You can’t see it, you can’t feel it and, unless you get it checked, you won’t even know you have it. That makes high blood pressure, or hypertension, a quiet killer, one that slowly damages your blood vessels, heart and eyes while simultaneously increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia and kidney disease.
It’s estimated that 1 in 3 Australian adults have diagnosed high blood pressure and many more cases may be undiagnosed. The following tips will help to lower high blood pressure, or keep it from rising if it’s at a healthy level. Cutting back on salt will also make a difference.
1. Every morning, take a brisk 15-minute walk. Amazingly, you don’t need a lot of exercise to make a difference to your blood pressure. When Japanese researchers asked 168 inactive volunteers with high blood pressure to exercise at a health club for different amounts of time each week for eight weeks, blood pressure levels dropped almost as much in those who exercised for 30 to 90 minutes a week as in those who exercised for more than 90 minutes a week.
2. Write ‘take medication’ on your calendar every day. Twenty-five per cent of the time, when your blood pressure hasn’t gone down after you’ve been prescribed medication, the reason is that you’ve forgotten to take your pills.
3. Buy a home blood-pressure kit. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that home blood-pressure testing can provide a better overall picture of blood pressure levels than readings in a doctor’s surgery. In the study, surgery readings failed to identify 13 per cent of patients who had high blood pressure only when measured in the surgery (white-coat hypertension), and 9 per cent who had high blood pressure at home but not in the surgery. In addition, a study presented at the 2004 European Society of Hypertension meeting found that people who monitored their blood pressure at home had lower overall blood pressure than those who had their pressure taken only at the doctor’s surgery.
4. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of linseeds on your yogurt in the morning and mix 2 tablespoons into your ice-cream, soup, pasta sauce or other food later in the day. One small study found that adding 4 tablespoons of the seeds significantly lowered systolic blood pressure (the top number) in postmenopausal women with a history of heart disease. Linseeds are rich in many nutrients and in fibre.
5. Drink tea instead of coffee. An Australian study found that each 1-cup increase in daily tea consumption decreased systolic blood pressure by 2 points and diastolic pressure by 1 point. But the benefits ended after 4 cups.
6. Dip corn chips in guacamole. Why? Avocados have more blood pressure-lowering potassium than any other fruit or vegetable, including bananas. We should get about 3500 mg a day of potassium, but one in three women usually gets just half this amount.
7. Turn to dark chocolate when your sweet tooth asserts itself. Unlike milk chocolate, dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids that keep your arteries flexible, preventing the increases in pressure that come with stiffer blood vessels. That’s thought to be one reason for the normal blood pressure of a tribe of indigenous Panamanians who eat a high-salt diet but also consume massive amounts of cocoa. In addition, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 85 g of dark chocolate a day helped to lower blood pressure in older people with isolated systolic hypertension (when only the upper number of a pressure reading is high). Other good sources of flavonoids include tea and wine, as well as many fruits and vegetables.
8. Snack on soy nuts for a crunchy, nutrient-packed munch. Studies show that people with high blood pressure can lower their systolic readings by an average of 10 points by eating 30 g of soy nuts (roasted soybeans) a day for two weeks. The beans are available at some supermarkets and health food shops. Make sure you buy them unsalted.
9. Flavour food with lots of pepper. Why? Pepper is a strong, dominant flavour that can help you to reduce your taste for salt. Without salt, meals may seem bland for a couple of days, but your taste buds can easily be retrained. Add more pepper and, if that doesn’t appeal, try garlic, lemon, ginger, basil or other spicy flavours you enjoy. After a week, old favourite foods will taste extremely oversalted and your blood pressure will be singing your praises.
10. Ask your doctor about the DASH diet. Or look it up online. The DASH diet is high in potassium and can be as effective as medication at lowering blood pressure. In addition to this, and just as important, many high potassium foods are healthy and delicious. Try dried apricots, fresh bananas and dark chocolate. A handful of dried apricots has concentrated amounts of potassium, fibre, iron and beta carotene while also being low in kilojoules.
11. Park in the Outer Mongolia of the car park. All you need is an extra 4000 to 5000 steps a day and you could lower your blood pressure by 11 points. That’s what US researchers found when they tracked postmenopausal women.
12. Hold hands with your partner for 10 minutes. That (plus a brief hug) is all it took in one study to keep blood pressure steady during a stressful incident.
13. Sleep with earplugs in tonight. Studies suggest that being exposed to noise while you’re sleeping may increase your blood pressure as well as your heart rate, so block out any noise.
14. Drink a glass of orange juice every morning and another at night. One US study found that this lowered systolic blood pressure by an average of 7 per cent and diastolic blood pressure by an average of 4.6 per cent – thanks to the high levels of potassium in orange juice.
15. Think about your sleep. Are you waking up tired? Is your partner complaining that you snore a lot? Talk to your doctor. You may have sleep apnoea. Studies find that half the people who have the condition, in which you stop breathing dozens or hundreds of times during the night, also have hypertension.
16. Find (and eliminate) at least one hidden source of salt a day. For instance, did you know that many breakfast cereals contain salt? Who needs salt in their cereal? Find a brand that’s salt-free. Spend 5 minutes a day sitting in a quiet room repeating this mantra,‘One day at a time’. Numerous studies show that meditation eases stress and lowers blood pressure. Other good mantras include: ‘This, too, shall pass’, ‘Breathe’ and ‘Calm, calm, calm’.
17. Take these supplements daily: garlic, fish oil, calcium, CoQ10. All have blood pressure-lowering properties, but check with your doctor before taking them.