You can’t see it, you can’t feel it, and unless you get 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. High blood pressure results in stiff, inflexible arteries that are virtual magnets for cholesterol and other blood components that form the gunk known as plaque. If you already have this gunk, blood rushing past at high force is just what it takes to nick the “cap” off mounds of plaque, setting the dominoes in motion for a heart attack.
One in five Americans have high blood pressure, and nearly a third don’t know they have it. Many of the rest of us are at risk, as blood pressure slowly creeps up with age. Here’s how to make your readings healthy.
1. Every morning, take a brisk 15-minute walk. Amazingly, you don’t need a lot of exercise to make a difference in 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 dropped almost as much in those who exercised 30-90 minutes a week as in those who exercised more than 90 minutes a week.
2. Write “take medication” on your calendar every day. Twenty-five percent of the time, when your blood pressure hasn’t dropped after you’ve started medication, the reason is that you forgot 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 provides a better overall picture of blood pressure than measurement in a doctor’s office. In the study, office measurement failed to identify 13 percent of patients who had high blood pressure only in the office but not at home (called “white-coat hypertension”). It also failed to identify 9 percent of people who had high blood pressure at home but not in the doctor’s office. Another study, this one 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 only had their pressure taken at the doctor’s office. A good home blood pressure kit costs under $100, a small price to pay for peace of mind.
4. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons flaxseed over your yogurt in the morning and mix 2 tablespoons into your ice cream, spaghetti sauce, or other food later in the day. One small study found that adding 4 tablespoons of the crunchy stuff significantly lowered systolic blood pressure (a strong predictor of heart disease) in postmenopausal women with a history of heart disease. Flaxseed is rich in many nutrients and in fiber. Its effects on blood pressure are likely due to its high content of omega-3 fatty acids.
5. Substitute tea for your morning (and afternoon and evening) coffee. An Australian study found that every one-cup increase in daily tea consumption decreased systolic blood pressure (the top number) two points and diastolic pressure one point. The benefits ended after four cups, however.
6. Dip your chips into guacamole. Why? Avocados have more blood-pressure-lowering potassium than any other fruit or vegetable, including bananas. We should get about 4.7 grams a day of potassium, but most Americans get 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 Panamanian Indians 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 three ounces of dark chocolate a day helped to lower blood pressure in older people with isolated systolic hypertension (a type of high blood pressure in which 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 roasted soybeans. These make a crunchy, nutrient-packed munch that’s as yummy as any bag of chips. Studies show that people with high blood pressure can lower their systolic readings by an average of 10 points by eating one ounce of roasted soybeans (also called soy nuts) a day for two weeks. The beans are available at some supermarkets, as well as specialty and health food stores. Just look for unsalted beans.
9. Flavor your food with lots of ground pepper. Why? Pepper is a strong, dominant flavor that can help you reduce your interest in salt. In fact, your tongue is easily trained away from its salt addiction. When you switch to low-salt foods, your meals may taste bland for a couple of days. Bring in the pepper. And if that doesn’t appeal to you, try garlic, lemon, ginger, basil, or other big-punch flavors you like. After a week, your old favorite foods will taste dreadfully oversalted and your blood pressure will be singing your praises.
10. Eat a banana or a quarter of a cantaloupe at each breakfast. That’s because both are rich in potassium. Potassium is sometimes called the “un-salt” because if you don’t get enough of it, your blood pressure is likely to rise. It’s easy to slide potassium into your diet. Other high-potassium foods include spinach, lima beans, sweet potatoes, and the aforementioned avocados.
11. Eat a handful of dried apricots every afternoon. Like bananas, apricots are a particularly good source of potassium. Plus they have lots of fiber, loads of iron, and oodles of beta-carotene. The drying process actually increases the concentration of these nutrients, all of which are good for your circulatory system. And as a snack, dried apricots are low in calories: roughly eight total just 100 calories. Look for an unsulfured brand.
12. Park in the Outer Mongolia of the parking lot. All you need is an extra 4,000 to 5,000 steps a day and you could lower your blood pressure 11 points! At least, that’s what researchers from the University of Tennessee found when they tracked postmenopausal women.
13. Hold hands with your partner for 10 minutes. That’s all it took in a University of North Carolina study to keep blood pressure steady during a stressful incident. Oh, and a brief hug afterward. You can handle that, can’t you?
14. Sleep with earplugs 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 the noise.
15. Drink a glass of OJ every morning and another at night. That’s all it took in a Cleveland Clinic study to lower systolic blood pressure an average of 7 percent and diastolic blood pressure an average of 4.6 percent. Praise the high levels of potassium in orange juice.
16. Go to the pound and adopt a pet. One study found that a pet helped control blood pressure changes in people with hypertension as much as the hypertension drug Zestril.
17. Think about how you’ve been sleeping lately. Waking up tired? Partner complaining you snore a lot? Talk to your doctor. You may have a condition called sleep apnea. Studies find that half of the people who have the condition, in which you stop breathing dozens or even hundreds of times during the night, also have hypertension.
18. Find (and eliminate) at least one hidden source of salt a day. For instance, did you know that many breakfast cereals contain sodium? Who needs salt in their cereal? Find a brand that’s sodium-free.
19. Spend five minutes a day sitting in a quiet room repeating this mantra: “One day at a time.” Meditation is a known stress-relieving technique, with numerous studies attesting to its ability to lower blood pressure. Other good mantras include: “I’m doing the right thing,” “This, too, shall pass,” “Breathe,” and “Calm, calm, calm.”
20. Stock your medicine chest with these supplements and take them daily: Garlic, fish oil, calcium, CoQ10. All have blood-pressure-lowering properties. Just check with your doctor first.