Blood Pressure Facts and Myths: A Heart Health Consumer Guide
We have heard it all before, “High blood pressure causes heart disease.” The guidelines and treatments for high blood pressure (BP) have become so ingrained and commonplace that we take it for granted that it is being treated properly. But, like most health issues today, what we know about blood pressure has changed leaving many cases undiagnosed or under-treated. More importantly, our increased understanding of blood pressure has uncovered numerous natural treatment methods that are as powerful as many of the newest drug therapies. Here are several facts and myths about blood pressure and its treatment that conscientious health consumers should know.
FACT: Blood pressure is a complex and constantly changing health measure.
Your BP is constantly changing from second to second as your heart pumps. It is highest during heart contractions (known as systole) and lowest when the heart muscle relaxes (known as diastole). This is why BP is measured by two numbers generally appearing as"120/80mmHG." The first number is known as the systolic pressure (when the heart is in systole or contracted) and the second number is known as diastolic pressure (when the heart is in diastole or relaxed). The units “mmHg” stands for “millimeters of mercury (Hg is the chemical symbol for mercury).” For example, a systolic reading of 120mmHg means your BP can push a column of mercury 120mm into the air. Yes, this is a completely arbitrary measure but since the entire world uses this standard it is an easy way to track and compare BP.
Your BP also changes from hour to hour being lowest when you are asleep and highest when you are awake. Of course any physical activity from jogging to digesting food raises blood pressure as does stress and many other emotional challenges. One common example is what is known “white coat hypertension.” This is caused by the anxiety you may feel at the doctor’s office or in a hospital. The problem is your doctor may dismiss a slightly elevated BP as simple white coat hypertension when the problem is something else. Certain conditions and diseases, sleep deprivation, dehydration, and a host of other factors can affect BP. The moral of the story is you cannot take just one BP reading to determine if your BP is high, low, or normal.
MYTH:** Normalood pressure is anything below 140/90 mmHg**
The most recent National Health, Lung, and Blood Institute guidelines set systolic BP of less than 120mmHg and diastolic BP of less than 80mmHg (i.e. less than 120/80) as normal. This is significantly different than the old standard of 140/90 your doctor may still be using. The new guidelines also introduce a new category called “pre-hypertension,” meaning a systolic BP of 120 to139 and a diastolic BP of 80-89 that justify lifestyle modification to lower BP.
Furthermore, the National Health and Education Survey showed that a systolic BP of 115 or above is sufficient to generate damage to arteries and other organs and that for every 20 point rise in systolic BP and 10 point rise in diastolic BP doubles the risk of cardiovascular disease.
MYTH: If you have high blood pressure you need prescription drugs to lower it.
High BP is a widespread and therefore profitable disease that constantly drives the development of new drugs to treat it. The good news is that there is a wide array of prescription drugs that allow doctors to mount a multi-faceted attack on high BP if needed. Among the most common are:
The 40,000 participant ALLHAT study concluded these drug regimens worked equally well and recommended diuretics as the lowest cost alternative. But all these drugs, even the newer ones, have their own problems, counter-indications, and side effects, not to mention the cost.
FACT: There are many non-prescription blood pressure lowering treatments that are equally as powerful as drugs and offer one huge benefit that drugs alone do not
As I just mentioned, there is a dazzling array of drugs to lower BP and they work just fine. But what if you would prefer to eliminate the cost and side effects of drugs or simply wish to limit your need for drugs? Unfortunately, many doctors are not knowledgeable about or are slow to offer natural methods to reduce BP. More ominously, some may have financial motives for pushing drugs.
The fact is many natural treatments are equally effective as compared to drugs, especially when used in combination. True, they are not as fast acting as drugs and may require months to see the full effect but they also have one powerful advantage that drugs alone do not, they can help prevent high BP from ever becoming a problem in the first place Consider these natural strategies to prevent and reduce high BP:
If you are overweight, lose it! The larger the weight loss (assuming you are overweight), the greater the blood pressure reduction.
Exercise helps with weight reduction and reduces BP.
Reduce your intake of processed carbohydrates. This means a reduction or elimination of wheat and corn starch products and can be difficult. This includes virtually all wheat products such as breads (white and whole grain), cereals, pretzels, crackers, pancakes, waffles, donuts and corn starch products such as tacos, chips, and, cornbread. Combined with weight loss, the drop in blood pressure can be 20mmHg or more.
Be certain to get plenty of sleep - 7 to 8 hours per night.
If you are known to be sodium sensitive, cut back on salt. Salt restriction has been overplayed in the conventional high BP guidelines. However, there are people who must avoid salty foods. Some foods such as potato chips and pretzels are easy to spot. Others require careful label watching. You would be amazed at the levels of salt/sodium in many processed foods like tomato juice and processed soups.
Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) have numerous heart health benefits. In addition to lowering blood pressure, it is a powerful agent for reducing triglycerides a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Various fish oil proponents suggest taking anywhere between 1,200 to 6,000 mg or more of EPA/DHA (the active ingredients) per day.
Consider Vitamin D supplementation. Vitamin D exerts a blood pressure-reducing effect similar to ACE inhibitors as they both block the hormone renin. Using Vitamin D is tricky because the potency and bioavailability of the many Vitamin D preparations vary greatly. Several guidelines promote the use of oil-based products (as opposed to powders) and suggest blood levels of 60 ng/ml are necessary to achieve the full effect.
Coenzyme Q10 is a common anti-oxidant supplement also used to counter the muscle aches associated with statins (many of you may be taking a statin). Additionally, it can reduce systolic BP by about 10 mmHg an effect similar to many prescription agents. Doses as low as 50 mg, twice a day, have proven effective.
Melatonin is not a sleeping pill but a naturally occurring hormone that simply prepares you for sleep. It can reduce both systolic BP by about 5 mmHg systolic and diastolic BP by 2 to 3 mmHg not to mentioned helping you get a better night’s rest. The dose required can vary by age and other factors.
As always, the discussion above is for theoretical purposes only and not meant to replace the advice and recommendations of medical professionals. Be certain to consult your doctor before adding or altering any health practice.
The “take away” concept
Blood pressure is a complex and dynamic health measure that exerts a powerful effect on your heart health. It is imperative that you understand and take control of this important health measure. In addition to a vast array of prescription drugs there are also many natural treatments to help you prevent in addition to control high blood pressure. Taking control of your blood pressure is an effective way to begin practicing empowered, self-directed health care. It affects many organs from your heart to your kidneys and is easy to measure, understand, and treat.
Looking out for your heart health–HeartHawk
Chris Kliesmet, also known as HeartHawk, is a heart health activist and former patient expert writer for HealthCentral. As a heart disease sufferer with many family members lost to the disease, Chris specialized in topics within heart health, including medication, prevention, and testing. He has written for other community sites such as HeartConnect.com, and wrote for his own blog, HEARTHAWK: Your Heart Health Eye in the Sky. (Photo: University of Wisconsin)