In England, 32 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women have high blood pressure. Unfortunately, many people simply do not know their blood pressure level, despite the fact that measuring blood pressure is quick, easy, cheap and painless.
What is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the force that blood puts on the walls of your arteries when it is pumped around your body by your heart. It is measured with two readings – when the heart beats (systolic pressure) and when it relaxes (diastolic pressure). Essentially, your blood pressure provides an indication of your risk of developing heart disease or suffering a stroke. It is not something to be ignored. Over time, high blood pressure can not only lead to a heart attack or stroke, but it can also damage the kidneys and even cause blindness.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when blood becomes too ‘thick’ or when arteries become blocked or inflexible. Hypertension can also be caused by changes during pregnancy or by another underlying condition. For the majority however, hypertension is a ‘lifestyle disease’, caused by poor dietary and lifestyle choices that take their toll over time.
Diet and Lifestyle
The first line of treatment in hypertension is often dietary and lifestyle changes. Being overweight, lack of exercise, drinking alcohol and smoking are often the first issues to address. Simple changes include reducing alcohol consumption to 7 units or fewer each week for women or fewer than 14 units for men. Maintaining a healthy weight and following the DASH diet, which emphasises wholegrains alongside 8-10 servings of fruit and vegetables each day, is also recommended.
The importance of sleep is often overlooked in addressing hypertension, yet it is an important consideration. Lack of sleep activates the central nervous system, raising blood pressure. As a result, those of us who are sleep deprived tend to have higher systolic and diastolic blood pressure than those who make sure to get the recommended 8 hours (1).
Stress management is another essential element in guarding against high blood pressure. Unmanaged stress raises levels of corticosteroids which increase blood pressure. Relaxation techniques such as meditation and progressive muscle relaxation can reduce hypertension when practiced consistently (2).
Most of us are aware of the link between salt intake and high blood pressure. This is because excess sodium can increase the constriction of the muscles surrounding the arteries. Magnesium, on the other hand, works to relax these muscles. Magnesium intake is therefore an important factor in managing blood pressure. There is a strong link between magnesium deficiency and heart disease. In fact magnesium supplementation has been found to reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (3). Many of us fail to achieve the recommended daily amount of magnesium, which is 300mg for men and 270mg for women. Cutting down on tea, coffee, sugar and alcohol can help your body to retain magnesium, while increasing magnesium-rich foods such as wholegrains, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses is recommended.
Increasing intake of omega-3, either by eating more oily fish or by taking an omega-3 supplement, is also a sensible measure. Omega-3 helps to reduce the viscosity of blood and also lowers levels of inflammation, potentially helping to protect arterial walls and prevent blood clots.
Finally, a small but promising trial published just last month found that a daily glass of beetroot juice lowers both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (4). Beetroot juice provides a helpful dose of nitrate which appears to lower blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels. Those who don’t like beetroot should try to include other nitrate-rich vegetables such as spinach, cabbage and broccoli.
Nutritional strategies are especially helpful in the early stages of high blood pressure, and can enable those affected to make positive changes to restore optimal health. Keeping an eye on blood pressure levels with regular checks is therefore a worthwhile task for all of us.
1. Knutson et al (2009). Association Between Sleep and Blood Pressure in Midlife: The CARDIA Sleep Study. Archives of Internal Medicine 169 (11): 1055.
2. Schneider et al (1995) A Randomized Controlled Trial of Stress Reduction for Hypertension in Older African Americans. Hypertension. 26: 820-827.
3. Sun Ha Gee et al (2002) The effect of magnesium supplementation on blood pressure: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Am J Hypertension 15 (8): 691-696.
4. Ghosh SM, Kapil V, Fuentes-Calvo I, et al. Enhanced Vasodilator Activity of Nitrite in Hypertension – Critical Role for Erythrocytic Xanthine Oxidoreductase and Translational Potential. Hypertension. Published online April 15 2013.