One out of three adult Americans have hypertension (high blood pressure) and nearly 20% do not even know they have it. Most people who have hypertension have no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, it is usually when blood pressure spikes suddenly and is extreme enough to be considered a medical emergency. Hypertension occurs when the pressure in the arteries becomes high, causing the heart to work harder than normal to pump the blood throughout the body.
What’s “Normal” Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure (BP) is measured using two numbers. The first number – systolic blood pressure, represents the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats. The second number – diastolic blood pressure, represents the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart rests between beats. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg).
Medical professionals have generally agreed that the upper limit of the “normal” BP is 140/90 mmHg. If your BP is consistently above that on three separate occasions your healthcare provider will diagnose you with hypertension. An ideal BP is actually around 115/75 mmHg – this is where the BP-related risk of death of heart attack and strokes is near zero. But, is it even possible to get blood pressures down that low? It’s not just possible—it’s normal, for those eating a healthy diet and making other lifestyle modifications.
Health Consequences of Hypertension
Hypertension puts your health and quality of life in danger and if left uncontrolled, high blood pressure (HBP) can lead to:
- Coronary artery disease — HBP damages arteries that can become blocked and prevent blood from flowing to tissues in the heart muscle. When blood cannot flow freely to your heart, you can experience chest pain, a heart attack or arrhythmias.
- Stroke — HBP can cause blood vessels in the brain to burst or clog more easily.
- Heart failure — The increased workload from high HBP can cause the heart to enlarge and fail to supply blood to the body.
- Kidney disease — HBP can damage the arteries around the kidneys and interfere with their ability to effectively filter blood.
- Vision loss — HBP strain or damage to blood vessels in the eyes.
- Sexual dysfunction — This can be erectile dysfunction in men or lower libido in women.
- Peripheral artery disease — Atherosclerosis caused by HBP can cause a narrowing of arteries in the legs, arms, stomach and head, causing pain or fatigue.
- Dementia — Can result from narrowing and blockage of the arteries that supply blood to the brain. It can also result from strokes caused by an interruption of blood flow to the brain. In either case, HBP may be the culprit.
“There is nothing I can do because hypertension runs in my family.”
Stop thinking that now! Your blood pressure is more a consequence of your lifestyle habits than your genes. In The China Study, Dr. T. Colin Campbell explains how genes need to be “expressed” in order for them to participate in disease formation.
“Genes give us our predispositions. We all have different disease risks due to our different genes. But while we will never know exactly which risks we are predisposed to, we do know how to control those risks. Regardless of our genes, we can all optimize our chances of expressing the right genes by providing our bodies with the best possible environment – that is, the best possible nutrition.”
If you do have a family history of hypertension it is even more important for you to make lifestyle changes. We have all heard it before, genes might be the “gun” but lifestyle is the “trigger.”
What Can I do to Control my Blood Pressure?
A mountain of studies, dating back to the early 1920s, show that those eating a plant-based diet have lower blood pressure than those including meat, eggs and dairy in their diet. In the Adventist 2 Study, which looked at 89,000 Californians, it found that those who only ate meat on a weekly basis had 23% lower rates of high blood pressure. Those who cut out all meat except fish had 38% lower rates. Those eating no meat at all, vegetarians, had less than half the rate. Vegans—cutting out all meat, fish, dairy and eggs—appeared to have thrown three quarters of their risk for this silent killer out the window.
One of the most impressive diet intervention programs was conducted by John McDougall, MD. The study followed 500 subjects with a variety of health problems who attended a 12-day residential lifestyle modification program. They consumed a low fat, whole foods, plant-based diet including; fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes and excluded; all animal products and alcohol. There were no restrictions on portion size. Subjects also exercised and practiced stress management techniques. Within 11 days, subjects experienced significant drops in blood pressure. In most cases, all blood pressure medications were stopped shortly after beginning the program. How cool is that…plants instead of pills!
So, does the American Heart Association recommend a 100% Plant-based diet? No, they recommend the DASH diet- a low-meat diet. Why wouldn’t they promote a diet that was completely plant-based? When the DASH diet was being created, were the authors just not aware of the mountain of research on plant-based diets? No, they were aware. The DASH diet was designed with the goal of capturing the blood pressure-lowering benefits of a vegetarian diet, yet contain enough animal foods to make it palatable to the general population. They didn’t think the public could handle the truth.
In their defense, this is what their thought behind the messaging was – just like drugs don’t work unless you actually take them, diets don’t work unless you actually eat them. They thought that no one was going to eat strictly plant-based. So, if they water-downed the message, and came up with a compromise diet, then maybe, on a large scale, they would impact more people.
Tell that to the over thousand American families a day that lose a family member or friend to hypertension. Isn’t it time that we start telling Americans the truth?
Even a small reduction of sodium in your diet can diminish blood pressure measurements by 2 to 8 mm Hg. In general, limit sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day or less. However, a lower sodium intake — 1,500 mg a day or less — is appropriate for people with greater salt sensitivity. To decrease dietary sodium, consider these tips:
- Limit processed foods. Only a small amount of sodium occurs naturally in whole plant-based foods. Most sodium is added during processing. Read the food labels of any packaged food. Big offenders include any type of corn or potato chip, diet sodas, canned foods, fried foods and cheese.
- Don’t add salt. Just 1 level teaspoon of salt has 2,300 mg of sodium. Use herbs or spices to add flavor to your food.
- Eat at home. The group Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 85 out of 102 meals at popular restaurant chains contained more than a full day’s worth of sodium. Some of the meals had four days’ worth of sodium.
Regular physical activity, for at least 30 minutes most days of the week, can lower your blood pressure by 4 to 9 mm Hg. Consistency is key because once you stop exercising, your blood pressure can creep back up.
No more than one drink a day for women and for men older than age 65, or more than two a day for men age 65 and younger. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
Drinking more than moderate amounts of alcohol can raise blood pressure significantly. It can also reduce the effectiveness of blood pressure medications. Even at lower levels of consumption, the regular consumption of alcohol elevates blood pressure, with estimates that the attributable risk for developing hypertension from alcohol is 16%. However, this is largely reversible within 2-4 weeks of abstinence or a substantial reduction in alcohol intake.
Do Not Smoke
Cigarette smoking is a cardiovascular risk factor and smoking cessation is a powerfully effective lifestyle measure for the prevention of a large number of cardiovascular diseases. Not only does smoking immediately raise your blood pressure temporarily, but the chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls. This can cause your arteries to narrow, increasing your blood pressure chronically. Secondhand smoke also can increase your blood pressure.
Stress can cause hypertension through repeated blood pressure elevations or by stimulation of the nervous system to produce large amounts of hormones that constrict the blood vessels and increase blood pressure. Factors affecting blood pressure through stress include white coat hypertension, job strain, social environment, and emotional distress. We cannot always change our stressors, but we can change the way we manage those stressors. The following strategies are helpful to help combat the effects of stress:
- Learn relaxation techniques. Meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, deep breathing exercises, and yoga are all powerful stress-busters.
- Strengthen your social network. Connect with others by taking a class, joining an organization, or participating in a support group.
- Manage your time. The more efficiently you are able to juggle work and family demands, the lower your stress level. Do not be afraid to ask for help from your spouse, family, friends, coworkers or neighbors.
- Try to resolve stressful situations. Don’t let stressful situations fester. Hold family problem-solving sessions and use negotiation skills at home and at work.
- Nurture yourself. Truly savor an experience: for example, eat slowly and really focus on the taste of each bite. Take a walk or a nap, treat yourself to a massage or listen to your favorite music.
You Have The Control
Most of the burden of hypertension, and related medical conditions, is largely preventable or reversible through lifestyle changes. Attempting to reduce high blood pressure with medication may not be as effective as lifestyle approaches, as they do not treat the cause. Even those on blood pressure lowering drugs can get a further 78% drop in risk by eating and living healthfully.
The available scientific evidence accumulated in the past 30 years collectively indicates that the widespread adoption of a whole foods, plant-based diet, along with maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and exercising regularly can make hypertension a diagnosis of the past. True health is a process of optimal living with continual improvement in our actions over time. No matter our age or our clinical condition, we can all strive to eat better, move more and think more positively. We have the power to take control of our health.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2013 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released 2015. http://wonder.cdc.gov/ucd-icd10.html. Accessed on Feb 3, 2015.