What Should You Do If You Have High Blood Pressure?
This is a follow-up to a previous blog post, titled How Does High Blood Pressure Affect Your Body?
High blood pressure, or hypertension, affects one in five Canadians, but if you’re affected you may not even know it. There aren’t any obvious symptoms, so there’s no way to tell whether your blood pressure is high unless you get checked. Having high blood pressure can increase your risk of developing serious health risks such as heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease, just to name a few.
It’s important for people to get their blood pressure checked regularly. If you have high blood pressure or are at risk of developing it, there are lifestyle choices that can be made that can help lower it. Many risk factors for high blood pressure can be controlled and improved, such as obesity, an unhealthy diet, a lack of physical activity, and consumption of cigarettes and alcohol. By knowing how to decrease these risks and stay healthy, this can do a lot to prevent the development of high blood pressure.
Maintain a Healthy Weight and Diet
Choosing to eat a nutritious diet is one of the most effective ways of lowering high blood pressure, especially if you’re overweight or obese. Research has shown that losing 4 kg (9 pounds) can reduce systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels by 4.5 mm Hg and 3.2 mm Hg, respectively. By choosing foods that help you improve heart health and maintain a healthy weight, this can help strengthen the cardiovascular system and reduce the risk of high blood pressure.
Cutting down on foods that are high in saturated fats and sodium is important. This means decreasing intake of fatty red meat products like beef and pork. Instead, choose fish or chicken, as these contain less saturated fats. Dairy products like whole milk, butter, and cheese are also high in saturated fats, so low-fat dairy options are a better choice. It’s also important to avoid foods high in sodium, and to choose unsalted items instead. Other important parts of a healthy diet include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. By combining a healthy diet with regular exercise, this can do a lot to maintain a healthy weight and lower blood pressure.
Regular physical activity is another way to improve cardiovascular health, and in turn decrease blood pressure levels. If the heart is weak and working harder to pump blood, this contributes to high blood pressure. By exercising, this helps to work the heart muscle and make it stronger so that it’s able to pump blood more easily. As a result, this lowers blood pressure levels since the heart doesn’t have to work as hard.
The level of exercise doesn’t have to be vigorous; even light to moderate exercise can provide health benefits. Aerobic activities like walking, jogging, biking, or swimming are great ways to get the heart pumping. Even household chores or yard work like cleaning the house or mowing the lawn are ways to add some physical activity to your daily routine. The World Health Organization recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. It’s also a good idea to avoid smoking, as in addition to increasing blood pressure, it can also impact the heart and lungs and make it harder to exercise.
Avoid Cigarettes and Alcohol
Cigarettes and alcohol can both lead to increases in blood pressure and an increased risk of hypertension. The nicotine in cigarettes causes the blood vessels to become narrower, which makes the heart have to pump harder to circulate blood. This causes blood pressure to increase, and can cause buildup of plaque in the arteries. Quitting smoking can reduce some of the damage that’s done to arteries, which can improve blood pressure.
Alcohol also raises blood pressure levels. Drinking alcohol can temporarily increase blood pressure, but people who regularly drink heavily can develop long-term increases. Heavy drinkers who want to cut back on their drinking should do so gradually over 1-2 weeks, as stopping suddenly can result in a severe increase in blood pressure. Alcohol can also interfere with the effectiveness of some blood pressure medications, which is another good reason for people to moderate their consumption levels.
Look into Medication if Necessary
If blood pressure levels are too high to be lowered effectively by lifestyle factors, medication may be necessary. Hypertension Canada outlines six high blood pressure medications that can help:
- Diuretics – increases urine production which lowers blood pressure
- Beta-blockers – reduces blood pressure by slowing down the heart beat
- ACE Inhibitors – relaxes blood vessels and decreases blood volume
- Angiotensin Receptor Blockers – dilates blood vessels and reduces blood pressure
- Calcium Channel Blockers – blocks calcium from entering the heart and blood vessels, which widens vessels and reduces blood pressure
- Direct Renin Inhibitors – relaxes blood vessels and lowers blood pressure
Hypertension Canada states that all the above medications reduce blood pressure by the same amount on average, but that some people have better results with some drugs than others. It’s always a good idea to work with your doctor to decide which medication is best for you.
If you’re an older adult or someone who may be at risk, you should get checked regularly to determine whether your blood pressure levels are too high. If you don't want to go to the doctor, there are also wireless blood pressure monitors from companies such as Nokia and iHealth.
While there are some causes of high blood pressure that are beyond the control of the individual, the majority of the risk comes from lifestyle factors. If you have high blood pressure or at risk of developing it, it’s a good idea to work with your doctor to develop a strategy which includes a mixture of lifestyle changes and medication if necessary. Healthy lifestyle changes help mitigate a lot of the risk for high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems.
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