Let’s talk about blood pressure. You’ve definitely heard the term and most likely have had yours tested at a doctor’s appointment sometime in the last year (a technician or nurse straps a cuff on your upper arm and uses a stethoscope—you know the drill). Blood pressure refers to the pressure of blood pushing against the artery walls and is an indicator of our heart health. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a common condition where the blood pushing against the artery walls is too high, which over time causes damage to the arteries. Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure according to the Centers for Disease Control, and only one out of four have it under control. Untreated, hypertension can significantly increase the risks of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and two numbers are involved in the measurement. Systolic blood pressure, the top number in your blood pressure reading, represents the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart beats. Diastolic blood pressure is the bottom number in the reading that represents the pressure in the blood vessels when your heart is resting or is in between beats. · Normal blood pressure = lower than 120/80 mmHg · Elevated blood pressure = between 120/80 and 139/89 mmHg · High blood pressure = above 140/89mmHg
The good news is there are things you can do to keep your blood pressure in check. Medication can help too, but most experts agree that managing high blood pressure is much more about lifestyle changes vs. medication: 70 percent vs. 30 percent by most estimates. So don’t stress if your blood pressure is considered elevated or high. Implementing some of these simple lifestyle shifts can have a big impact on lowering your numbers.
1. Get quality sleep.
Sleep helps your body control the hormones needed to regulate stress and metabolism. Prioritizing sleep will prevent swings in hormones that lead to high blood pressure. Also, your blood pressure naturally goes down while you’re sleeping. If you’re not getting at least 7 hours of sleep a night, work on your sleep hygiene to help you get the zzzs you need. Another concern: If you think you have sleep apnea (frequent snoring is a good signal that you might), get tested and treated. People with sleep apnea stop breathing multiple times per hour, which impacts heart health, blood pressure, and body weight.
2. Get moving.
Being physically active is a great way to help lower your blood pressure—in fact, regular activity can lower blood pressure by 5 to 7mmHg in people who have hypertension, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. That’s enough to reduce the risk of heart disease by 20 to 30 percent! All you need is 30 minutes of moderate-level movement most days of the week, such as brisk walking, bicycling, or gardening. Strength training helps, too. You can even divide your 30 minutes into ten-minute blocks. And if you love how movement makes you feel, adding another 15 to 30 minutes to your routine will benefit your blood pressure and your body in multiple ways.
3. Keep striving toward your goal weight.
Research shows there is a strong correlation between blood pressure and body weight. Excess body weight can make your heart work harder, putting stress on your arteries and increasing your blood pressure. Losing weight may reduce your blood pressure. For every 2.2 pounds (or 1 kilogram) you lose, you may expect your blood pressure to drop by 1 mmHg, according to the Mayo Clinic.
4. Eat well.
The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) has long been used as an effective way to reduce blood pressure, and you can use it as a model for healthy eating (apply DASH principles as a guide for healthy choices within your favorite cuisines). This diet is low in processed foods and added sugars, and high in fiber. It focuses on vegetables, fruits, and dairy with moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, poultry, and nuts. The DASH approach to eating makes a difference: In a study comparing the impact of different diets over 8 weeks, people who ate a diet based on DASH principles reduced their blood pressure by over 5 mmHg. Eating whole foods is one of the best ways to get your blood pressure in check. Here are two BP-lowering nutrients to look for in food:
Potassium. This nutrient can limit the effects of sodium by flushing salt out through your urine. Good sources of potassium include sweet potatoes, spinach and other greens, bananas, mushrooms, raisins, dates, lima beans, and peas.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C contains antioxidants that protect the lining of your blood vessels. Fruits like kiwi and strawberries, and veggies like broccoli, kale, tomatoes, and sweet peppers (any color!) all provide a dose of vitamin C.
5. Be choosy when you eat out.
Restaurant meals and processed foods account for up to 75 percent of sodium in most diets. Getting less sodium and adequate potassium and calcium is crucial for keeping blood pressure healthy. The American Heart Association recommends a max of 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, and ideally aiming for a limit of 1,500 milligrams per day. (To give you an idea of how much that is, a teaspoon of table salt has about 2,400 milligrams of sodium.)
Most people don’t have to worry as much about the salt they use in homemade meals. (A tip: Use kosher salt instead of table salt—by volume, kosher salt has less sodium.) And, eating less sodium doesn’t have to make your food taste any less delicious. Use herbs, spices, chiles, garlic, onion, vinegar, lemon, and lime to bring some extra flavor to your food. Choosing fresh foods and low-sodium products will help keep your intake down, too. Watch out for foods that you might not suspect as containing a lot of sodium—wraps and sandwiches are two examples.
6. Limit alcohol and stop smoking.
Changing your habits around drinking and smoking can also have a big impact on your BP. Nicotine makes your blood vessels narrow and makes your heart work harder. And if you’re a heavy drinker, enjoying alcohol in moderate amounts instead—one a day for women, two for men—can drop your systolic blood pressure (the top number) by 5.5 mmHg. Bottom line, cutting back on alcohol and cigarettes is one of the best things you can do for your health.
7. Manage stress.
Researchers are still studying the connections between stress and hypertension. What doctors do know is that when we’re stressed, our bodies release hormones that cause blood vessels to constrict. And when we’re constantly stressed, it leads to higher blood pressure. (Some of those stress hormones also trigger weight gain.) Managing stress isn’t just something to do in the heat of the moment, but something you need to do every day for a healthy body. Spending time in the woods helps reduce blood pressure (thank you, trees!), or you can also practice meditation, daily gratitude, do art, or do some movement like yoga, tai chi, or chi gong.
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