Foods That Lower Blood Pressure, Beyond the Diet

More than 80 million North Americans have high high blood pressure, also called hypertension. In its early stages, high blood pressure is symptomless, so many people don’t realize they have a potentially life-threatening disease.

If the condition goes unchecked, high blood pressure damages the heart and blood vessels and can lead to a stroke, heart attack, and other serious consequences. In about 5 to 10% of cases, there’s an underlying cause for high blood pressure—a narrowed kidney artery, pregnancy, an adrenal gland disorder, or a drug side effect. Most often there is no identifiable cause; this is referred to as primary, or essential, hypertension.

No one fully understands precisely what leads to hypertension, although a combination of factors seems to be involved. Heredity, diabetes, obesity, and certain other disorders increase risk. Other contributors include smoking, excessive alcohol, and a sedentary lifestyle. Blood pressure also tends to rise with age so all adults over age 40 should have their blood pressure checked annually.

Nutrition Connection

-Diet plays a role in both prevention and treatment of high blood pressure. Following the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which is endorsed by numerous health organizations including the American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic, will help lower blood pressure. Here is a synopsis of the DASH diet and accompanying strategies.

-Have 6 to 8 servings of grains daily. Focus on whole grains such as whole wheat pasta because they have more nutrients and fiber.

-Eat 4 to 5 servings each of fruits and vegetables daily. Foods such as carrots, green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, and others contain beneficial nutrients that lower hypertension: fiber, vitamins, and minerals such as potassium and magnesium.

-Consume 2 to 3 servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy foods. Research has shown that a diet that includes calcium-rich foods such as low-fat dairy products helps lower blood pressure. Be careful to watch sodium intake when eating low-fat or nonfat cheeses.

-Limit meats, poultry, and fish to 6 oz (170 g) or less daily. It’s best to cut back on meat consumption, but when eating it, opt for the leanest cuts of meat.

-Eat 4 to 5 servings of nuts, seeds, or legumes per week. These foods offer an array of good minerals, but it’s important to watch serving portions as they can be high in calories.

-Limit fats to 2 to 3 servings daily. Avoid saturated fats and trans fats, which contribute to high blood pressure. A high-fat diet also leads to weight gain. Limit fat intake to 30% or less of total calories, with 10% or less coming from saturated animal fats. This means cutting back on butter and margarine; switching to low-fat milk and other low-fat dairy products; choosing lean cuts of meat; and shifting to low-fat cooking methods, such as broiling instead of frying.

-Limit sweets to 5 servings per week. There is wiggle room for those who love sweets as long as you watch serving portions.

-Limit your salt intake. A key component of what makes DASH effective is reducing sodium intake. Keep it at 1,500 mg to 2,300 mg. Beyond putting down the salt shaker, avoid most processed foods, which are usually loaded with sodium.

-Pump up potassium. Some nutrients may protect against high blood pressure. Potassium, an electrolyte that helps maintain the body’s balance of salt and fluids, helps ensure normal blood pressure. Potassium can be found in fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, dairy products, and legumes.

-Get your calcium. Recent studies indicate that people with low levels of calcium are at greater risk of high blood pressure. A diet that low-fat dairy products, fortified soy beverages, canned salmon (with bones), and green leafy vegetables will raise levels of calcium and help decrease hypertension. However, the jury is still out on whether calcium supplements help or hinder the condition.

-Reduce alcohol and caffeine consumption. Although a glass of wine or other alcoholic drink daily seems to reduce the chance of a heart attack, consuming more than this will negate any benefit and may increase the risk of hypertension. Too much caffeine can also raise blood pressure. Older adults with hypertension may be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine and should limit their intake.

Beyond the Diet

While a proper diet is instrumental in maintaining normal blood pressure, it should be combined with other lifestyle changes, such as:

-Exercise. Aerobic exercise lowers blood pressure by conditioning the heart to work more efficiently. In addition, even a modest weight loss will cause a drop in blood pressure.

-Quit smoking. Nicotine raises blood pressure. Quitting can drop blood pressure by 10 points or more.

-Reduce stress. Stress prompts a surge in adrenal hormones and a temporary rise in blood pressure; some researchers believe that constant stress may play a role in developing hypertension. Meditation, yoga, biofeedback training, self-hypnosis, and other relaxation techniques may help lower blood pressure.

-Use medications with caution. Over-the-counter cold, allergy, and diet pills can raise blood pressure. In some women, birth control pills or estrogen replacement therapy can cause high blood pressure.

-Try drug therapy. If these lifestyle changes do not decrease hypertension to normal levels in 6 months, drug therapy is often instituted.

-Treat underlying conditions. Diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol, both of which compound the risk of developing heart problems, may associated with high blood pressure.

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