Perhaps you’ve been told you have “high blood pressure.” Or maybe you checked it yourself one day and noticed that it was 146/90. What now? Today I will discuss some ways in which you can improve your own blood pressure without taking medications. But before I do, let’s first answer an important question: What is hypertension and what’s the big deal?
Blood Pressure: Understanding the Basics
Systolic pressure (top number) = Pressure in your arteries when your heart squeezes to push blood through your body.
Diastolic pressure (bottom number) = Pressure in the arteries when your heart relaxes and fills with blood.
Hypertension = The Silent Killer
While some people experience symptoms (often headache and fatigue) when their blood pressure is elevated, the majority of those with hypertension and prehypertension can go about their days feeling just fine.
Why, then, is it important to treat it?
It is important, because high blood pressure—by damaging your blood vessels—harms almost every organ of your body. If it is not addressed properly, it can cause a sudden heart attack or stroke. Even if that doesn’t happen, chronic high blood pressure will break down your organs over time, leading to aneurysms, kidney failure, heart failure, and dementia. Fortunately, aside from prescription medications, there are many things that you can do—even starting today—that have been proven to help your blood pressure return to a healthy level.
If you are in the “elevated” stage, these techniques are perfect for you and will prevent you from needing medications in the future. Even if you have already been diagnosed with hypertension and are taking blood pressure medications, you will still benefit from incorporating these changes into your life. For many, it can help decrease their medication dose or eliminate the need for them altogether.
How to Improve Your Blood Pressure
Identify the Culprits
While your genetics play a role (as well as certain medical conditions), environmental factors and lifestyle are major contributors to high blood pressure. See if any of the following could apply to you:
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Eating too much salt
- Being overweight
- Not getting enough calcium, potassium, and magnesium in your diet
- Drinking moderate to large amounts of alcohol
- Tobacco use
- Medications (eg. diet pills, birth control pills, ADHD medications, some OTC pain medications, steroids, a few allergy medications)
- Herbal supplements (eg. ephedra, guarana, kola nut, yerba mate, ginseng, yohimbe)
Start Making Changes
#1 Take a Daily Walk
As one of the best things you can do for your blood pressure (and overall health), exercise helps make your heart stronger and more efficient at pumping blood, which lowers the pressure in your arteries. Regular physical activity—even 30 minutes of brisk walking a day—can lower your blood pressure considerably.
How much exercise do you need? 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise divided up over the week is a good goal that has been proven to be effective.
#2 Vow to Cut Down on Salt
Even a small reduction in salt consumption can noticeably improve blood pressure. For the general population, a daily limit of less than 2,400 mg of sodium is appropriate. However, if you fall into the following categories, your body may be even more sensitive to the effects of it, therefore you should try to consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day. These groups are:
- Anyone 51 years or older
- Those who are African-American
- Anyone already diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease
Not sure where to start? Here are some tips to help:
- Read food labels. If possible, choose low-sodium alternatives of the foods and beverages you normally buy.
- Eat fewer processed foods such as chips and canned soups. Only a small amount of sodium occurs naturally in foods. Most sodium is added during processing.
- Don’t add salt. Just 1 teaspoon of salt has 2,300 mg of sodium. Instead, use salt-free seasonings (eg. Mrs. Dash).
Just remember: every little bit counts when it comes to salt. Even cutting down a little will help your blood pressure. So don’t be discouraged if you can’t meet these strict guidelines all at once.
Reducing stress is key. It has been shown that 20 minutes of meditation, deep breathing, or yoga done twice daily can noticeably improve your blood pressure.
If you haven’t yet, check out these tips on how to effectively de-stress.
#4 Drink [only a little bit of] alcohol
Alcohol can be both good and bad for your health…it all depends on amount. In small amounts, it can potentially lower your blood pressure by 2 to 4 mm Hg, but drink more, and it can actually increase it. Therefore, in order to reap its potential benefits, limit your daily alcohol intake to the following:
- Women (all ages): 1 drink
- Men < 65 years: 2 drinks
- Men > 65 years: 1 drink
- One drink =
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor
#5 Lose a few pounds
If you’re overweight, your extra body mass is putting more burden on your heart and blood vessels. Studies have shown that even losing 5% of your body weight can significantly lower high blood pressure. The effect is even greater when weight loss is paired with exercise (as opposed to only calorie restriction).
Here are some tips to help you jump-start your weight loss efforts.
#6 Choose Nutritious Foods
One of the factors that can elevate your blood pressure is not getting enough important minerals—particularly potassium, calcium, and magnesium. The following are a list of good choices:
- Vegetables: leafy greens, tomatoes, sweet potatoes
- Fruits: melons, bananas, avocados, oranges and apricots
- Fish: especially tuna and salmon
- Milk and yogurt
- Beans and peas
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
While these are all nutritious, you should aim to eat at least 8-10 servings of just fruits and vegetables a day.
#7 Cut Down Those Sweets
Here’s another reason to nix the soft drinks: there is a growing body of evidence showing a link between added sugar and high blood pressure. Studies have shown that just cutting out one sugary beverage a day can start to improve your blood pressure.
And it’s not just sugar—all refined carbs (the kind in white flour), convert rapidly to sugar in your bloodstream and have a similar effect.
#8 But…Go Ahead and Enjoy That Dark Chocolate
Cocoa contains flavonoids—plant compounds that help relax blood vessels and lower your blood pressure. While non-sweetened cocoa powder, which is especially high in flavonoids, is the best choice, a half an ounce daily of dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) can also be beneficial.
#9 Take a Supplement
Fish Oil: One of the main causes of high blood pressure is inflammation in the arteries over time. Omega-3 fatty acids, contained in fish oil, can help reduce this inflammatory process. Take 1,000 mg daily with your meals. Want to learn more about fish oil supplements? This article will help.
Aged Garlic Extract: The compounds in garlic work similarly to decrease inflammation and improve elasticity of blood vessels, in turn improving your blood pressure.
#10 Drink some Hibiscus Tea
Hibiscus is rich in anthocyanins and polyphenols that are beneficial to a healthy heart, including improving blood pressure. If you enjoy teas, look for blends that contain hibiscus as one of its main ingredients.
For more information on how to measure and keep track of your own blood pressure, check out this article on hypertension. With that said, I encourage you to always involve your personal physician when deciding whether or not a new supplement, diet regimen, or exercise program is right for you. Because remember, we are all rooting for your health!
*The information presented in “How to Lower Blood Pressure Naturally: 10 Ways that Work” can be found in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.