night out might just temporarily increase numbers, consistent binge drinking can lead to permanent increases.
It’s easier said than done, but stress has a large effect on your overall health. When you feel stressed out, your blood pressure increases and your heart rate quickens. Every now and then, this is a perfectly fine response, but prolonged anger or anxiety this could lead to more permanent elevations. Breathing deeply and slowly can lower stress and blood pressure readings—practicing yoga, meditation, tai chi, and Pilates can help, too.
If you snore, it could be harming your health in more ways than one. When you snore, the airway at the back of the throat essentially closes, causing interruptions in the breathing pattern. This means that the heart must then work harder to get enough blood and oxygen to the body, resulting in high blood pressure and a higher heart rate. When this goes untreated, nightly elevations in blood pressure can become regular and then become the norm in the daytime, too. Check in with your doctor about some possible treatments.
Illustration by Karley Koenig
Photo credit: Paul Delmont, Alicia Cho