Easing the pressure
Gillian Flower, ND
Hypertension is Canada's most chronic illness. To help lower high blood pressure and provide long-term management, lifestyle and dietary changes are essential.
High blood pressure is Canada’s most common chronic illness, putting one in five adults at risk of heart attack or stroke. To help reduce the risk and provide long-term management of blood pressure, lifestyle and dietary strategies are essential.
Elevated blood pressure—hypertension—is often discovered in symptom-free individuals during routine checkups. Over time it can cause permanent injury to organs, resulting in kidney damage, heart failure, and blindness—so while silent, this condition is far from benign.
Studies are shedding light on subtler but life-altering implications of high blood pressure. According to researchers at the University of Western Ontario, hypertension may lead to the development of dementia and accelerate atherosclerosis—hardening of the arteries. The restricted blood flow that ensues may cause angina, erectile dysfunction, and even limb loss.
The diet difference
High blood pressure must be treated once diagnosed. Simple yet profound changes in diet and lifestyle habits form the cornerstone of effective blood pressure management.
The well-researched Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet (DASH) uses whole foods and fibre-filled grains to reduce blood pressure. Avoiding saturated and trans fats minimizes further damage to arteries, while adding healthy fats such as fish oil and olive oil amplifies this diet’s effects. Magnesium-rich greens, beans, and nuts should be included for their ability to drop blood pressure; even dark chocolate or cocoa in moderation can help readings stay in a healthy range (under 120/80 according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation).
Inactivity and obesity each make their own contributions to high blood pressure. For this reason exercise is an indispensable therapy. Moderate, regular activity has been shown to reduce hypertension, while the resulting weight loss will improve blood pressure even further.
Hard on the heart
Sodium, abundant in processed foods and salt shakers across the nation, is estimated to contribute to high blood pressure in 1 million Canadians. Whole, unprocessed foods and salt-free alternatives take the load off the circulatory system.
Although some people choose alcohol to induce relaxation, they may be in for an increase in blood pressure over the long term. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario recommends limiting consumption to one or two drinks per day.
Finally, despite having only transient effects on blood pressure, smoking dramatically increases risk of heart attack and stroke. Quitting improves your odds almost immediately.
Sudden emotional shock causes heart attacks in both Hollywood movies and in real life. Lower-grade, ongoing tension may not get as much screen time but may be just as damaging, thanks to the pressure-pumping effects of the stress hormone cortisol. Yoga, meditation, and controlled deep breathing induce relaxation, and all have positive effects on blood pressure.
A little extra help
Diet and lifestyle changes may restore normal blood pressure readings in mild hypertension. These options should always be explored first, but supplements and botanical therapies can also play a role.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), found in all human cells, is known to support energy delivery to the heart, but recent studies suggest that it may also lower blood pressure. This compound is doubly important if both your cholesterol and blood pressure are elevated and you’ve decided to take a doctor-recommended medication, as cholesterol-fighting statin drugs can deplete CoQ10.
Traditionally, hawthorn (Crataegus oxycanthus) and hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa L.) have been used to reduce blood pressure, and evidence is now emerging to explain these known actions. Always seek professional advice when using botanicals, as many will interact with pharmaceuticals, while others such as licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) can actually increase blood pressure.
Diet and lifestyle modifications coupled with the judicious use of supplements can go a long way toward treating hypertension naturally.