As the Heart Month of February comes to an end I wanted to write about a condition that affects many people: high blood pressure also known as hypertension. No matter what month it is, high blood pressure is something to take seriously and manage well. Diet and lifestyle changes can make a big difference and they are always part of the conversation with my patients.
Why is it important to keep blood pressure in a healthy range?
A blood pressure reading is composed of two numbers: systolic and diastolic pressure. The systolic or top number is your blood pressure when your heart contracts and pumps blood out to the body. The diastolic or bottom number is the pressure when the heart is relaxed between beats. Ideally the numbers are below 120/80 mmHg.
Many important organs are affected by elevated blood pressure. Persistently high blood pressure can damage the inner walls of our arteries increasing the risk of plaque formation, which can block arteries, impede blood flow and lead to heart attack or stroke. The heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body, causing structural changes and heart failure. High pressure through the kidneys, which filter 180 liters of blood per day, can damage them leading to kidney failure.
What can I do if I have high blood pressure?
Keep track of your blood pressure
I think that being involved in your own care is important. It’s important to know and understand what high blood pressure is and what your readings are so you can see if they are decreasing as you make changes. I like to have my patients track their blood pressure at home a few times per week. You can write it down or track it with charts like this from the American Heart Association. On days you are measuring your blood pressure avoid caffeinated beverages because they can temporarily raise the reading. Start by sitting down for 5 minutes with legs uncrossed. When you’re ready to take the measurement rest your arm on a table so it’s at heart level. Write down your readings and bring them in to your next visit. You can also bring your machine in so your doctor can compare it to what they get when they take it themselves to make sure the machine is calibrated correctly.
Exercise is probably one of the best lifestyle changes you can make for your health. The recommendation is 30 minutes five days per week. Activity can be from walking, running, swimming, yoga, dancing, biking, hiking or any combination of activity that you enjoy. The important thing is to get moving most days of the week. Regular exercise can result in weight loss and is great for stress management, which can both also lower blood pressure.
Many people have heard of a low sodium diet for lowering blood pressure but another mineral, potassium, is also important. The kidneys, which regulate minerals in the blood, uses sodium and potassium to keep fluid either in the body or remove it through the urine. When fluid is retained it increases the volume of the blood, which raises blood pressure. Sodium causes water retention, which is why low sodium diets are recommended for high blood pressure. Potassium can result in less sodium in the body, which results in less fluid retention and lower blood pressure. Great dietary sources of potassium include fruits and vegetables like squash, Swiss chard, sweet potatoes, beans, avocado and coconut water.
This mineral can relax the muscle fibers that surround your blood vessels and improve blood flow. Great sources of this nutrient are leafy greens, nuts and whole grains. If you supplement with magnesium you may notice a sedative effect or diarrhea so start low and see how it affects you.
What’s really great about including these potassium and magnesium rich foods in your diet is that it will naturally become more nutritionally dense and you may lose some weight. Losing excess weight can be beneficial for blood pressure and heart health in general.
Hawthorne and Hibiscus
I love using botanical medicine in my practice. Two herbs that are wonderful heart tonics are hawthorne and hibiscus. You may be able to find them paired together in tea formula. Hibiscus makes a beautiful red, tart flavored tea. Other preparations that can also be effective are tinctures or concentrated extracts called solid extracts. Hibiscus may not be suitable if you are also taking medications for diabetes or hypertension as it may lower your blood sugar or blood pressure too much so talk with your doctor about these combinations.
I hope you learned a few things you can do to improve your health and your blood pressure. Please comment below or email me if you have any questions!
Dr. Sculley is an associate physician at Wellspring Family Medicine, a primary care family practice, in her hometown of Port Angeles, WA. She provides care for the whole family and is currently accepting new patients. She graduated from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA.
American Heart Association (2016, July 16). Magnesium may modestly lower blood pressure. Retrieved from AHA website.
Hibiscus. Natural Medicines database. Retrieved from https://naturalmedicines-therapeuticresearch-com.proxy.heal-wa.org/databases/food,-herbs-supplements/professional.aspx?productid=211#interactionsWithDrugs
Hibiscus sabdariffa. Retrieved from https://examine.com/supplements/hibiscus-sabdariffa/.
Migala, J. (2018, Jan/Feb). Lower your blood pressure. EatingWell, 50.