“Hypertension (or high blood pressure) is a known cause of many medical illnesses. If left unchecked, it can lead to multiple organ failure,” says Dr K Gunasegaran, senior consultant cardiologist from the National Heart Centre. “High blood pressure is also associated with an increased risk of stroke and heart disease.” The problem is, most of us mistake the early stages of hypertension for completely normal blood pressure. In the past few years, 120/80 millimetres of mercury (mm Hg) went from being classified as healthy to “pre-hypertensive” by medical professionals. The target numbers are now 119/79mm Hg or lower. “The risk of hypertension is amplified with every 20/10-mm Hg increase, starting from levels of about 115/70mm Hg,” says Dr Jimmy Lim, consultant cardiologist of Tan Tock Seng hospital. “People with a blood pressure of 120/80mm Hg and above need to start taking steps to lower it through lifestyle changes.”
To reach the ideal blood-pressure level and avoid a crash landing, let the steam out of the following “pressure cookers” one at a time.
1. Belly Baggage
Your heart and the 100,000km of veins, arteries and capillaries in your body have enough work to do when you’re lean. Don’t make matters worse by adding a beer belly, which requires more blood supply, putting additional strain on the heart and raising overall blood pressure. While thin people aren’t spared from the prospect of hypertension, keeping at or under your ideal body mass index (BMI) does help lower your blood pressure. “Studies have shown that for an every 10-kg reduction in your weight, a hypertensive patient can expect between a five and 20mm Hg systolic drop in blood pressure; although waist circumference might be a more accurate gauge,” says Dr Lim. “Asian men with a circumference greater than 36 inches appear to be at higher risk of not only hypertension but diabetes and metabolic syndrome as well.”
Do this: Eat meat.
In a recent Australian study, people with high blood pressure who replaced 8 per cent of their daily calories from bread, cereal, potatoes or pasta with lean red meat experienced a four-point drop in their systolic blood pressure in just eight weeks.
Arginine, an amino acid in red meat, may help dilate blood vessels, lowering blood pressure. Plus, limiting starches lowers blood sugar and makes your body more efficient at burning fat.
Not that: Eat a low-fat diet.
Removing fat from your diet could actually work against your goal, because healthy fats are key to lowering blood pressure. For example, a study in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that men who replaced their regular cooking oil with sesame oil for 45 days experienced decreases in their blood pressure and blood sugar. Sesame oil contains polyunsaturated fatty acids and a compound called sasamin, which stops your liver from making cholesterol.
“The efficacy of exercise for lowering blood pressure is well-established,” says Dr Lim. “Studies have shown exercise to be more effective in reducing blood pressure in hypertensive people compared to individuals of normal blood pressure. Some studies even show a drop in blood pressure by as much as 12/12mm Hg. And these health improvements are the results from exercise alone, without any dietary modifications.” A solid workout raises your blood pressure, which gives your body practice in bringing it back down. Well-trained vessels expand and contract easily, which helps to control blood pressure, even during times of heightened or prolonged stress.
Do this: Simply squeeze a stress ball.
It seems to help – a lot, actually. According to a study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, people performing handgrip exercises for eight weeks lowered their systolic blood pressure by 15 points and their diastolic pressure by five.
“The blood-pressure response to grip training is greater than to aerobic exercise,” says lead author Dr Maureen MacDonald. All it takes is two minutes of squeezing, four times a day.
Not that: Train like a hamster running around in a wheel. Overdoing on cardio can limit the benefits your gym session has on your blood vessels, so try adding resistance training to the mix. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that men who performed three total-body weight workouts a week for two months lowered their blood-pressure readings by an average of eight points.
3. The Bottle
This is a case of too much of a good thing. “Alcohol can certainly play a part in developing high blood pressure, especially if taken in large amounts,” says Dr Guna. “Once you exceed two alcoholic beverages a day, you begin to incur complications, such as an increased risk of high blood pressure,” adds Dr Prediman K. Shah, director of cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles. No one is quite sure why an excessive amount of alcohol, which dilates blood vessels, can sometimes raise blood pressure, but it does. No need for you to avoid even the occasional Friday night brewsky with the guys, though. In fact, Harvard researchers recently analysed the drinking habits of 11,000 men with high blood pressure and determined that those who consumed two drinks a day were 30 per cent less likely to have a heart attack than those who drank less.
Do this: Make it a Blood Mary.
According to a study in the American Heart Journal, the antioxidant lycopene in tomato juice can boost your beverage’s blood-pressure-lowering power. When participants in the study swallowed tomato juice extract for eight weeks, they experienced a 10-point drop in their systolic BP and a four-point fall in their diastolic measure. Add a stalk of celery for extra protection. High in fibre, celery has been used for centuries in Asian medicine to drop blood pressure.
Not that: Drink on an empty stomach.
Keep your bar tab in check, and don’t drink any alcoholic beverage without eating something along with it. Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo found that a man’s risk of high blood pressure increases nearly 50 per cent if he boozes between meals. Eating while you imbibe may slow you down and help limit the total amount of alcohol you ingest, the researchers say.
There was a time when stress saved your life. Blood pressure goes up in response to tension, when your body’s fight-or-flight response causes adrenaline surges. But chronic stress, like the kind you experience every day at the office, can permanently increase your blood pressure set point.
Do this: Clean the house.
Researchers reporting in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise equipped 28 people with BP monitors and asked each person to do housework to burn 150 calories a day. After two days, their blood pressure levels fell an average of 13 points. Daily chores lower BP, and not only because of the exercise. Having a clean house may reduce psychological stress, according to the study authors.
Not that: Slack off on relaxation.
“Most people don’t attend yoga classes or perform relaxation techniques regularly, says Dr Shah. Reduce the chances you’ll skip a de-stress session by choosing a tension reliever that’s convenient and can be scheduled in advance. One option? Make a standing weekly appointment with a regular masseuse. A study by researchers at the University of South Florida revealed that people who received three 10-minute massages a week experienced an 18-point drop in their systolic blood pressure and an eight-point drop in their diastolic BP.
The white stuff causes your body to retain water, which increases blood volume and, consequently, blood pressure. The results are deadly: The more sodium you eat, the shorter your life – according to researchers at the University of Helsinki. They reviewed more than a dozen studies and found that people who reduced their sodium intake by 30 per cent lived an average of seven years longer than those whose sodium intake remained high. The Health Promotion Board recommends a daily intake of one teaspoon (about 5g) a day; nine out of 10 Singaporeans take more than twice this recommended amount.
Do this: Use salt wisely.
Gradually lower your salt intake if you’re cooking your own meals and at the end of two weeks, revert back to your original salt levels for just one meal. You’ll discover that your newly conditioned taste buds will find it too salty. And just because you can’t taste it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Processed foods sometimes contain high levels of sodium (luncheon meat, canned soups, sauces and crackers, for example) even if they don’t always tastes salty. Check the labels for the salt content to keep to your daily 5-gram quota.
Not that: Skip the salt altogether.
The good news is that you do need some sodium in your diet to survive. One recent study revealed that too little of the mineral can actually increase your risk of death by 37 per cent.) Instead, focus on eliminating super sources of salt, mainly found in processed foods packed in cans and sliced in the deli.