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Heart health and blood pressure: What really works
What causes high blood pressure? Unfortunately, it’s complicated, and there isn’t just one smoking gun. High blood pressure, aka hypertension, can be caused by age, weight, chronic stress, sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diet, smoking, toxic body burden, thyroid disorders, genetics, or other issues. Usually though, hypertension is caused by a combination of factors that relate to cardiovascular health, so it can be difficult to pinpoint. One of the key elements to remember is that hypertension is one of the classic “silent killers” — which means it usually progresses without symptoms. That’s why periodic blood pressure tests are so important.
We’ll return to causes later, but let’s take a look at effects. Blood pressure is how we measure the force blood exerts on our blood vessels. A healthy blood pressure reading is around 120 systolic and 80 diastolic. The first number measures the pressure when the heart is beating; the second describes pressure when the heart is at rest.
Over time, hypertension can generate a number of problems. Because high blood pressure increases the resistance to blood flow in the vessels, it makes the heart work harder, and has been implicated in congestive heart failure, strokes and other deadly conditions. It also contributes to hardening of the arteries. This can be a vicious cycle, as stiff, inflexible arteries can increase blood pressure.
Hypertension is associated with cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, dementia, aneurysms, blindness, sexual dysfunction and numerous other conditions. It is truly a far-reaching condition.
To control hypertension, we need to take a close look at our diet, lifestyle, and other contributing factors and see where we need to intervene. Working with an experienced integrative health provider can help sort through these issues. Each dietary, lifestyle or other adjustment may only make a modest impact, but that’s okay — small improvements add up to big health gains. If we reduce blood pressure by 5 to 6 points, we cut the risk of stroke by 40 percent and heart disease by 15 percent.
There are a number of effective medications for hypertension, such as beta blockers, diuretics and ACE inhibitors. Unfortunately they can produce some fairly onerous side effects. Depending on the class of medication, patients can experience insomnia, leg cramps, depression, respiratory symptoms, fatigue, headaches, dizziness and rapid heartbeat.
Hypertension is a profitable market for drug companies because it’s a chronic (and all-too-common) condition. Once someone starts on anti-hypertensive drugs, they’re often taking them for the long haul.
However, drugs are not our only choice, and probably not even our best option in the long run. There are many ways we can control high blood pressure, and the side effects can be greater overall health instead of uncomfortable reactions. It’s important to remember however, that if you have high blood pressure and are on medications, you should never stop your medications abruptly or without the guidance of your health care provider. In this situation, undertaking lifestyle and supplement modifications should be done under the care of your doctor, with the goal of being able to gradually reduce, and hopefully eliminate reliance on pharmaceuticals.
Start with lifestyle
For anyone trying to control blood pressure, a top recommendation is to address potential weight issues. Being overweight fuels numerous health conditions, including high blood pressure. The best thing to do is increase physical activity and focus on anti-inflammatory foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and lean protein. A brisk walk, 30 minutes a day, can do wonders.
We also need to reduce sodium intake. Salt encourages our bodies to retain fluid, which increases blood volume and puts additional pressure on blood vessels. It’s a good idea to limit sodium to 1,500 milligrams a day. Reduce salty snacks such as chips, crackers, salted nuts, etc. Choose natural, mineral-rich salt like Celtic or Himalayan, and avoid regular table salt which is much harder on heart health.
Drinking alcohol and smoking are two of the worst things we can do for our cardiovascular health. Both habits put a lot of stress on the heart and fuel inflammation, which can lead to arterial hardening and high blood pressure.
Our bodies evolved a number of mechanisms to respond to danger. One of the most notable effects is a rapid heartbeat to increase blood flow, accompanied by an increase in blood pressure in preparation for “fight or flight.” Incidents like a close call on the highway precipitate acute stress, which rapidly rises and falls. But the real problem is chronic stress. All that background anxiety has a major physiological impact. Cortisol and other stress hormones remain constantly elevated, fueling chronic inflammation and wearing down our defenses. Results are increased risks of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, along with numerous other degenerative diseases.
An excellent and proven way to reduce chronic stress is with meditation. In fact, studies show that with regular practice, meditation may help lower blood pressure and improve other measures of cardiovascular health, including reducing inflammation. Anything that effectively addresses chronic stress can have a positive impact on blood pressure — and overall health.
Moving meditations, such as yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong, combine exercise with mindfulness and are proven to address stress, promote immunity and foster other areas of health. Long walks in nature are also excellent for stress relief. Perhaps the simplest thing to do is to stand up periodically and take a brief walk around the office. These approaches interrupt the anxiety loop and can have a measurable impact on blood pressure and overall health.
One of the most critical approaches to controlling hypertension is diet. There’s even a specific diet to lower blood pressure: Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension or DASH.
The DASH diet recommends fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as foods that are high in potassium, which include bananas and green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and kale.
Be sure to reduce (better yet, eliminate) trans fats. That means avoiding fried and processed foods, which also tend to be high in sodium and ingredients that put strain on our systems. It’s also critical to avoid sugar. Trans-fatty and sugar-laden foods fuel inflammation which can harden arteries and damage heart health, increasing the risk for hypertension along with other chronic conditions.
Key blood pressure supplements
There are some supplements that may help lower blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. It’s important to note that research shows most of these supplements work to lower blood pressure by small amounts. However, little improvements can still add up to make a big impact.
- Garlic has long been touted for its ability to improve heart health, including lowering blood pressure. Garlic extract, found in health-food stores and online, may work best.
- Magnesium can lower blood pressure, as well as help manage an irregular heartbeat.
- Hibiscus has been used for centuries by traditional medical practitioners for a variety of ailments. New research is showing it can have a positive impact on blood pressure.
- Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower blood pressure, as well triglycerides. They are found in cold-water fatty fish like salmon and sardines, as well as in chia and flax seeds, walnuts and other sources.
- CoQ10 is shown in studies to be effective in lowering blood pressure. There’s also some evidence that CoQ10 deficiency can cause hypertension.
The role of Galectin-3
Another helpful supplement in the battle against hypertension is modified citrus pectin (MCP), a well-researched ingredient made from the pith of citrus fruit. MCP binds to the inflammatory protein galectin-3, which is implicated in heart disease and other conditions. In 2011, the FDA approved a galectin-3 blood test to monitor cardiovascular disease.
Because it spurs inflammation, excess galectin-3 contributes significantly to vascular hardening, or vascular fibrosis. As noted, one of the causes of hypertension is increased blood vessel rigidity, which results from plaque deposits, inflammation and vascular fibrosis. One 2013 preclinical study published in a journal of the American Heart Association, showed that MCP controls galectin-3 and thus decreases vascular fibrosis.
In fact, a fast-growing body of published data links elevated galectin-3 with heart disease as well as other pro-inflammatory conditions. MCP is likewise gaining recognition as a proven natural galectin-3 blocker, with additional benefits. For more information about MCP and how it controls the inflammatory protein galectin-3, I recommend a new book by Karolyn Gazella, “A New Twist on Health: Modified Citrus Pectin for Cancer, Heart Disease, and More.” www.newtwistonhealth.com
Hypertension can be a challenging condition because there are so many different potential factors to control. It may seem discouraging because we can’t put our finger on the exact cause, and the sheer quantity of therapeutic interventions can seem overwhelming.
But the important thing to remember is that we’re not making changes simply to combat hypertension. Rather, we are adopting these approaches to benefit overall health and long term vitality. In other words, a nutrient-dense diet and targeted supplements, together with exercise and a healthy stress reduction program, offers numerous life-long benefits. In the process, we can also reduce the health risks posed by elevated blood pressure.
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