Lowering Your Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is the nation’s number one killer. Almost one in two U.S. adults have high blood pressure, and only one in four of those with high blood pressure have it under control. Below are five ways you can start lowering your blood pressure (or prevent high blood pressure if you have normal blood pressure).
1. Increase Physical Activity
You’re probably tired of hearing it, but make sure you move your body every day. While high-intensity exercise produces countless positive results, you don’t have to start there. If you live a sedentary lifestyle, it will be difficult to go from zero to one hundred. Instead of trying to test your limits at the gym, start by taking walks or doing yard work. (Visit this link for more easy ways to increase movement throughout the day.) The key is to make sure you’re not sitting all day long. Try increasing your step count each day until you feel ready to try higher-intensity exercises like jogging, biking, weightlifting, or interval training. MotivHealth has a Steps Program to motivate you to get started. Earn a dollar toward your HSA for each day you walk 8,000 steps or more, up to $20 per month.
2. Cut Back on Sugar & Overly Processed Foods
It is much easier said than done but cutting back on sugar and highly processed foods (such as fast-food restaurants and pre-packaged foods like cookies, chips, soda, candy, store-bought freezer meals, and deli meats) can do wonders for your blood pressure. The main reason that processed foods increase blood pressure is sodium. When you eat too much salt, your body holds extra water to wash the salt from your body. This added water can put stress on your heart and blood vessels, causing blood pressure to rise. The trouble with processed food is that it’s so convenient. How can you eliminate processed foods when you’re constantly on the go? Below is a list of low sodium, grab’n’go snack ideas:
- Unsalted nuts or trail mix
- String Cheese
- Granola bars or protein bars
- Protein shakes
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Whole fruit
- Dehydrated fruit
- Snap peas, baby bell peppers, baby carrots, and cherry tomatoes
3. Cut Back on Caffeine, Alcohol & Smoking
In addition to restricting your intake of processed foods, cutting back on alcohol and smoking are key to getting your blood pressure under control. Alcohol increases blood pressure even in those with healthy blood pressure. Moderate drinking is considered one drink per day for women, and two for men. Even so, if your blood pressure is particularly high, it might be a good idea to eliminate alcohol altogether.
It’s no secret that smoking is bad for you. Unsurprisingly, one of the many risks associated with smoking is heart disease. Every cigarette puff temporarily increases your blood pressure, and tobacco can damage blood vessels. While smoking has not been found to increase blood pressure long-term, a person with high blood pressure should not further their risk of heart disease by smoking.
Research on the effect of caffeine on blood pressure is somewhat anecdotal. Caffeine does raise blood pressure, but only temporarily in most people. Some people are more affected by caffeine than others. If your blood pressure is particularly high, it could be helpful to cut back on caffeine because even raising your blood pressure temporarily might be risky. Like everything else, caffeine should be consumed in moderation.
4. Eat Hypertension-Eliminating Foods
There are a lot of “don’ts” when it comes to lowering blood pressure, so let’s talk about what you can do. The Mayo Clinic recommends the DASH diet for those with high blood pressure. DASH stands for, “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.” It is important to choose foods that are rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein. It’s also important to eat foods that are low in saturated fat and sodium. Believe it or not, the DASH diet allows for a lot of food freedom and variety. Below is what a day on the DASH diet looks like:
- Grains: 6 to 8 servings a day
- One serving is one slice of bread, one ounce of dry cereal, or 1/2 cup of cooked cereal, rice, or pasta.
- Vegetables: 4 to 5 servings a day
- One serving is 1 cup of raw leafy green vegetables, 1/2 cup of cut-up, raw, or cooked vegetables, or 1/2 cup of vegetable juice.
- Fruits: 4 to 5 servings a day
- One serving is one medium fruit, 1/2 cup of fresh, frozen, or canned fruit, or 1/2 cup of fruit juice (no sugar added).
- Fat-Free or Low-Fat Dairy Products: 2 to 3 servings a day
- One serving is 1 cup of milk or yogurt, or 1 1/2 ounces of cheese.
- Lean Meats, Poultry, & Fish: 6 1-ounce servings or fewer a day
- One serving is 1 ounce of cooked meat, poultry, or fish, or 1 egg.
- Nuts, Seeds, & Legumes: 4 to 5 servings a week
- One serving is 1/3 cup of nuts, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, 2 tablespoons of seeds, or 1/2 cup of cooked legumes (dried beans or peas).
- Fats & Oils: 2 to 3 servings a day
- One serving is 1 teaspoon of soft margarine, 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil, 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise, or 2 tablespoons of salad dressing.
- Sweets & Added Sugars: 5 servings or fewer a week. One serving is 1 tablespoon of sugar, jelly, or jam, or 1/2 cup of sorbet, or 1 cup of lemonade.
One hypertension-eliminating super food is dark chocolate! Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, which can cause blood vessels to dilate. That being said, dark chocolate should be eaten in moderation. It is important for those with high blood pressure to maintain the sugar limits suggested by the DASH diet.
5. Manage Stress
Unfortunately, stress plays a role in blood pressure increase. This is frustrating because stress is often beyond the limits of what we can control. If you are noticing high levels of stress, try to find the root cause. Common stressors that tend to fly under the radar are new medications (especially birth control or hormonal acne medication), excess caffeine intake, skipping meals or poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and vitamin D deficiency (get some sun!). Of course, there are countless setbacks in life that are obvious sources of stress but difficult (or impossible) to change. To cope with stressors that cannot be controlled, try some of the exercises below:
Mindfulness is the practice of becoming intensely aware of your surroundings. Often, anxiety is triggered by the way we interpret events rather than the actual events themselves. Breathe deeply and pay attention to what your five senses are telling you. What can you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch? Focusing on your physical senses helps to ground you back to reality rather than the scenarios in your mind. Find joy in the present.
Research shows that interacting with nature produces quite a few cognitive benefits. Exposure to nature has been linked to improved attention span, lower stress, happier mood, and increased empathy. Psychologist Marc Berman, Ph.D., and his student Kathryn Schertz found that green spaces near schools promote development and better behavior in children as opposed to children with less access to nature. Be sure to spend some time in nature each day. It can be as simple as a stroll around the block or having lunch on your front porch. You’ll likely notice improvements in your mood.
Stress-Relieving, DASH-Compliant Foods
- Brazil Nuts are filled with selenium, an antioxidant that can improve your mood.
- Fish is rich in Omega-3 which promotes cognitive function and mental health.
- Eggs are rich in vitamin D and contain all the essential amino acids that you need.
- Pumpkin Seeds are a great source of potassium which helps regulate your body’s electrolytes and manage blood pressure.
- Bananas are also a great source of potassium.
- Dark Chocolate has a high magnesium content, which studies have shown to reduce depression. It also contains flavonoids which can dilate blood vessels. Not to mention, chocolate boosts the production of serotonin.
- Turmeric reduces inflammation and oxidative stress that often result from anxiety and depression.
- Yogurt is full of probiotics that promote brain health.
Set a peaceful mood in your workspace or home. Be sure to organize and clean your surroundings and let in plenty of natural light. It can also help to play soothing music and light scented candles. There are claims that candle scents such as lavender, sage, cinnamon, orange, lemon, apple, and peppermint can especially lower stress.
Learn more about stress management here.
What are some of your favorite heart-healthy habits?