High blood pressure, or hypertension, is called the “silent killer” for good reason. It often has no symptoms but is a major risk for heart disease and stroke. And these diseases are among the leading causes of death in the United States.
Your blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury, which is abbreviated as mm Hg. There are two numbers involved in the measurement:
Systolic blood pressure. The top number represents the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats.
Diastolic blood pressure. The bottom number represents the pressure in your blood vessels between beats when your heart is resting.
Your blood pressure depends on how much blood your heart is pumping, and how much resistance there is to blood flow in your arteries. The narrower your arteries, the higher your blood pressure.
Blood pressure lower than 120/80 mm Hg is considered normal. Blood pressure that’s 130/80 mm Hg or more is considered high. If your numbers are above normal but under 130/80 mm Hg, you fall into the category of elevated blood pressure. This means that you’re at risk for developing high blood pressure.
The good news about elevated blood pressure is that lifestyle changes can significantly reduce your numbers and lower your risk — without requiring medications.
We live in stressful times. Workplace and family demands, national and international politics — they all contribute to stress. Finding ways to reduce your own stress is important for your health and your blood pressure.
There are lots of different ways to successfully relieve stress, so find what works for you. Practice deep breathing, take a walk, read a book, or watch a comedy.
Listening to music daily has also been shown to reduce systolic blood pressure. A recent 20-year study showed that regular sauna use reduced death from heart-related events. And one small study has shown that acupuncture can lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
Increase activity and exercise more
In a 2013 study, sedentary older adults who participated in aerobic exercise training lowered their blood pressure by an average of 3.9 percent systolic and 4.5 percent diastolic. These results are as good as some blood pressure medications.
As you regularly increase your heart and breathing rates, over time your heart gets stronger and pumps with less effort. This puts less pressure on your arteries and lowers your blood pressure.
How much activity should you strive for? A 2013 report by the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) advises moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity for 40-minute sessions, three to four times per week.
If finding 40 minutes at a time is a challenge, there may still be benefits when the time is divided into three or four 10- to 15-minute segments throughout the day.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) makes similar recommendations.
But you don’t have to run marathons. Increasing your activity level can be as simple as:
- using the stairs
walking instead of driving
doing household chores
going for a bike ride
playing a team sport
Just do it regularly and work up to at least half an hour per day of moderate activity.
Lose weight if you’re overweight
If you’re overweight, losing even 5 to 10 pounds can reduce your blood pressure. Plus, you’ll lower your risk for other medical problems.
A 2016 review of several studies reported that weight loss diets reduced blood pressure by an average of 3.2 mm Hg diastolic and 4.5 mm Hg systolic.
Drink less alcohol
Alcohol can raise your blood pressure, even if you’re healthy.
It’s important to drink in moderation. Alcohol can raise your blood pressure by 1 mm Hg for every 10 grams of alcohol consumed. A standard drink contains 14 grams of alcohol.
What constitutes a standard drink? One 12-ounce beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.
Moderate drinking is up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
Eat some dark chocolate
Yes, chocolate lovers: Dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure.
But the dark chocolate should be 60 to 70 percent cacao. A review of studies on dark chocolate has found that eating one to two squares of dark chocolate per day may help lower the risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and inflammation. The benefits are thought to come from the flavonoids present in chocolate with more cocoa solids. The flavonoids help dilate, or widen, your blood vessels.
A 2010 study of 14,310 people found that individuals without hypertension who ate more dark chocolate had lower blood pressure overall than those who ate less dark chocolate.
Cut Down on Caffeine and Cigarettes
Experts are recommending a reduction of caffeine consumption through coffee or other drinks. Don’t drink more than two coffees per day. Stop smoking if you want to maintain healthily.
Eat healthy high-protein foods
A long-term study concluded in 2014 found that people who ate more protein had a lower risk of high blood pressure. For those who ate an average of 100 grams of protein per day, there was a 40 percent lower risk of having high blood pressure than those on a low-protein diet. Those who also added regular fiber into their diet saw up to a 60 percent reduction of risk.
However, a high-protein diet may not be for everyone. Those with kidney disease may need to use caution, so talk to your doctor.
It’s fairly easy to consume 100 grams of protein daily on most types of diets.
High-protein foods include:
- fish, such as salmon or canned tuna in water
poultry, such as chicken breast
beans and legumes, such as kidney beans and lentils
nuts or nut butter such as peanut butter
cheese, such as cheddar
A 3.5-ounce (oz.) serving of salmon can have as much as 22 grams (g) of protein, while a 3.5-oz. serving of chicken breast might contain 30 g of protein.
With regards to vegetarian options, a half-cup serving of most types of beans contains 7 to 10 g of protein. Two tablespoons of peanut butter would provide 8 g.
Make sure to get good, restful sleep
Your blood pressure typically dips down when you’re sleeping. If you don’t sleep well, it can affect your blood pressure. People who experience sleep deprivation, especially those who are middle-aged, have an increased risk of high blood pressure.
For some people, getting a good night’s sleep isn’t easy. There are many ways to help you get restful sleep. Try setting a regular sleep schedule, spend time relaxing at night, exercise during the day, avoid daytime naps, and make your bedroom comfortable.
The national Sleep Heart Health Study found that regularly sleeping less than 7 hours a night and more than 9 hours a night was associated with an increased prevalence of hypertension. Regularly sleeping less than 5 hours a night was linked to a significant risk of hypertension long-term.
Cut back on sugar and refined carbohydrates
Many scientific studies show that restricting sugar and refined carbohydrates can help you lose weight and lower your blood pressure.
A 2010 study compared a low-carb diet to a low-fat diet. The low-fat diet included a diet drug. Both diets produced weight loss, but the low-carb diet was much more effective in lowering blood pressure.
The low-carb diet lowered blood pressure by 4.5 mm Hg diastolic and 5.9 mm Hg systolic. The diet of low-fat plus the diet drug lowered blood pressure by only 0.4 mm Hg diastolic and 1.5 mm Hg systolic.
A 2012 analysis of low-carb diets and heart disease risk found that these diets lowered blood pressure by an average of 3.10 mm Hg diastolic and 4.81 mm Hg systolic.
Another side effect of a low-carb, low-sugar diet is that you feel fuller longer, because you’re consuming more protein and fat.
Try meditation or yoga
Mindfulness and meditation, including transcendental meditation, have long been used — and studied — as methods to reduce stress. A 2012 study notes that one university program in Massachusetts has had more than 19,000 people participate in a meditation and mindfulness program to reduce stress.
Yoga, which commonly involves breathing control, posture, and meditation techniques, can also be effective in reducing stress and blood pressure.
A 2013 review on yoga and blood pressure found an average blood pressure decrease of 3.62 mm Hg diastolic and 4.17 mm Hg systolic when compared to those who didn’t exercise. Studies of yoga practices that included breath control, postures, and meditation were nearly twice as effective as yoga practices that didn’t include all three of these elements.
If your blood pressure is very high or doesn’t decrease after making these lifestyle changes, your doctor may recommend prescription drugs. They work and will improve your long-term outcome, especially if you have other risk factors. However, it can take some time to find the right combination of medications.
Talk with your doctor about possible medications and what might work best for you.