What causes high blood pressure? Unfortunately, it’s complicated, and there isn’t just one smoking gun.
High blood pressure, aka hypertension, can be caused by age, weight, chronic stress, sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diet, smoking, toxic body burden, thyroid disorders, genetics, or other issues. Those with hypertension usually have a combination of these factors that relate to their cardiovascular health, so it can be difficult to pinpoint just one cause. One of the key elements to remember is that hypertension is one of the classic “silent killers”—meaning the condition usually progresses without symptoms.
This is why periodic blood pressure tests are so important. Blood pressure is how we measure the force that blood exerts on our blood vessels. A healthy blood pressure reading is around 120 systolic and 80 diastolic, or “120 over 80.” The first number measures the pressure when the heart is beating; the second describes pressure when the heart is at rest.
Because there are so many factors that can contribute to hypertension, it should come as no surprise that numerous problems can result if the condition is left untreated. High blood pressure increases the resistance to blood flow in the vessels, forcing the heart to work harder, and has been implicated in congestive heart failure, strokes, and other deadly conditions. Hypertension also contributes to hardening of the arteries; this can be a vicious cycle because stiff, inflexible arteries can also increase blood pressure.
Hypertension is further associated with cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, dementia, aneurysms, blindness, sexual dysfunction, and numerous other conditions. It is a truly systemic issue.
To control hypertension, we need to take a closer look at our diets, lifestyles, and other contributing factors to see where we need to intervene. Working with an experienced integrative health provider can help sort through these issues. Each dietary or lifestyle adjustment may only make a modest impact, but that’s okay—small improvements add up to big health gains. If we reduce blood pressure by just five to six points, we cut the risk of stroke by 40 percent and heart disease by 15 percent.
There are a number of effective medications for hypertension, such as beta blockers, diuretics, and ACE inhibitors. Unfortunately, they can produce some fairly onerous side effects. Depending on the class of medication, patients can experience insomnia, leg cramps, depression, respiratory symptoms, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, and rapid heartbeat.
Hypertension is a profitable market for drug companies because it’s a chronic (and common) condition. Once patients start on anti-hypertensive drugs, they often take them for the long term.
However, drugs are not our only choice, and they are probably not even our best option. There are many ways we can naturally control high blood pressure, and the side effects may include greater overall health instead of uncomfortable reactions. It’s important to remember, however, that if you have high blood pressure and are on medications, you should never stop your medications abruptly or without the guidance of your healthcare provider. In this situation, undertaking lifestyle and supplement modifications should be done under the care of your doctor, with the goal of being able to gradually reduce, and hopefully eliminate, reliance on pharmaceuticals.
Start with Lifestyle
For anyone trying to control blood pressure, a top recommendation is to address potential weight issues. Being overweight fuels numerous health conditions—including hypertension. The best things to do are increase physical activity (a brisk walk for 30 minutes a day can do wonders) and focus on anti-inflammatory foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins.
We also need to reduce sodium intake. Salt encourages our bodies to retain fluid, which increases blood volume and puts additional pressure on blood vessels. It’s a good idea to limit sodium to 1,500 mg per day. Reduce salty snacks such as chips, crackers, salted nuts, etc. Choose natural, mineral-rich salt like Celtic or Himalayan, and avoid regular table salt, which is much harder on heart health.
Drinking alcohol and smoking are two of the worst things we can do for our cardiovascular health. Both habits put a lot of stress on the heart and fuel inflammation, which can lead to arterial hardening and high blood pressure.
Our bodies evolved a number of mechanisms to respond to danger. One of the most notable of these mechanisms is a rapid heartbeat to increase blood flow, which is usually accompanied by an increase in blood pressure in preparation for “fight or flight.” Incidents like a near-accident on the highway precipitate acute stress, which rapidly rises and falls. But the real problem is chronic stress. All that background anxiety has a major physiological impact. Cortisol and other stress hormones remain constantly elevated, fueling chronic inflammation and wearing down our defenses. Results are increased risks of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, along with numerous other degenerative diseases.
An excellent and proven way to reduce chronic stress is with meditation.
In fact, studies show that with regular practice, meditation may help lower blood pressure and improve other measures of cardiovascular health, including reducing inflammation. Anything that effectively addresses chronic stress can have a positive impact on blood pressure—and overall health.
Moving meditations, such as yoga, t’ai chi, and qigong, combine exercise with mindfulness and are proven to address stress, promote immunity, and foster other areas of health. Long walks in nature are also excellent for stress relief. Perhaps the simplest thing to do is to stand up periodically and take a brief walk around the office. These approaches interrupt the anxiety loop and can have a measurable impact on blood pressure and overall health.
A Blood Pressure Friendly Diet
The DASH diet recommends fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Foods that are high in potassium, including bananas and green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, are a particularly large part of this diet as well.
Be sure to reduce (or better yet, eliminate) trans fats. That means avoiding fried and processed foods, which also tend to be high in sodium and other ingredients that put strain on our systems. It’s also critical to avoid sugar. Trans fatty and sugar-laden foods fuel inflammation, which can harden arteries, damage heart health, and ultimately increase the risk for hypertension along with other chronic conditions.
Key Blood Pressure Supplements
There are some supplements that may help lower blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. It’s important to note that research shows that most of these supplements work to lower blood pressure by small amounts. However, little improvements can still add up to make a big impact.
>> Garlic has long been touted for its ability to improve heart health, including lowering blood pressure. Garlic extract, found in health food stores and online, may work best.
>> Magnesium can lower blood pressure and help manage an irregular heartbeat.
>> Hibiscus has been used for centuries by traditional medical practitioners for a variety of ailments. New research is showing it can have a positive impact on blood pressure.
>> Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower both blood pressure and triglyceride levels. They are found in cold water fatty fish like salmon and sardines, chia and flax seeds, walnuts, and other sources.
>> COQ10 is shown in studies to be effective in lowering blood pressure. There’s also some evidence that CoQ10 deficiency can cause hypertension.
The Role of Galectin-3
Another helpful supplement in the battle against hypertension is modified citrus pectin (MCP), a well-researched ingredient made from the pith of citrus fruit. MCP binds to the inflammatory protein galectin-3, which is implicated in heart disease and other conditions. In 2011, the FDA approved a galectin-3 blood test to monitor cardiovascular disease.
Because it spurs inflammation, excess galectin-3 contributes significantly to vascular hardening, or vascular fibrosis. As previously noted, one of the causes of hypertension is increased blood vessel rigidity, which results from plaque deposits, inflammation, and vascular fibrosis. One 2013 preclinical study, published in a journal of the American Heart Association, showed that MCP effectively controls galectin-3 and thus decreases vascular fibrosis.
In fact, a fast-growing body of published data links elevated galectin-3 levels with not only heart disease, but also other pro-inflammatory conditions. MCP is likewise gaining recognition as a proven natural galectin-3 blocker with additional benefits. For more information about MCP and how it controls the inflammatory protein galectin-3, I recommend Karolyn Gazella’s new book, A New Twist on Health: Modified Citrus Pectin for Cancer, Heart Disease, and More.
Hypertension can be a challenging condition because there are so many different potential factors to control. It may seem discouraging because we can’t put our finger on the exact cause, and the sheer quantity of therapeutic interventions can feel overwhelming.
But the important thing to remember is that the reason it’s important to make these lifestyle changes is not just simply to combat hypertension. Rather, adopting these approaches benefits overall health and promotes long-term vitality. A nutrient-dense diet and targeted supplements, together with exercise and a healthy stress reduction program, offer numerous life-long benefits. In the process, we can also reduce the health risks posed by elevated blood pressure.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc has been a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine since the early 1980s, with a focus on cancer, immune health, detoxification and mind-body medicine.