Ensure Healthy Blood Pressure
Your height and weight are vital statistics you probably carry around in your head, but do you know what your blood pressure is? According to a recent survey, almost half of all Americans over age 50 don’t have this important piece of health information at their fingertips. Fewer still are aware of the serious consequences of high blood pressure.
Unless you have your blood pressure checked regularly, you could have hypertension for years without knowing it. In its early stages, this condition has few obvious symptoms, yet all the while it takes a toll on your health. If you have high blood pressure, your risk of suffering a heart attack is 300 percent higher than that of someone with normal blood pressure. Your risk of suffering a stroke is 700 percent higher. In addition, you are at increased risk of kidney disease, blindness, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Those are scary statistics. But the news is not all bad. By making small but necessary changes in your diet and lifestyle, you can successfully reverse high blood pressure–without drugs–as so many of my patients have.
High blood pressure affects 50 million Americans–more than 1 in 3 adults. Hypertension is the leading reason for visits to physicians as well as for drug prescriptions. That may be good news for the pharmaceutical companies, but not for patients who suffer from hypertension.
Though antihypertensive drugs are often prescribed as the first course of action, the fact is that for the 80 percent of patients whose blood pressure is classified as mild to moderate, drugs aren’t the only or even the best answer. Antihypertensive drugs may lower blood pressure, but they have a host of side effects, which range from relatively “mild” symptoms like coughing, dizziness, headache and fatigue to more serious complications, including depression, sexual dysfunction, disturbances in heart rhythm, elevated cholesterol and even congestive heart failure. According to a recent report, 25 percent of patients stop taking blood pressure drugs because of adverse side effects.
There is another path to controlling blood pressure. It requires some education and motivation on your part, but you will find the improvements in your overall health well worth the effort.
Five steps to health
* Maintain a healthy weight
Excess fat places tremendous stress on the arteries and overworks the heart with each beat. In fact, obesity, defined as being 20 percent above your ideal body weight, is the single most significant factor related to hypertension. Among the obese, hypertension is three times more common than it is in those of normal weight.
The more body fat you carry, the more blood vessels and capillaries are required to feed this extra tissue. And the longer your blood vessels, the more resistance blood flow encounters. In addition, obesity, particularly abdominal obesity, increases your likelihood of developing insulin resistance, a condition in which the body’s ability to metabolize glucose is impaired. Insulin resistance is an underlying factor in about half of all cases of hypertension.
Researchers have found that losing as little as 10 pounds may help control blood pressure and reduce the need for medication. Achieving as close to your ideal body weight as possible should be among your top priorities as you strive to reverse hypertension. In addition to eating right, exercising regularly–30 minutes, four or five days a week–will promote weight loss and increase insulin sensitivity, while also having an independent blood-pressure-lowering effect.
* Eat a plant-based diet
In a landmark study called the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Trial, published in 1997, researchers found that a low-fat diet including fruits, vegetables, and foods low in saturated fat could lower blood pressure as effectively as drugs. Researchers predicted that the blood-pressure-lowering effects of this diet could reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease by 15 percent and the incidence of stroke by 27 percent nationwide. Imagine the number of lives that could be saved with this one, simple lifestyle change!
The diet I recommend to my patients with high blood pressure is similar to the DASH diet, but with a greater emphasis on plant foods. No, I don’t expect you to become a vegetarian. Fish, especially cold-water fish such as salmon, and moderate amounts of lean poultry are fine. However, a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains will provide you with an abundance of the nutrients that reduce blood pressure and promote overall cardiovascular health. In addition, plant foods are naturally high in fiber, low in saturated fat and devoid of cholesterol.
Furthermore, plant foods are very high in potassium and low in sodium. You probably know that limiting your intake of sodium is important to maintain healthy blood pressure. What you may not know is that even more important is the ratio of sodium to potassium. The interplay between sodium and potassium at the cellular level regulates blood volume and the relaxation of arteries, both of which are factors in blood pressure control. When the balance between these minerals is disrupted–as it often is when you eat lots of salty, processed foods–blood pressure rises.
The optimal ratio of sodium to potassium is at least 1:4. In other words, for every gram of sodium you consume, you should consume at least four grams of potassium. Getting the right balance of sodium to potassium is simple if you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
The best way to ensure you’re getting all of these protective nutrients is to eat a variety of plant foods at every meal. Be sure to include plenty of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, which contain phytochemicals called flavonoids that fight free radicals, strengthen blood vessels, and protect against heart attack and stroke. Other plant foods with special blood-pressure-lowering properties are onions, garlic and celery.
* Drink more water
Put a crimp in your garden hose and pressure builds up as the amount of water increases. In the same way, blood pressure increases as the volume of blood increases. Diuretics, or “water pills,” are drugs commonly prescribed to lower blood pressure by forcing the kidneys to eliminate sodium and water, thus decreasing blood volume.
Believe it or not, water is actually a natural diuretic. I know you’re probably wondering how more water could reduce your blood volume, but there’s a simple explanation: when your body doesn’t get enough water, it tries to hold on to whatever it has by retaining sodium. Blood flow is decreased to less essential areas, thus leaving more water (and increased blood volume) for its most important, life-sustaining functions. This often results in increased blood pressure.
Conversely, the more water you drink, the more fluid your kidneys excrete as urine. Capillaries open since there is less need to conserve water; resistance on the peripheral blood vessels decreases and blood pressure goes down. By drinking more water–at least eight but preferably 12 glasses a day–you’ll help normalize your blood pressure.
* Take nutritional supplements
If you have high blood pressure, nutritional supplements aren’t optional–they’re essential. No matter how healthy your diet, you simply cannot be sure that you’re getting all the nutrients your body needs. Poor soil quality, prolonged storage, processing and cooking all decrease the nutritional content of food.
I suggest that you begin with a high-potency multivitamin and mineral supplement. By “high potency,” I mean amounts well above the paltry Recommended DailyAllowances (RDA’s), which are meant only to prevent deficiency diseases, not to promote optimal health. Then add the following nutrients, which have a proven roles in regulating blood pressure and protecting against heart attack and stroke.
Magnesium is the second most concentrated mineral in the cells of your body, a status that clearly underscores its importance for health. This safe, inexpensive mineral is one of the most powerful therapies I know of for all types of cardiovascular disease. Magnesium lowers blood pressure much like the class of antihypertensive drugs called calcium channel blockers do: it prevents calcium from entering cells, which allows the artery walls to relax and dilate. Blood flows more freely, and pressure against the artery walls is reduced. If you have hypertension, I recommend supplementing with 1,000 mg of magnesium daily, balanced with 1,000 to 2,000 mg of calcium. Magnesium supplementation is especially important if you are taking a diuretic, which promotes water loss through urination and may lead to deficiencies in magnesium and other minerals.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that attempt to stabilize themselves by stealing electrons from healthy cells. The damage caused by free radicals is a key factor in hypertension, primarily because it contributes to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis, which occurs when oxidized cholesterol and other debris accumulate within the artery walls, results in stiff, narrow arteries that impede blood flow, causing blood pressure to rise.
Fortunately, nature has provided us with an antidote to the oxidative damage caused by free radicals: antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by giving them electrons, thus ending their chain reaction of destruction and protecting healthy cells from damage. Antioxidants play a number of important roles in promoting cardiovascular health and lowering blood pressure, from preventing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and raising levels of HDL cholesterol to repairing damage to arteries and improving their ability to relax and dilate.
The antioxidant vitamins C, E, A and beta-carotene are the major free radical fighters against hypertension and heart disease. I recommend 2,500-5,000 mg. vitamin C, 800 IU natural vitamin E, 5,000 IU vitamin A, and 15,000 IU beta-carotene daily.
* B-complex vitamins
B-complex vitamins also promote healthy blood pressure by helping to protect against atherosclerosis. One of the chief factors involved in atherosclerosis is homocysteine, a toxic byproduct of protein metabolism. Homocysteine damages the lining of arteries, encourages the formation of blood clots, stimulates the growth of excess muscle tissue in the arterial walls, and allows LDL cholesterol to be more easily deposited.
Much as the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E neutralize free radicals, the B vitamins folic acid, B-12, and B-6 neutralize homocysteine by converting this toxic compound into harmless amino acids. This process, called methylation, is your body’s housecleaning mechanism for preventing the buildup of homocysteine inside your cells.
Because of the overwhelming evidence that high levels of homocysteine increase your risk of heart attack and high blood pressure, and that B-complex vitamins detoxify homocysteine and protect against heart disease–I recommend supplementing with folic acid (800 mcg.), vitamin B-12 (100 mcg.), and vitamin B-6 (75 mg.).
* Fish oil
Just as a car needs the right kind of oil to keep running smoothly, your body needs the right kinds of fats. Among the most important for healthy blood pressure are fats called omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA’s), deemed essential because your body cannot produce them. They must be derived from food or supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids lower cholesterol levels, help prevent atherosclerosis and improve blood flow, all of which decrease resistance on artery walls and allow blood pressure to fall.
Cold-water fish such as salmon and mackerel, as well as flaxseed, are nature’s richest sources of omega-3 EFA’s, and I recommend incorporating these foods into your diet. However, the easiest way to make sure you’re getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is to supplement with fish oil capsules–at least 1,000 mg. twice a day. If you have high triglycerides and cholesterol, you may want to increase this to five 1,000 mg. capsules spread throughout the day.
When a busy city street can no longer handle the flow of traffic, a construction crew is sent in to widen the road so that it can accommodate more vehicles. Your body has a similar mechanism for widening your blood vessels to accommodate blood flow and reduce blood pressure. In this case, the “construction crew” consists of molecules of a gas called nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide is a potent vasodilator. It relaxes the smooth muscle cells of the arteries, increasing their diameters and lowering blood pressure. In addition to relaxing your blood vessels, nitric oxide plays another role in reducing blood pressure: it prevents platelets and white blood cells from attaching to arterial walls and initiating the process of artery-narrowing atherosclerosis.
In order for your body to make nitric oxide, it must have adequate supplies of the amino acid arginine. Yet it can be difficult to get enough of this raw material from food sources to keep up with your body’s demand. This is especially true if you already have significant atherosclerosis, which blocks the production of nitric oxide. Studies have shown that supplementation with arginine can have beneficial effects on both high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, and I encourage you to give this safe, natural therapy a try.
The typical starting dose of arginine is 1,000 mg. three times a day, although some people require double that dose to notice benefits. Arginine is best absorbed on an empty stomach. If you experience stomach upset when taking it this way, then try it with some carbohydrate-containing food. Avoid eating protein at the same time as this may impair absorption.
Relax your mind and body
One of the simplest and most powerful tools for promoting healthy blood pressure is to make a conscious choice to relax each day. The relationship between high levels of stress and high blood pressure is well known. However, instead of struggling to eliminate stress (which only creates more stress), learn to manage it. I encourage you to explore the many excellent stress management programs available. Carving out some time each day to quiet your mind and relax your body will do wonders for your blood pressure as well as your overall health and well-being.
Julian Whitaker, M.D., is the founder of the Whitaker Wellness Institute in Newport Beach, Calif., as well as the founder and past president of the American Preventive Medical Association. Dr. Whitaker’s monthly newsletter, Health & Healing, and website, www.drwhitaker.com, provide information about alternative medicine and natural therapies for a broad range of health conditions. He is the author of five books, including Reversing Hypertension.
Julian Whitaker, M.D., is an author, lecturer, head of the Whitaker Wellness Institute in Newport Beach, Calif., and publishes a monthly newsletter, Health & Healing. In short, he’s a busy guy! He treats us this month with his tried and true methods of combating high blood pressure naturally.
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