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.
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.
Hypertension puts your health and quality of life in danger and if left uncontrolled, high blood pressure (HBP) can lead to:
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.”
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:
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:
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.
Copyright 2022 Center for Nutrition Studies. All rights reserved.
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