What’s Up With Blood Pressure?

Hopefully what’s up isn’t your blood pressure. Learning that you have blood pressure that’s higher than it should be can be scary. Not only do you learn all the dreaded complications that can come with untreated high blood pressure (the big, bad, scary things like heart attacks, strokes, and damage to vital organs over time), you likely also feel daunted by what this might mean for your lifestyle: will you have to start taking a new medication? Maybe more than one? Will you have to start some kind of intense exercise program? Will you ever be able to even glance in the direction of a salt shaker again without seeing your numbers jump up?

Well, I have good news for you. First, take a deep breath. And another. Okay. This doesn’t actually have to be as scary as it sounds. Controlling blood pressure is absolutely necessary to prevent all the ugly things mentioned above. But lucky for you, there ARE simple things that you can add or subtract in your life that can help keep your numbers down and your body healthier.

What’s my goal, doc?

You very well may not even know what your blood pressure should be, and that’s ok. Even people who see their doctor regularly sometimes aren’t sure what number they should be shooting for. The guidelines get confusing and vary based on your age and medical history, but here’s a handy little resource that gives you a general idea if you’re in range. If you check this out and notice that you’re above the suggested cut off, it might be time to sit down with your doctor and have a chat.

Let’s talk meds:

Throughout my many years in healthcare (yes, I know I have that dewy, youthful glow but I’ve been around for a while), I’ve had many people from many different walks of life express a desire to bring their blood pressure down while simultaneously minimizing what feels like the ever growing list of medications they’re taking. I consider this a good mindset. Medications are often necessary to bring your blood pressure to its goal number but they can come with side effects and interactions that are unpleasant at best and unsafe at worst. There are many medications used in the treatment of high blood pressure. Each serves its own purpose and medication is individually tailored to you. Implementing some lifestyle changes while using medications as necessary creates a happy little team approach to bringing your blood pressure right where it belongs.

So what can you do?

I’m super glad you asked. And remember that you don’t have to do EVERY single thing mentioned here to have a positive impact on your blood pressure. Even one or two will help you trend in the right direction. It’s all about the baby steps.

The DASH diet

I love a good acronym and this one is no different. The DASH diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This “diet” is really more focused on a sustainable change in eating habits in a way that can help lower blood pressure. The main focus of the DASH diet is to reduce the amount of daily sodium intake, which can elevate blood pressure, and to increase intake of whole foods that contain nutrients that can help lower blood pressure like potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Here’s a link to Mayo Clinic’s overview of the DASH diet that provides more specifics on what foods to focus on and what foods to avoid to successfully implement the DASH diet.

Decreasing sodium in your diet can seem like a challenging task but there are some tips and tricks to make it just a bit easier:

Choose sodium free or reduced sodium spices and condiments.
(Mrs. Dash has a bunch of tasty options that add flavor without adding sodium! Check them out here.)
Avoid adding salt
to foods when cooking.
You can also try Lite Salt which contains 50% less sodium but still gives the salty taste so many of us crave.
Rinse it
Rinsing canned veggies before eating can help reduce sodium content.
Buy Low or No Sodium Versions
These days many canned and packaged foods are available in low or no sodium options which means you don’t have to sacrifice your favorites.
Eat fresh!
Canned foods and other packaged foods are notorious for containing a surprising amount of hidden sodium–avoid it by buying fresh fruits and veggies and making homemade recipes when you can.
Get it on the side
When eating out at restaurants, ask for dressings or sauces to be served on the side so you can choose how much of it you eat.
Start slow
You don’t have to eliminate salt all at once or even entirely. Making changes gradually will allow your taste buds to adjust and you’ll be more likely to stick to it.
(How to make the DASH diet work for you 2019)

Move your body

Managing blood pressure through dietary modifications is a fantastic endeavor to take on. Adding in even a little bit of exercise can help you realize the full benefits of your hard work in the kitchen. If you’re not used to getting out there on the trails and putting in a marathon every other day, I have good news for you: it doesn’t take much to see a difference. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week. That translates to 30 minutes a day–and that’s only counting the week days.

What counts as moderate intensity activity?

Brisk walking (>2.5 mph)
Water aerobics
Tennis (doubles)
Leisure biking (less than 10mph)
(American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids 2018)

These are just a few examples of how to get active and move your body. If 30 minutes of activity seems daunting, a simple walk to the mailbox and back is better than not moving at all. If you’ve been sedentary for quite a while, start slow and increase as your body allows. You

You can make activity more fun by engaging with friends and family. Consider starting a daily step challenge with coworkers or friends. This could bring our your competitive streak and be just the motivation you need to keep mobile. You certainly don’t need a fancy watch or fitness tracker to accomplish this either. A simple pedometer from your local drug store can accomplish the same goal. If you have a furry friend, include him in your efforts and get in an extra walk a day. I guarantee you’ll both be happier and healthier.

Not only does activity help lower blood pressure, you may also notice some other benefits like a lower number on the scale, an easier time keeping up with kids and grandkids, improved muscle tone, better sleep, and improved mood.

What’s hurting my efforts?

We’ve talked about quite a few things that you can add to your life to help bring your blood pressure where you want it. But what about things that you might unknowingly be doing that are negatively affecting your efforts?

  • Smoking-smoking any amount causes narrowing of your blood vessels which raises blood pressure. For help quitting, visit smokefree.gov
  • Untreated sleep apnea-there are a whole bunch of sciency reasons behind why sleep apnea can contribute to high blood pressure but the bottom line is this: if you snore frequently, if your partner notices that you seem to stop breathing at night, or if you feel fatigued or need frequent daytime naps, you may need to talk to your doctor about a sleep study to make sure you’re not experiencing apnea (Sleep apnea 2020)
  • Stress-the hormones released during episodes of acute stress can increase blood pressure temporarily. Combining stress with poor coping habits (increased alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, or junk food) may lead to ongoing elevated blood pressure (Stress and high blood pressure: What’s the connection? 2019) .
  • Alcohol-that old wives tale that says red wine is good for your heart? Not so much. The American Heart Association recommends keeping alcohol consumption to less than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women (Limiting Alcohol to Manage High Blood Pressure 2016). Avoiding daily drinking entirely while trying to manage blood pressure will likely yield better results.

It’s all a process and you’re on the right track

The hardest part of any process is the beginning. The first step. Any effort at pursuing health is worth celebrating. It takes 21 days to change a habit. Don’t discredit your efforts if it doesn’t feel incredible on day one. One tiny lifestyle change, in conjunction with prescribed treatment regimens from your doctor, will likely lead to other tiny changes. Hopefully the culmination of all those tiny changes leads you to a life that’s healthier, happier, and less pressured than you had before.

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American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. (n.d.). Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults?gclid=Cj0KCQiA0MD_BRCTARIsADXoopb62MvWwgqgWzY7AHw0dH8E_jEF0vlas8heFLv_bSbvXSthj4HMaG0aAly9EALw_wcB

How to make the DASH diet work for you. (2019, May 08). Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/dash-diet/art-20048456

Limiting Alcohol to Manage High Blood Pressure. (n.d.). Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/changes-you-can-make-to-manage-high-blood-pressure/limiting-alcohol-to-manage-high-blood-pressure

Sleep apnea. (2020, July 28). Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleep-apnea/symptoms-causes/syc-20377631

Stress and high blood pressure: What’s the connection? (2019, January 09). Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/in-depth/stress-and-high-blood-pressure/art-20044190

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