This week, a new study published in The Lancet has some striking news to report. 1.13 billion people globally have high blood pressure. That equates to 17.5% of the world’s population who are afflicted with this major heart disease risk factor. About 1 in 3 American adults suffers from high blood pressure according to the CDC – also a striking number.
Heart disease is the number one killer in this country, and in fact my family’s history of heart disease is what spurred me to become a dietitian. My paternal grandmother died of a stroke, and my maternal grandfather died of a heart attack – both far before their time, in their fifties. I started reading about diet and health, with particular interest in heart health, as a high school student. Furthering my personal interest in helping with the preventive side of heart disease, I worked as a hospital dietitian for about 6 years. I worked with many patients suffering the effects of uncontrolled high blood pressure – kidney disease patients (sometimes requiring dialysis), heart attack survivors, those with coronary artery disease and post-coronary bypass surgery, and stroke survivors.
I loved working with those patients because (a) I met some incredibly strong, resilient people, and (b) I got to witness their unique perspective as victims — after experiencing something like that, motivation to change behaviors like diet is quite high. I have to admit, though, that working on the preventive side is where I want to be. I want to catch people before they wind up in a hospital bed. When I see a patient make changes to their health behaviors and we see meaningful reductions in their blood pressure and cholesterol as a result, that feels pretty darn good.
Defining High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure basically means what it sounds like – the force or pressure of the blood as it is pumped through your blood vessels. If the blood pressure is consistently too high, what happens is the force of the blood on the vessels causes inflammation and little “microtears” in the vessels. Cells can accumulate in these “microtears” — namely cholesterol as it is flowing through the vessels and white blood cells (from the body’s own healing process). The accumulation of these cells leads to plaque formation, or atherosclerosis. Blood pressure that is too high also directly impacts the kidneys, and damages those cells as well.
Keeping your blood pressure within the “normal” range can prevent these disease processes from occurring. This handy chart is from the American Heart Association.
|Blood Pressure Category||Systolic Reading
Mm Hg (upper number)
Mm Hg (lower number)
|Normal||Less than 120||And||Less than 80|
|Prehypertension||120 – 139||OR||80 – 89|
|High Blood Pressure (Stage 1 Hypertension)||140 – 159||OR||90 – 99|
|High Blood Pressure (Stage 2 Hypertension)||160 or higher||Or||100 or higher|
|Hypertensive Crisis (Emergency care needed)||Higher than 180||Or||Higher than 110|
Lifestyle Factors and Their Impact on Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, heart disease, and diet are unequivocally linked. The Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet are both effective eating patterns for reducing the risk of heart disease in general and lowering blood pressure. They are both backed up with clinical research. These share some basic key features, namely they both include plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains. They are also low in sodium and high in potassium. Stay tuned because tomorrow I am going to go into both of these diets in detail and make some super easy and actionable recommendations for you all! I’ll also go into the research supporting their use. Sometimes just making a few simple changes to your diet can lead to meaningful health benefits.
The best exercise for blood pressure is… ANY EXERCISE! Simple right? Just. Move. Blood pressure is most responsive to exercise directly after the exercise. The more often you move the greater the positive impact on your blood pressure. For those of us that do crave specific guidelines, the American Heart Association’s guidelines are quite attainable. For blood pressure lowering, the AHA recommends a minimum of 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity 3-4 times per week. Moderate activity would include biking, or brisk walking whereas vigorous intensity activity would be running, hiking uphill, or lap swimming.
Managing stress well using an outlet that works for you can also a big step towards maintaining your blood pressure. What works here so variable depending on the person. If you do not currently have a healthy outlet for managing stress, or maybe if your current outlet isn’t cutting it anymore, think really hard about what will work for you and also be a manageable goal. Exercise can often kill two birds with one stone here, but there’s also meditation, taking a warm bath, reading, spending time with family or a pet, and the list goes on and on. Getting some perspective is always a good thing, and a friend of mine recommended listening to Josh Korda’s lectures available here. He is a spiritual teachers of sorts and has a talk on almost any negative emotion one could experience. I can’t speak to any benefits on blood pressure specifically here, but I will share that this alone really helped me through a difficult time in my life. I’d put my money on the fact that Josh’s words could lower your blood pressure by at least 2 mm Hg though! Some people just have that calming gift.
Thanks for reading and again, stay tuned for more information on the Mediterranean and DASH diets tomorrow!