Taking a break from my usual content to chat a little bit about blood pressure. While I am not a fan of fear mongering health articles, I am a fan of demystifying and uncomplicating common health concerns in order to make you a more empowered health advocate. And high blood pressure is definitely a common health concern, with nearly 3 million cases reported each year in the US.
But first, what is it and why are we concerned about it? Blood pressure is the pressure of blood against the inner walls of the arteries as it is pumped throughout the body. Normal blood pressure is considered 120/80 mm Hg or lower. Higher blood pressure over time can cause damage and inflammation to your arteries which may put you at risk for cardiovascular disease. That being said, blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day and sometimes elevated blood pressure is helpful and normal. For example, when you rise in the morning blood pressure is higher, this is a normal fluctuation. Also, during exercise, blood pressure rises to help deliver blood (and oxygen) more efficiently to working muscle. Similarly, during periods of acute stress increased blood pressure may be helpful for delivering blood and nutrients to areas of your body that need it most. The downside of this is that overtime, regular episodes of acute stress can turn into chronic stress and thus, chronically elevated blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease, kidney disease and stroke.
Increasing age, genetics, alcohol intake and a sedentary and or stressful lifestyle increase our risk for developing chronically elevated blood pressure. So the chances are that you have either been diagnosed with high blood pressure or your know someone close to you who has. At the time of diagnosis many people are told two things, to cut sodium from their diet and lose weight. Unfortunately, these seemingly simple recommendations are a lot more difficult to carry out. A deeper look at the research shows that it may be healthy behavior changes that decrease blood pressure not weight loss. Weight loss just happens to sometimes be a side effect of healthy behavior changes and thus it gets all the credit, not really fair.
So, in an effort to take the focus off restriction and weight loss which may or may not be very helpful. Here are 6 simple changes to improve blood pressure. All of which have been shown to be effective regardless of changes in weight.
1. Drink More Water
Hydration is directly related to our blood pressure. Our blood vessels restrict, our kidneys retain sodium and blood pressure increases as a direct result of dehydration. Carry water with you in a bottle or tumbler, add a glass to your morning routine and if you don't already, make sure to have fluid with meals. If you drink a lot of coffee, try swapping one cup of Joe for water or green tea.
2. Improve Sleep Quality
Changing things around to make sure you get enough high quality sleep may help improve your blood pressure. Studies have found that night time blood pressure is increased in people who are sleep deprived. Try implementing a night time routine, like shower, tea, bed. Limit screen time before bed. Try black out curtains. Whatever you have to do to get some quality zzz's, you know yourself best. Sleeping is every bit as important as nutrition and movement for health.
3. Increase Fruit & Vegetable Intake
Fruit & veggies are full of K+, antioxidants and other compounds that have been shown to reduce blood pressure and help increase the body's stress tolerance. Try incorporating fresh berries in your smoothies, add veggies to your favorite meals, and choose fresh fruit/vegetable sides when out to eat. Snack on fresh fruit all summer long. Pick one or two meals/snacks a day and swap out the old for something new and produce filled. You don't need to be a vegan or a vegetarian to start reaping the benefits.
4. Incorporate Fatty Fish or Fish oil
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish and fish oil have been shown to reduce blood pressure. If you're not opposed to trying fish, consider serving it as your protein 2-3 times a week. My favorite easy way to get in fatty fish is to make salmon patties or top salads with canned salmon. It's more affordable and tastes great! Of course you may also consider taking omega-3 supplements if you aren't a fish fan (ask your doctor if you're unsure). Besides salmon, omega-3 rich fish include: mackerel, sardines, black cod, oysters, rainbow tout, albacore tuna, halibut, and catfish.
5. Add Magnesium rich nuts to your diet
Magnesium intake has been shown to modestly reduce blood pressure, especially in those who do not have sufficient magnesium in their diet. You can up your intake of this nutrient by including magnesium rich nuts and seeds in your diet (along with fruits, veggies, and seafood - see above). Try snacking on walnuts, pecans, almonds or pistachios. Add your favorite nuts to salads and roasted veggies. Incorporate seeds in your smoothies and top toast with crunchy nut butters. If you're allergic to nuts, no worries you can get magnesium from dark leafy greens, fruits like figs and avocados and fatty fish like salmon.
6. Enjoy 10 minutes of Movement 3 times a day
Movement that increases your heart rate for a period of 10 minutes has the effect of lowering blood pressure immediately afterwards and increasing the body's ability to buffer stressful situations. Incorporating 10 minutes of gentle movement 3 separate times throughout the day may actually decrease blood pressure more than one 30 minute session of exercise according to this study. The good news is 10 minutes is pretty easy to do. Try adding 10 minutes of movement to your morning routine, 10 minutes at lunch time and 10 minutes after dinner - BAM, donezo.
If this list overwhelms you (and even if it doesn't), I'd encourage you to pick one, maybe two (max) behaviors to implement.
This is obviously not a comprehensive list of healthy behaviors for blood pressure improvement. You could very easily choose to cook at home more or manage stress more effectively. But regardless of what you pick, small steps taken repeatedly over time are the name of the game.
Slow and steady is not sexy but it is effective. If you really want to improve your blood pressure with healthy behaviors, it's going to take some trust and faith. Faith that what you're doing is making a difference despite what you see or don't see in the short term.
And that's it folks. Hopefully this gives you a more strategic nutrition plan for lowering your blood pressure than the age old advice of restriction. Until next time, happy fueling and stay nourished, body & soul.