I've never met anyone who thought: "Geez, I'd really love to take more prescription medication!"
Approximately 29% of American adults have high blood pressure, which can have serious consequences. But even with education, many people do not take the medication as prescribed.
Research shows that about half of the patients whose blood pressure is not getting under control is because the patients aren't continuing to take their medication. Yet, high blood pressure puts people at greater risk for heart disease, and I've never met anyone who thought, "Bring on the heart disease!"
So, if you have high blood pressure, are you stuck taking medication for the rest of your life? Not necessarily. There are natural ways to help lower your blood pressure and potentially avoid medication.
Important note: If your doctor prescribed blood pressure medication, take it. Don't go off your medication without permission from your healthcare provider.
Whether you're taking medication for hypertension or want to avoid problems before they start, these natural treatments for high blood pressure may be able to keep your numbers under control.
BLOOD PRESSURE 101
When the doctor puts that squeezy cuff on your arm, they're finding out your systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Systolic measures the pressure your blood puts on your arteries when your heart beats. Diastolic measures the pressure between beats.
Most of the time, the doctor is concerned with your systolic blood pressure (the upper number), which should ideally be under 120. If it's under 130, you're in an elevated state, but likely won't need medication. If it's above 130, you're in full-on hypertension and need to get your numbers down, according to the American Heart Association.
If your blood pressure is in the 120 to 129 range, it's best to make some changes before things get worse. And the best way to do that is through your diet.
1. MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT
If you want to lower blood pressure, the first thing you may hear from your doctor is "lose weight." Being at a higher weight can put you at a higher risk for high blood pressure. But, being overweight doesn't automatically give you hypertension, and losing weight doesn't automatically get rid of the problem.
As a heavy woman myself, I don't love stepping into a doctor's office and hearing "lose some weight" as their only medical advice.
So, consider weight to be one small aspect of hypertension. Instead of worrying about your weight, it seems much more effective to focus on healthy eating.
2. GET YOUR POTASSIUM AND MAGNESIUM
"When a client comes in with high blood pressure, there are several things we talk to them about right away. The first is simply adjusting their diet to a more plant-based approach," says Alison Clayshulte, nutritional consultant at the Cambiati Wellness Programs. "Ideally we want our clients to have three times as many vegetables as proteins." Vegetables are high fiber, which is generally a plus, but Clayshulte is especially interested in the mineral content of these healthy foods.
"We ask clients to specifically focus on vegetables high in potassium, as this mineral has shown beneficial effects on those with high blood pressure," says Clayshulte. "The highest amounts of potassium are found in leafy greens (beet greens, Swiss chard, spinach, and bok choy), sweet potatoes, mercury-free tuna, beets and Brussels sprouts."
The first choice for these essential minerals is through natural foods. Some people can't get enough in through food.
In addition to high potassium foods, Clayshulte says that magnesium supplementation shows lots of promise in recent studies. "Taking about 300 mg of magnesium as a supplement over three months reduced both systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings," she says. "Magnesium also promotes relaxation and stress reduction, which helps lower blood pressure measurements."
3. CHECK OUT THE DASH DIET
Though everyone can benefit from getting more vegetables and leafy greens, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that a specific diet could be incredibly effective in reducing blood pressure.
The DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, focuses on eating lots of fruits and vegetables as well as some low-fat dairy. It also restricts high-fat and cholesterol items. Processed foods are no-go.
In one study, participants ate according to the diet and lowered their sodium. Blood pressure and cholesterol levels were found to be reduced after eight weeks.
This doesn't prove that the DASH diet is the only way to reduce blood pressure, but it's the most studied diet, for the time being.
If you really need to turn your blood pressure around, this diet seems to be one of the safest ways of reducing blood pressure and aiding health benefits overall.
Though reducing sodium intake showed significant results in this study, the role of salt and blood pressure is a little more contentious than you might think.
4. DITCH THE PROCESSED FOODS
For years, people have been told to eat less salt if they want lowered systolic blood pressure. A study from Harvard, University of California, San Francisco, and Simon Fraser University concluded that reducing salt intake could save over 280,000 lives.
Of course, lowering sodium intake usually doesn't mean taking the salt shaker off your table. Most of the time, we get our sodium from processed and canned foods that really pack on the salt. That's a big reason why the DASH diet and nutritionists like Clayshulte recommend cutting back (or cutting out) processed foods.
But not everyone agrees that salt is such a villain. According to a paper published in JAMA, there were signs in the 1950s that sugar played a major role in heart disease.
In 1965, the Sugar Research Foundation did their own research on heart disease and concluded that fat, cholesterol, and salt were the biggest culprits. Essentially, they took the emphasis off sugar and put it on salt and fat. That said, the research was paid for by the sugar industry, so it's not altogether surprising that the sweet stuff was left out of the heart disease conversation for decades to come.
To further the salt versus sugar debate, a paper published in the cardiology journal Open Heart found that added sugars elevated heart rate and blood pressure and caused a variety of metabolic and insulin problems in human and animal studies. Though they also advise eating less processed food, they blamed high sugar (not sodium) for the side effects.
Overall, there are studies on both sides of the sodium issue, but they all agree on one thing: Avoid processed foods. I know Pop Tarts and Doritos are delicious, but they aren't helping anyone avoid heart disease.
5. EAT (A LITTLE) CHOCOLATE
After going through that whole sugar vs. salt debate, telling you to eat chocolate seems pretty weird. But a study from 2010 found that dark chocolate helped reduce blood pressure for hypertensive people.
Though the study doesn't tell you how much dark chocolate to eat, it's safe to say that a 1-pound bar from Trader Joe's is too much. Also, if you think you can eat Taco Bell and Funyuns, and then pop a square of Ghirardelli's to settle your blood pressure, you're wrong. I wish that were true, but dark chocolate likely only works in small amounts in addition to a healthy diet.
6. MINIMIZE STRESS
Stress is proven to raise your blood pressure. So anything you can do to lower stress and promote relaxation is great for hypertension.
"Practicing mindfulness meditation and deep breathing are excellent tools for lowering blood pressure," says Dr. Elizabeth Rice, licensed naturopathic doctor and primary care physician at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. "All of these recommendations elicit the relaxation response, bringing the body out of fight or flight mode, and relaxing the blood vessels to drop blood pressure."
Whether you spend 10 minutes meditating in a darkened room or you give yourself an extra half-hour to watch a new episode of "Drag Race" (or your comfort TV show of choice), doing a relaxing activity does physically affect your blood pressure. If meditating isn't for you, try crafting, drawing, reading, taking a bath, or walking about your neighborhood. As long as you prioritize a bit of relaxation every day, it will help bring your numbers down. Though there's no magical herb or supplement to reduce blood pressure, there are plenty of natural options to reduce your risk of heart disease. So the next time someone criticizes you for eating dark chocolate on the couch while watching "Vanderpump Rules," just telling them you're taking care of your heart.