High blood pressure: what is it and how to control it...
What is hypertension (high blood pressure)? Blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of arteries – the vessels that bring oxygen-carrying blood to the heart. It rises and falls quite naturally all the time. Your blood pressure will be lower when you are relaxing and higher when you are doing something active or stressful. But if your blood pressure constantly remains elevated, you’re likely to have high blood pressure.
High blood pressure can be detected by using a blood pressure test. This is a cuff is placed on your upper arm which is inflated, then gradually deflated. The test produces a top figure – your systolic blood pressure (the force of blood in the arteries as the heart beats), and a bottom figure – diastolic blood pressure (the force of blood in the arteries as the heart relaxes between beats). This is expressed, for example, as 120/80. A reading of 140/90 or above would lead to a diagnosis of hypertension. At least two determinations should be made over three separate days, as stress or activity can temporarily raise blood pressure without this being an indicator of hypertension.
What can High Blood Pressure do?
High blood pressure is a contributory factor in a number of health conditions including kidney problems, blindness, heart disease and strokes. When your blood pressure is elevated, your arteries can become hardened, weakened or narrowed causing the heart to have to work harder to pump blood around the body effectively. If the heart is deprived of blood because the arteries are too narrow to let in a good supply, this can result in angina or chest pains, which could lead to more serious heart disease. If the flow of blood is blocked completely, this could lead to a heart attack. If the blood vessels become so weak that they break or tear, this can lead to a bleed in the brain and cause a stroke. Similarly, if a blood clot blocks one of the arteries narrowed by hypertension, it can also trigger a stroke. So as you can see the effects of high blood pressure are very serious.
High blood pressure itself is often asymptomatic, though things such as nosebleeds, a high resting pulse and migraines can indicate that high blood pressure may be a problem. Retinal changes – which may be detected during a routine eye test – can also show signs of high blood pressure. What’s the treatment? Conventional treatment for high blood pressure is medication together with diet and lifestyle changes. If you smoke, stop immediately, and reduce your stress levels by making time for relaxation, and consider meditation. A lack of exercise is a major factor for high blood pressure and also contributes to weight gain. Regular aerobic exercise reduces high blood pressure, aim for a 30 to 45 minute brisk walk, four or five times a week. Consult your GP first as you will need to take care when beginning an exercise programme.
A healthy diet
Salt is a big contributing factor in elevating your blood pressure hence the relevance of diet and supplements, as studies have shown that reducing your salt intake can result in a corresponding drop in blood pressure. Don’t add salt to your food when cooking, use herbs, spices or lemon juice instead. Salt naturally exists in most of our food, but is evident in far less quantities in fresh foods than in processed foods. Avoid ready meals and processed foods and cook from scratch. Keep your weight down by avoiding animal fat, saturated fat, hydrogenised fat and processed oils, as well as biscuits, cakes, sweets, fizzy drinks and alcohol. Aim to increase your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables to maximise your potassium and antioxidant intake which will help keep blood pressure down. Also increase whole grains in your diet, particularly oats, buckwheat, cinnamon, chromium, rye and millet. Use olive oil where you can, as studies have shown it has a beneficial effect on blood pressure. Get your protein from vegetable sources such as lentils, beans, quinoa rather than red meat.
Include plenty of fibre in your diet. Good sources include oats, prunes, vegetables, fruit, seaweed, lentils and pulses. When increasing fibre intake, it’s important to maintain sufficient fluid intake. Drink two litres of water daily – taken away from meals and sipped slowly to avoid stress on the kidneys.
Certain nutrients are especially helpful for hypertension. These include Vitamin E found in nuts and seeds, fish, eggs, avocados and green vegetables; Calcium found in dairy products, eggs, seeds, pulses, dark green leafy vegetables; Magnesium from fish, lentils, nuts & seeds, dried fruits, green leafy vegetables and potassium, from muesli, dried fruit, molasses, raw vegetables, buckwheat, nuts & seeds. High blood pressure can have a severe affect on the body but as you can see by looking after yourself and eating a healthy diet and obtaining all the nutrients the body requires.
There are a number of risk factors which could suggest a tendency towards high blood pressure:
Age – hypertension is most common in older people as blood pressure naturally increases as we get older.
Weight – being overweight puts a strain on your heart, making it work harder to pump the blood around your bod . It’s especially risky if you are an “apple” shape, and tend to store your fat around your tummy area. This is because this area houses vessels that run to and from the heart.
Smoking – this can cause your blood pressure to rise as it constricts the arteries, again making the heart work harder to pump blood.
Stress – constant stress can lead to elevated blood pressure. If you have a very busy lifestyle, it’s worth getting checked out.
Contraceptive pill – some papers suggest that prolonged use of the oral contraceptive pill can be a risk factor for high blood pressure, so your GP should check your pressure regularly if you are on this.