High blood pressure is surprisingly common, affecting 46% of American adults – that’s over 100 million people.
And it’s a serious threat. High blood pressure increases the risk for heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, and several other life-threatening health problems. In fact, high blood pressure causes about 1,000 deaths in the U.S. PER DAY. Even more disturbing is that most of these deaths are preventable. High blood pressure is almost always treatable with lifestyle changes and inexpensive medication, yet less than half of people with high blood pressure have it under control.
Lifestyle and High Blood Pressure
Experts suggest that 50%-90% of high blood pressure could be successfully lowered with lifestyle change.
In my practice, if a patient’s blood pressure is mildly elevated and there are no high risk factors (such as diabetes, current smoker or history of heart disease, stroke or multiple cardiac risk factors), I will recommend a 3-month trial of lifestyle change as an initial treatment. I let my patients know that many of these changes can be as effective as any single blood pressure medication.
For many of my patients, the potential to avoid being on medication for the rest of their lives is a strong motivator, and they appreciate the sense of control they have over their health.
Here are the specific areas I recommend my patients focus on in order to lower their blood pressure:
- Physical Activity: Even a modest level of physical activity, over time, can make a significant difference in your blood pressure. If you’re not used to exercise, start slow. Five or 10 minutes a day of your favorite activity can be just the start you need to build an exercise habit and allow you to build up to the 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of activity recommended by national guidelines.
- Healthy Diet: I recommend cutting out highly processed food (packaged foods typically high in added sugar and/or refined grains). Watching your salt intake is important if you have high blood pressure, but keep in mind that most of the salt in our diets comes from processed foods and restaurants.
- Weight Loss: Losing even 5% of your starting body weight has been proven to significantly lower blood pressure; and 10% has been shown to dramatically improve other health conditions such as atrial fibrillation. The weight loss strategy I recommend to my patients is the one that works in the long run. Use the lasting power of creating better habits. Restrictive diets might work in the short run, but their results rarely last.
- Limited alcohol intake (less than one drink per day): A recent study showed that people who drank 7-13 drinks per week were 53% more likely to have stage I hypertension. Those who drank more than 14 drinks per week had a 69% higher risk of hypertension.
- Not smoking: Smoking cessation can modestly lower blood pressure and dramatically lower the risk for future heart disease.
In addition to these lifestyle changes, avoid regular use of anti-inflammatory medications, like ibuprofen and naproxen, and treat sleep apnea if you have it.
One of the more gratifying events in my practice is when a patient is able to lower, or even eliminate, blood pressure medications because of healthier lifestyle choices. If you have high blood pressure, don’t miss out on this powerful therapy.