Drug-Free Strategies to Lower Your Blood Pressure

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By Dr. Mercola

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 3 American adults (about 70 million people) have high blood pressure. About half have uncontrolled high blood pressure, which increases your risk for a number of serious health problems, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Kidney disease
  • Cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer's disease

Globally, more than 1 billion people struggle with high blood pressure, and prevalence has nearly doubled in the past four decades.

Overall, men tend to have higher blood pressure than women, and while high-income nations have seen a significant decline in hypertension, prevalence in low- and middle-income countries, such as South Asia and Africa, is spiking. According to researchers, prevalence is "completely inverse" to national income.

Worldwide, high blood pressure is thought to cause nearly 13 percent of all deaths, or about 7.5 million deaths annually.

What Causes High Blood Pressure?

According to medical physiology textbooks, as much as 95 percent of hypertension is called essential hypertension, meaning the underlying cause is unknown. From my perspective, this simply isn't true. A number of factors have been identified as contributing to high blood pressure, including but not limited to:

Insulin and leptin resistance. As your insulin and leptin levels rise, it causes your blood pressure to increase

Elevated uric acid levels are also significantly associated with hypertension, so any program adopted to address high blood pressure needs to normalize your uric acid level as well

Poor nutrition in childhood has been shown to raise the risk of high blood pressure in adulthood

Lead exposure

Pollution. As your insulin and leptin levels rise, it causes your blood pressure to increase

Insulin and leptin resistance. Air pollution affects blood pressure by causing inflammation while noise pollution asserts an effect via your nervous and hormonal systems.

Air pollution has been shown to increase your risk of high blood pressure to the same degree as having a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 30.

Living in an area plagued by constant noise pollution (busy city streets with night time traffic) has been shown to increase the risk of hypertension by 6 percent, compared to living in an area where noise levels are at least 20 percent lower

The Importance of Diet and Insulin Sensitivity

As noted by the lead author Majid Ezzati, Ph.D., a professor of global environmental health at Imperial College London:

"The perception is that people are not getting enough calories, but the reality is, they're not getting healthy calories. Making fresh, healthy food affordable and accessible for everybody should be a priority."

One of the most important dietary changes needed to improve high blood pressure is to eliminate or dramatically reduce sugar and processed fructose from your diet. The easiest way to do that is to replace processed foods with real, whole foods. This will address not only insulin and leptin resistance but also elevated uric acid levels.

One 2010 study discovered that those who consumed 74 grams or more per day of fructose (the equivalent of about 2.5 sugary drinks) had a 77 percent greater risk of having blood pressure levels of 160/100 mmHg (stage 2 hypertension).

Consuming 74 grams or more of fructose per day also increased the risk of a 135/85 blood pressure reading by 26 percent, and a reading of 140/90 by 30 percent. To learn more about healthy eating, please see my optimal nutrition plan, which will guide you through the necessary changes step-by-step.

To ascertain whether insulin/leptin resistance is at play, be sure to check your fasting insulin level. If your hypertension is the result of elevated insulin levels, dietary intervention will be key.

Aim for a fasting insulin level of 2 to 3 microU per mL (mcU/mL). If it's 5 mcU/mL or above, you definitely need to lower your insulin level to reduce your risk of high blood pressure and other cardiovascular health problems.

Keep in mind that the so-called "normal" fasting insulin level is anywhere from 5 to 25 mcU/mL, but please do not make the mistake of thinking that this "normal" insulin range equates to optimal.

Do You Have High Blood Pressure?

A blood pressure reading gives you two numbers. The upper or first number is your systolic blood pressure reading. The lower or second number is your diastolic pressure. For example, a blood pressure reading of 120 over 80 (120/80) means you have a systolic arterial pressure of 120 and a diastolic arterial pressure of 80.

Your systolic pressure is the highest pressure in your arteries. It occurs when your ventricles contract at the beginning of your cardiac cycle. Diastolic pressure refers to the lowest arterial pressure, and occurs during the resting phase of your cardiac cycle. Ideally, your blood pressure should be about 120/80 without medication.

If you're over the age of 60, your systolic pressure is the most important cardiovascular risk factor. If you're under 60 and have no other major risk factors for cardiovascular disease, your diastolic pressure is believed to be a more important risk factor.

According to guidelines issued by the Joint National Commit­tee (JNC) on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure in 2014, the following blood pressure classifications are used to determine whether you might suf­fer from hypertension:

How to Avoid a False Hypertension Diagnosis

To avoid a false hypertension diagnosis, keep in mind that your blood pressure reading can vary significantly from day to day, and even from one hour to the next, so don't overreact if you get one high reading here or there. It's when your blood pres­sure remains consistently or chronically elevated that significant health problems can occur. The following variables can also affect the va­lidity of your blood pressure reading:

Incorrect blood pressure cuff size: If you're overweight, taking your reading with a size "average" blood pressure cuff can lead to a falsely elevated blood pressure reading, so make sure your doctor or health care professional is using the right size cuff for your arm.

Incorrect arm position: If your blood pressure is taken while your arm is parallel to your body, your reading can be up to 10 percent higher than it really is. Blood pressure readings should always be taken with your arm at a right angle to your body.

Nervousness: "White coat hypertension" is a term used for when a high blood pressure reading is caused by the stress or fear associated with a doctor or hospital visit. This can be a transient yet serious concern. If this applies to you, stress reduction is key.

To decrease your risk of being falsely diagnosed with hypertension in this situation, take a moment to calm down (be sure to arrive for your appointment ahead of time so you can unwind), then breathe deeply and relax when you're getting your blood pressure taken.

Measuring Pressure on Both Arms May Provide Valuable Health Info

More recently, researchers are urging healthcare providers to measure blood pressure twice, once on each arm. A number of studies have revealed that a significant difference between your right and left arm pressure may indicate circulatory problems that raise your risk for stroke, peripheral artery disease or other cardiovascular problems.

Slight variations in blood pressure between left and right is normal, but when the difference is five points or greater, it could signal trouble. A British study found that people with a five-point or more difference between arms had nearly double the risk of dying from heart disease in the next eight years.

Another analysis of 20 studies found that those with a right-to-left arm difference in blood pressure of 15 points or more were twice as likely to have peripheral artery disease in the arms and/or legs. As noted by Harvard Health Publications:

"In younger people, side-to-side differences in blood pressure can occur when a muscle or something else compresses an artery supplying the arm, or by a structural problem that prevents smooth blood flow through an artery. In older people, it's usually due to a blockage arising from atherosclerosis, the artery-clogging disease process at the root of most heart attacks, strokes, peripheral artery disease and other cardiovascular conditions.

A less common cause of a between-arm difference in blood pressure is an aortic dissection. This is a tear inside the wall of the aorta, the main pipeline of oxygenated blood from the heart to the body. At your next doctor's visit, ask to have your blood pressure checked in both arms. If there's a difference greater than 10 point, another test called the ankle-brachial index might be in order to check for peripheral artery disease."

Treatment Recommendations

If you're between the ages of 18 and 59 without major health conditions, or if you're 60 or older with diabetes and/or chronic kidney disease, conventional medicine recommends drug treatment if your blood pressure is at or above 140/90. In those over 60 who do not have diabetes or chronic kidney disease, the panel suggests delaying drug treatment until you're above 150/90. According to the JNC panel members:

"For all persons with hypertension, the potential benefits of a healthy diet, weight control and regular exercise cannot be overemphasized. These lifestyle treatments have the potential to improve BP control and even reduce medication needs. Although the authors of this hypertension guideline did not conduct an evidence review of lifestyle treatments in patients taking and not taking antihypertensive medication, we support the recommendations of the 2013 Lifestyle Work Group."

While recommending diet and exercise is a step in the right direction, the panel didn't take it all the way. In my experience, even stage 1 and 2 hypertension can be successfully addressed with lifestyle interventions, to where drugs become unnecessary.

The key is to be sufficiently aggressive in your diet and lifestyle modifications. There are plenty of clinical success stories that vouch for this stance. That said, if you have seriously elevated blood pressure, it would be wise to be on medication to prevent a stroke while you implement these lifestyle changes.

Omega-3 Is Vital for Healthy Blood Pressure

Recent research highlights the importance of animal-based omega-3 fats for healthy blood pressure — especially in young adults. More than 2,000 healthy men and women between the ages of 25 and 41 participated in the study. Diabetics and those with a BMI over 35, which is considered obese, were excluded.

The findings showed that those with the highest serum levels of omega-3 also had the lowest blood pressure readings. On average, their systolic pressure was 4 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) lower and their diastolic pressure was 2 mm Hg lower compared to those with the lowest omega-3 blood levels. As reported by WebMD:24

"'This suggests that promoting diets rich in omega-3 foods could be a strategy to prevent high blood pressure,' [Dr. Mark] Filipovic said … Even a small reduction in pressure, as little as about 5 mm Hg, could prevent a great number of strokes and heart events in the general population …

Another recent study found that doses of omega-3 fatty acids as low as less than a gram a day could help those who already have high blood pressure reduce their numbers … The fish oil may work by improving blood vessel function and reducing inflammation, among other things,' Filipovic said."

Animal-Based Versus Plant-Based Omega-3s

You can obtain omega-3 fats from both plants and marine animals like fish and krill. However, it's really important to realize that these sources provide very different types of omega-3 and, as explained by Nils Hoem, Ph.D., a Norwegian scientist specializing in omega-3 phospholipids, they are NOT interchangeable.

The short-chain fatty acids found in plants are simply food — they're a source of energy — while the long-chain fatty acids found in fish and krill, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are structural elements that actually make up your cells. This is a MAJOR difference between plant- and animal-based sources.

There are specific transporters for long-chained omega-3s in your blood-brain barrier, the placenta (in pregnant women), and likely also in your liver, which transport these molecules in a very precise way into the cell membranes where they belong. No such transporters exist for the short-chained omega-3s.

So please, don't make the mistake of confusing plant-based (short-chained) and animal-based (long-chained) omega-3, as doing so could have severe health consequences. You absolutely need animal-based omega-3, and you simply cannot obtain the same benefits from plant-based sources because the conversion rate of plant-based ALA omega 3 fats to DHA is clinically insignificant.

Fish and krill also have differences worth noting. One of the most important differences is the fact that krill oil is bound to phospholipids, which allows the omega-3 fats to travel efficiently into your hepatic system; hence, they're more bioavailable. Phospholipids are also a principal compound in high-density lipoproteins (HDL), which you want more of, and by allowing your cells to maintain structural integrity, phospholipids help your cells function properly.

Finally, many vegans are using marine-based DHA supplements, which makes sense but is still less than ideal, as you not only need DHA but the whole complex of supporting fatting acids. Do your best to get your DHA from healthy, nontoxic seafood, and if that is not possible, then use a high-quality full spectrum DHA supplement like krill oil.

You can learn more about all of these differences by listening to the interview above, or reading through the accompanying article," The Critical Differences Between Omega-3 Fats From Plants and Marine Animals." A summary can also be found in the following infographic.

Beetroot Juice May Help Lower Blood Pressure

Another food that has been found to have a beneficial effect on blood pressure is beetroot juice.25 In one small placebo-controlled trial, one glass (250 milliliters or 8.5 ounces) of beetroot juice per day for one month reduced blood pressure in those diagnosed with hypertension by an average of 8 mmHg systolic and 4 mmHg diastolic pressure.

This 8/4 mmHg reduction is very close to that provided by blood pressure mediations, which typically can reduce blood pressure by about 9/5 mmHg, and for many it was enough to bring their blood pressure down to normal levels. The treatment group also saw a 20 percent improvement in blood vessel dilation capacity and a 10 percent reduction in arterial stiffness.

However, within two weeks of stopping the juice, their blood pressure returned to their previous levels, so you'd have to keep drinking it consistently. For this reason, I would advise against viewing beetroot juice as a primary solution. A better strategy would be to incorporate a glass of beetroot juice as a short-term solution while you're implementing other dietary changes and exercise.

The beneficial effects are related to the nitrate (NO3) found in beetroot juice. Your body converts the NO3 into bioactive nitrite (NO2) and nitric oxide (NO), the latter of which helps relax and dilate your blood vessels, and helps prevent blood clots. Other vegetables high in NO3 include:

Garlic Is Also Helpful

Two other foods known to dilate blood vessels, albeit in different ways from beetroot juice, are garlic and watermelon. In an experiment by the British BBC series, "Trust Me, I'm a Doctor," designed to evaluate which of these three foods was the most effective for lowering blood pressure, found that beetroot produced the greatest results.

It lowered blood pressure of the 28 participants from an average baseline of 133.6 mmHg to 128.7 mmHg in one week. Garlic came in second place, lowering blood pressure to an average of 129.3 mmHg. Watermelon, in last place, lowered blood pressure to an average of 129.8 mmHg. As noted by BBC:

"Our small study adds to a growing number which suggest that eating beetroot and garlic regularly may help reduce your blood pressure. But these aren't the only foods that can do this. The active ingredient in beetroot, nitrate, is present in plenty of green vegetables: celery; lettuce; watercress; rocket; spinach; chard; broccoli; for example.

And the active ingredient in garlic — allicin — is also present in onions, shallots, leeks, chives and spring onions. It turns out there are several foods which can help keep our blood pressure low."

Vitamin D Can Also Relax Your Arteries and Improve Blood Pressure

Vitamin D deficiency, associated with both arterial stiffness and hypertension, is another important consideration. According to researchers from the Emory/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute, even if you're considered generally "healthy," if you're deficient in vitamin D then your arteries are likely stiffer than they should be. As a result, your blood pressure may run high due to your blood vessels being unable to relax.

In their study, having a serum level of vitamin D lower than 20 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) was considered a deficiency state that raises your hypertension risk. Less than 30 ng/ml was deemed insufficient. Previous research has also shown that the farther you live from the equator, the higher your risk of de­veloping high blood pressure.

Blood pressure also tends to be higher in winter months than during the summer. Exposing your bare skin to sunlight affects your blood pressure through a variety of different mechanisms, including the following:

• Sun exposure causes your body to produce vitamin D. Lack of sunlight re­duces your vitamin D stores and increases parathyroid hormone produc­tion, which increases blood pressure.

• Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, a group of health problems that can include insulin resistance, elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels, obesity and high blood pressure.

• Research shows that sun exposure increases the level of NO in your skin. This dilates your blood vessels, thereby reducing your blood pressure. (For comparison, and to show how various factors tie together, uric acid, produced when you eat sugar/fructose, raises your blood pressure by inhibiting NO in your blood vessels — the opposite effect of sun exposure.)

• Vitamin D is also a negative inhibitor of your body's renin-angiotensin sys­tem (RAS), which regulates blood pressure. If you're vitamin D deficient, it can cause inappropriate activation of your RAS, which may lead to hy­pertension.

• Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays is thought to cause the release of endor­phins, chemicals in your brain that produce feelings of euphoria and relief from pain. Endorphins naturally relieve stress, and stress management is an important factor in resolving hypertension.

Key Lifestyle Strategies for Lowering Your Blood Pressure

In summary, here are several suggestions that can help lower your blood pressure naturally.

 

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