High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a serious condition that affects millions of Americans, an estimated one in three adults, many of whom don’t even know they have it. (1) The lack of symptoms is the reason why high blood pressure is called the silent killer in the medical community, but knowing the facts and being prepared are great ways to avoid this problem — or if you already have it, to manage it safely.
Having high blood pressure puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke, which are leading causes of death in the United States
Hypertension is a condition you have to maintain, not one you can cure. As such, the best thing to do is to give your all to prevent it from taking hold. If you have high blood pressure already, maintenance is key to prevent stroke, heart disease, and other serious illness.
What is High Blood Pressure?
In simple terms high blood pressure is characterized as the pressure exerted on our veins and arteries as blood flows through our body. Your organs need oxygenated blood in order to function properly. This oxygenated blood is carried throughout your body via the circulatory system. As your heart beats, it produces pressure that pushes the blood through a web of blood vessels including arteries, veins, and capillaries. Blood pressure is determined by how much blood the heart pumps and how difficult it is for the blood to flow through the arteries. If the arteries are restricted in any way, there is more pressure against blood vessel walls, resulting in high blood pressure.
The only way to know if you have high blood pressure (HBP, or hypertension) is to have your blood pressure tested. Understanding your results is key to controlling high blood pressure. Blood pressure numbers of less than 120/80 mm Hg are considered within the normal range. If your results fall into this category, stick with heart-healthy habits like following a balanced diet and getting regular exercise. (2)
Causes of High Blood Pressure
There are two types of hypertension (high blood pressure) – primary and secondary. Primary develops over many years and is due to plaque build-up in the arteries. Risk factors for this type of high blood pressure include obesity, age, genetics, smoking, drinking, excessive salt use, and stress. (3) Certain health conditions can also lead to primary hypertension such as diabetes, kidney disease, and sleep apnea.
Secondary hypertension is caused by an underlying condition, including adrenal gland tumors, thyroid problems, illegal drug use, and congenital defects.
If left undiagnosed and untreated hypertension can lead to serious health issues including stroke, heart attack, peripheral vascular disease, kidney disease/failure, or vascular dementia.
Alternative Treatments for High Blood Pressure
Scores of scientific studies show that diet, lifestyle changes, and other natural methods can lower blood pressure in most patients, without drugs, says physician Julian Whitaker, founder and president of the Whitaker Wellness Institute in Newport Beach, California.
Anyone with high blood pressure, of course, should consult with a physician before starting to use alternative remedies. Happily, though, most people with readings from 130/85 (high normal blood pressure) to 159/99 (the upper range of mild high blood pressure) can safely be treated with alternative methods, says Chris Meletis, dean of the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon. (Although they, too, should periodically check in with a doctor.)
For people whose numbers fall within this range, a 12-point drop in systolic pressure (the first number in a reading, measuring how strongly blood is pumped from the heart as it contracts) is typically what drugs can achieve. But many non-drug therapies, whether taken singly or in combination, work just as well or even better without the troublesome side effects. Here’s a look at the best of what the alternative world has to offer.
The impact of sleep
There is a correlation between inadequate sleep and the incidence of high blood pressure. In a Sleep Heart Health Study published by the National Institute of Health (5), it was indicated that subjects sleeping less than five hours per night had a higher frequency of hypertension. During normal sleep patterns, your blood pressure goes down. When you have insomnia or are just not getting sufficient sleep, your blood pressure remains higher for a longer period of time. If you are having trouble sleeping, there are several ways to try and improve your quality and quantity of sleep. Make sure your bedroom is quiet and set at a comfortable temperature. Refrain from devices such as TV and phones before turning in. Avoid heavy meals just before bedtime and be sure to get some exercise throughout the day. Meditation and supplements like melatonin or chamomile can also help shut down after a busy day.
Try a Vessel-Relaxing Herb
In a recent study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, 36 people with mild high blood pressure took either 500 milligrams (mg) of an extract of the herb hawthorn, 600 mg of magnesium (a mineral that relaxes arteries), a combination of the two, or a dummy pill. The hawthorn group showed the biggest decrease in blood pressure. Hawthorn is rich in flavonoids, biochemicals that relax the musculature of the vessels, decreasing blood pressure, says Ann Walker, lead author of the study and a senior lecturer in human nutrition at the University of Reading in England. She recommends the same daily dose as that used in the study: 500 mg of hawthorn extract, standardized for the flavonoid vitexin. Watch out for powdered hawthorn tablets, she adds. They’re too weak to be useful.
Eat a Low-Fat Diet (and Hold the Salt)
You’ve doubtless heard this advice before, but it bears repeating, because the evidence for it is so impressive. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, volunteers followed the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, an eating plan low in cholesterol and saturated fats, and rich in fruits and nuts, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products). After just 30 days, their systolic pressure dropped by 11.5 points. The ideal diet should include citrus fruit, leafy greens, celery, carrots, fatty fish like salmon, beans and lentils, Greek yogurt, and beets.
Some foods to avoid:
- Refrain from fried foods as much as possible, especially those prepared with trans fats
- Limit cured meats such as cold cuts and bacon
- Avoid sugary foods like soda, candy, and anything with added sugars
- Drink alcohol in moderation, staying within recommended guidelines
- Cut down on caffeine. Drinking more than four cups of coffee or tea has been shown to raise blood pressure.
- You should also decrease your salt intake. Salt increases the volume of blood, requiring higher pressure to pump it through the arteries.
For long-lasting results, the researchers say, you need to stick with the diet.
Get Friendly with Garlic
This remedy hasn’t been proven beyond a doubt, but the circumstantial evidence for it is strong. Garlic has a wide range of positive effects on circulation, thinning blood and dissolving blood fats, says Farhang Khosh, a naturopathic physician and co-director of the Natural Medical Care Clinic in Lawrence, Kansas. It may have a direct effect on blood pressure by affecting mineral metabolism in arterial muscles, relaxing them. Indeed, studies have shown that people who eat lots of garlic-rich meals have lower blood pressure than those who don’t. As for garlic supplements, an article reviewing the results of eight small studies showed that they, too, can bring pressure down.
Tulsi, also known as holy basil, is an herb that adds flavor to most dishes and is also a popular tea.(4) It is a popular alternative medicine due to its various powerful compounds and has been used within Ayurvedic medicine more than 3000 years. In the Ayurveda system, tulsi is often referred to as an “Elixir of Life” for its healing powers and has been known to treat many different common health conditions. Holy basil is high in eugenol with research linking its antioxidant to many health benefits, including lowered blood pressure. Studies suggest that eugenol may help reduce blood pressure by acting as a natural calcium channel blocker.
Give Needles a Try
Proponents of Chinese medicine have long believed that acupuncture can ease high blood pressure. Now scientists at Harvard Medical School are putting this notion to the test.
Physician Randall Zusman and his colleagues are studying a group of 192 patients who have been divided into three groups. One group received 12 weeks of acupuncture sessions with the needles moved from point to point according to the diagnostic criteria of traditional Chinese medicine; one got a protocol considered less effective, with the needles kept in a consistent position; and one got “sham” acupuncture, where the needles were placed in areas not involved in high blood pressure treatment.
Although final results aren’t in, Zusman says preliminary indications are positive. “We’ve had people drop 20, 30, and 40 systolic points,” he says. “We’ve had people with 170/100 blood pressure normalize. We’ve had people come off their medications. So we are enthusiastic about the possibility that acupuncture may be effective.”
Several supplements are particularly effective in reducing hypertension, says Khosh. Omega-3 fatty acids , for starters. These thin the blood, easing its passage through the arteries. In a study published in Thrombosis Research, people with mild high blood pressure were given either the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (epa) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or a placebo. After four months, those on the omega-3 fatty acid regimen had an average decrease in systolic pressure six points below that of the placebo group. Khosh recommends 1.8 grams per day.
Khosh is also bullish on the antioxidant vitamins A, C, E, and the mineral selenium. Researchers at St. James University Hospital in Leeds, England, gave volunteers with high blood pressure an antioxidant supplement for eight weeks and then a placebo for eight weeks. Their average blood pressure fell when they took the antioxidant, but not when they took the dummy pill.
How might these nutrients help? “Antioxidants increase the flexibility of blood vessels, which allows blood to move through them more easily,” says Khosh. He recommends a daily supplement with a minimum of 1,500 mg of vitamin C, along with 200 to 400 international units of vitamin E, 15,000 to 25,000 units of vitamin A, and 50 to 250 micrograms of selenium.
Move Along (but Not too Fast)
Here’s good news for people who like their exercise on the easy side. When researchers at the University of Western Ontario in Canada reviewed 39 studies on the impact of physical activity on high blood pressure, they found that moderate levels of activity were actually best at lowering blood pressure. Ten weeks of low-intensity walking or jogging (three times a week, for no more than 50 minutes a session) reduced systolic pressure by an average of 13 points; any exercise beyond that point brought no added benefit.
Soothe Your Stress (and Talk About it, too.)
It’s no secret that stress reduction techniques, like yoga, deep breathing, progressive relaxation, and meditation can lower blood pressure. What’s less well-known is that these methods are likely to yield even better results if you also talk to a counselor about what’s bothering you.
A review of stress-busting techniques in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that the average drop in pressure they brought was three to four systolic points. But when counseling was added, it decreased by an additional ten points, on average.
“Meeting with a therapist and talking to him or her about the things in your life that are stressful, in addition to using methods such as relaxation tapes, yoga, or biofeedback is probably the most effective way to reduce blood pressure through stress control,” says J. David Spence, a neurologist who is lead author of the report and director of the Stroke Prevention and Atherosclerosis Research Center in London, Canada.
Consider Water Fasting
It sounds drastic, and it is, but the results have been striking. A study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics in June 2001 looked at 174 people with high blood pressure who had been through a program of medically supervised water fasting at TrueNorth Health in Penngrove, California. TrueNorth is a residential treatment facility, certified by the International Association of Hygienic Physicians.
The program consists of a few days of pre-fasting, in which patients eat fresh raw fruits and vegetables and steamed vegetables; water-only fasting for 4 to 28 days; and a post-fasting refeeding period, starting with juices, then raw fruits and vegetables, then adding cooked vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and a few raw unsalted nuts and seeds.
Our study shows the largest decrease in blood pressure levels ever reported in the scientific literature, says Alan Goldhamer, a chiropractor and lead investigator of the study, which was coauthored by T. Colin Campbell of the department of nutrition at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. All of those starting the program had high blood pressure, with an average reading of 159/89, and many were on medication. At the end of the program, the average numbers had dropped to 122/76, and just one patient was still taking drugs.
Why is fasting so effective? “It improves many of the factors that contribute to hypertension,” says Goldhamer. It unclogs arteries, peels off extra pounds, and drains the body of excess sodium. Goldhamer doesn’t recommend that anyone try water fasting at home, but he says that under medical supervision, the therapy is safe. None of the patients suffered any ill effects at all, he says. What’s more, the results last. A year after the study, the average blood pressure of the patients was still well within the normal range.
How will I know my program is working?
Hopefully you have been monitoring your blood pressure several times a week, and you have seen numbers stabilize at under 120/80. Because there are usually no symptoms for high blood pressure, it’s important to measure your blood pressure regularly. You may feel less fatigue and have more energy, and just feel better in general.
By Bill Gottlieb
Edited by Maria Pietromonaco
(1) 5 Surprising Facts About High Blood Pressure.
(2) Understanding Blood Pressure Readings
(3) Primary Hypertension (Formerly Known as Essential Hypertension)
(4) The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature