According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 75 million Americans have high blood pressure. Many risk factors for high blood pressure are out of your control, such as age, family history, gender, and race. But there are also factors you can control, such as exercise and diet. A diet that can help control blood pressure is rich in potassium, magnesium, and fiber and lower in sodium.
An aside: We don't much like taking medications, either. But if you end up needing blood pressure medicine to achieve a healthy blood pressure, don't be discouraged. The medicines are effective and safe, and they present only mild side effects, if any. Studies comparing older and newer blood pressure medicines found that one of the oldest and cheapest classes of drugs (the thiazide diuretics, such as hydrochlorothiazide and chlorthalidone) was as good as, or better than, the newer, more expensive ones.
Being diagnosed with high blood pressure can be scary, especially if your doctor is recommending medication to keep your hypertension under control. Medication can be quite expensive. Not to mention possible side effects such as dizziness, nausea or vomiting, and erection problems. However, it is not your only option in the fight against high blood pressure.
Magnesium. High magnesium intake is associated with lower blood pressure and may have a synergistic effect with potassium. Increasing both nutrients while moderately reducing sodium can lower blood pressure to the same extent as a single medication (17). Magnesium stimulates vasodilators and can inhibit free radical formation in blood vessels (18). Nuts, seeds, spinach, beet greens, and chocolate are good whole food sources.
But weightlifting can also have long-term benefits to blood pressure that outweigh the risk of a temporary spike for most people. And it can improve other aspects of cardiovascular health that can help to reduce overall cardiovascular risk. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends incorporating strength training exercises of all the major muscle groups into a fitness routine at least two times a week.
“We have many people with hypertension who come to Pritikin,” says Pritikin’s Associate Medical Director Danine Fruge, MD, “and within three days, many have blood pressures that have dropped so low that we need to reduce their medications or take them off their pills altogether. Yes, just three days. That’s how quickly and powerfully our bodies respond to healthy food, exercise, and other lifestyle changes.”
If you have not been active for quite some time or if you are beginning a new activity or exercise program, take it gradually. Consult your healthcare professional if you have cardiovascular disease or any other preexisting condition. It's best to start slowly with something you enjoy, like taking walks or riding a bicycle. Scientific evidence strongly shows that physical activity is safe for almost everyone. Moreover, the health benefits of physical activity far outweigh the risks.
As much as I want, these alternative therapies do not replace traditional approaches for blood pressure control (low salt diet, medications). The best way to look at them is as strategies to complement what your doctor has already been prescribing you for your high blood pressure. This could really help if you have mild hypertension, where alternative therapies could potentially help you get off your blood pressure medications, but I highly doubt anyone with severe hypertension is getting off their Norvasc just because they started doing transcendental meditation.
If it’s even slightly high, we will recommend you take appropriate steps to lower it, such as adhering to the DASH diet (fresh vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, low salt, and low-fat dairy), losing weight, stopping smoking, exercising, and reducing stress. If those non-medical approaches don’t achieve the necessary results, we will prescribe medication.
If you cannot be sure that your diet includes sufficient potassium, consider supplementation. However, including potassium in your diet gives better results, as an intake from food can be accessed by the body more efficiently. Potassium-rich foods include squash, sardines, salmon, raisins, potatoes, organs, pears, legumes, beets, bananas, carrots, and apricots, among many other fruits and vegetables.
Sleep. Short and poor-quality sleep are both associated with raised blood pressure (40). On the other side of the spectrum, excessively long sleep may also be harmful. One study found increased blood pressure in those who got fewer than five hours of sleep per night and in those who averaged more than nine hours of sleep per night, when compared with people who slept around seven hours (41). I suspect that it’s not the long sleep itself that is the problem, but that some underlying condition is both increasing sleep requirement and raising blood pressure.