9 Things to Do This Month to Lower Your Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, might not sound like a big deal, but it can set you up for challenging health problems down the line. “It’s the primary modifiable risk factor for heart attacks, stroke, and chronic kidney disease,” says Jay Pandit, M.D., a cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Research Institute in Geneva, IL. Key word here: modifiable. You’ve got the power to move your numbers in the right direction. Here’s how to start doing just that.
Shed a Few Pounds
Losing weight can have an impact on your blood pressure, but slow and steady wins the race, says John Bisognano, M.D., Ph.D., director of outpatient services at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. “If you’re 40 pounds overweight and after a month of eating healthy and exercising, you’ve only lost four pounds, it’s easy to feel defeated,” he says. Quit thinking about the big 4-0 and focus instead on smaller goals that you can achieve over three to six months. Even a 10-pound loss can send your numbers ticking downward.
Swapping frozen meals and processed snacks for real food = a very good idea. Many doctors recommend the DASH diet (it stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), proven to help prevent or treat hypertension. The basic tenets: Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, and reduce your salt intake. “Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables can lower your blood pressure by 8 to 14 points,” says Mary Ann Bauman, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Heart Association in Oklahoma City.
Fall in Love with Fitness
OK, maybe love is a little strong. But how about like? Because to lower blood pressure, experts recommend about half an hour of moderate cardiovascular exercise a day. If panting and sweating isn’t your thing, incremental changes are the way to go. Remember, any exercise is better than nothing. “The most important thing is find something you can do every day or most days,” says Dr. Bisognano. “If all you can do is walk around the block for 10 or 15 minutes, start with that.”
Monitor Your Sleep Habits
If you have elevated blood pressure and you’re also having trouble sleeping, mention it to your doctor. “Hypertension has so many variables to it—it’s not just about vascular health,” says Dr. Pandit. One risk factor he often screens patients for is sleep apnea, a disorder in which people repeatedly stop breathing for brief periods during the night. Sleep apnea causes your blood pressure to surge while you sleep, and left untreated, it can make it tough to get hypertension under control.
Managing your blood pressure also means managing your stress. If you often feel tense or anxious, try to find healthy ways to take the edge off. Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, and biofeedback have been shown to decrease blood pressure, notes Dr. Bisognano. “I also recommend yoga, because it offers relaxation and exercise at the same time,” he says. Like all of these strategies, once is not enough. To make a difference in your blood pressure, you’ve got to stick with it.
While puffing isn’t a direct cause of high blood pressure, it can contribute. Nicotine makes your blood vessels constrict, and over time, smoking also causes plaque to build up inside the vessels, making them narrow further and become less flexible. The upshot: your heart has to work harder to pump blood throughout your body. That’s just one way that smoking is bad for your heart. “Blood pressure control is only a part of the overall goal for quitting smoking,” says Dr. Bisognano. “The overall goal is cardiovascular risk reduction.”
Be Wise About Wine
No one’s saying to do away with the vino, but if you can cut back your alcohol intake to no more than two drinks a day (for men) or one drink a day (for women), research shows you can lower your blood pressure by two to four points, says Dr. Bauman. “Still, I tell my female patients to keep it below three to five drinks a week, because more than that can increase your risk for breast cancer,” she adds. Mindful imbibing for the win!
Despite trying your hardest to lower blood pressure through lifestyle changes alone, some people still need medication to get the job done. That’s OK. “There’s this illusion that having high blood pressure is your fault,” says Dr. Bisognano, “and if you can’t change it through lifestyle interventions, then you’re a weak person.” The truth is, even if you do all the right things, there are still risk factors you can’t control, like age or family history. If your doctor says you need drugs, don’t see it as a personal failure. It’s a vital tool in keeping you healthy.
Check Your Numbers
Getting a blood pressure readout can lead you to be diagnosed with high blood pressure earlier and manage your care better. With all the wearables and home blood pressure monitors available today, it’s easy to track your blood pressure yourself as long as you know the correct way to do it, says Dr. Pandit. “The single cuff-based measurement that we use in the clinic is not enough,” he says. “It’s important to not just hang your hat on one reading, but to log your numbers at home and then use those to make informed decisions about treatment.” Sharing your digits can give your doc a fuller picture of your health.