Blood Pressure - What You Need To Know

Updated: Dec 10, 2019


“Beyond any shadow of a doubt [. . .] high blood pressure can often be lowered by a [low-fat, plant-based,] low salt diet” (Roberts, 2001, p1341)

​Your standard doctor appointment starts with a visit from the medical assistant, who routinely asks you to step onto a scale, list off any medications you've been taking, and uncross your legs as they wrap a blue cuff link around your arm to measure your blood pressure (BP). These numbers are recorded; sometimes they are shared with you and sometimes they are not; sometimes you are offered medications to help control these numbers and sometimes you are told that your readings look perfect. But typically the conversation ends there and you're informed that a physician will be in shortly.

Throughout your life you'll likely have your BP measured hundreds of times - but how well do you understand its significance? How well do you understand it's impact on your health and longevity? How often has your physician explained the importance of monitoring BP and what these numbers actually mean? And even more importantly, how many providers have actually informed you that these numbers are easily manipulated through diet?

If you have been properly educated about BP - good for you (and a round of applause for your incredible providers!). But if you haven't - if you don't feel confident about your understanding of these numbers or you're curious about how your lifestyle choices may be effecting them - I'm here to explain.

So to start, what are those number?

BP is recorded as 2 numbers: systolic (mm Hg) over diastolic (mm Hg). Systolic BP is the pressure your blood exerts against your artery walls every time your heart beats. Diastolic BP is the pressure on your artery walls when the heart is resting (in-between beats).

The American Heart Association considers optimal BP to fall at or below 120/80 mm Hg2.

Hypertension, or high BP, is defined as a systolic BP greater than140.

Prehypertension is characterized by a systolic BP between 120 – 139.

However, research demonstrates that your health continues to improve as your BP drops. To avoid heart disease it is therefore best to aim even lower than 120/80.

Why is blood pressure important?

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, affecting 1/3 of all Americans and responsible for 9 million deaths per year. In fact, a systolic BP above 115 may be the single most important determinant for death in the world today!

However, this can be largely prevented by lifestyle modifications. A large body of evidence has demonstrated that diet, physical activity, alcohol intake, and body weight can modify your risk of developing hypertension. Of these factors, diet may be the most influential9.

By incorporating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into your diet, and reducing your sodium intake, you can improve your BP in a matter of weeks. In fact, the effect of diet is so strong that eating 3 portions of whole grains a day can decrease your BP and risk of heart disease as effectively as pharmaceuticals3. The bottom line is, the closer you adhere to a plant-based diet, the greater improvements you will see 5. This not only occurs from eating more plants, which have the ability to lower BP, but also from the avoidance of dairy and meat.

Let's take a look at the data:

  • Semivegetarians, who consume meat once or twice per week, experience a 23% reduction in hypertension.

  • Pescatarians, who consume fish but no other meat, experience a 38% reduction in hypertension.

  • Vegetarians, who avoid meat but consume animal by-products, experience a 55% reduction in hypertension.

  • Vegans, who avoid all animal products, experience a 75% reduction in hypertension.

Population studies have further confirmed these findings. Communities throughout the world that consume low-sodium, plant-based diets boast BPs below110/70 and experience little to no rates of hypertension or cardiovascular disease. These populations also avoid age-related increases in BP 7,12 that is common to western society.

So if you're serious about lowering your blood pressure, cut out the meat, dairy, and eggs (and YES, fish is meat!).

But one more thing . . .

CUT DOWN ON THE SALT

"But is there evidence for that," you may ask? "Some people claim it's a hoax; that salt does not contribute to high blood pressure after all . . . "

Well, although the food industry would have you believe otherwise, “there is unequivocal evidence that increased sodium intake is associated with increased BP.” (Neal et al., 2013, p687) On a population-wide scale, consuming an extra teaspoon of salt a day increases cardiovascular related deaths by 25-50% 23.

Eating a high-salt meal can actually impair arterial function within minutes . . . and by reducing your salt intake you can significantly drop your BP in a matter of days 22.

Salt (a compound composed of equal parts sodium and chloride) stiffens arterial walls and reduces nitric oxide release. Nitric oxide does the opposite. It's a vasodialiator, meaning it loosens and opens up our arterial walls. So by eating salt we're effectively hitting our arteries twice.

And why does it matter if we have stiff arteries?

We'll, it's directly related to hypertension. We want to keep those artery walls loose and maleable so blood can flow through easily.

So keep the salt shaker off the table. Add antioxidant rich spices to your food instead - like cumin, pepper, garlic, onion powder, chile, and oregano. Try using a bit of nutritional yeast to get the savory, umami-like flavor you crave. Add some vinegar, salsa, or lemon juice to your food in place of sodium-rich condiments. And when you really need that salty flavor in your food, reach for some miso.

Miso is an Asian paste made from fermented soy beans and salt. Although it has a very high sodium content, it does not appear to raise blood pressure or risk of cardiovascular events. Researchers believe this is because soy is so incredibly healthy it effectively mitigates the harmful effects of sodium 44,45.

But even more important than removing the salt shaker from the kitchen table . . . modify your eating habits to include more unprocessed plants and you'll automatically cut out the majority of your salt intake 42, 46. In western cultures, 75% of one's sodium intake typically comes from processed foods. And the biggest culprit?

​​Cereal products!

Meaning bread, muffins, rolls, breakfast cereals, and pancake mixes.

Two pieces of sandwich bread, for example, contain around 230mg of sodium (10% of your daily limit). Grape nuts, a high fiber "healthy" cereal, contain 270mg per serving (11% of your daily limit).

Cheeses are no better. One tiny 3 cm cube of cheese holds around the same. V8 vegetable juice - though it's advertised as a healthy drink or meal replacement - is heavily processed and contains 640 mg of sodium (28% of your daily limit) per cup! And one can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs? A whopping1700 mg! (70% of your daily limit.)

So the take home message:

1. Cook your own food.

2. Avoid the prepackaged junk.

3. And eat lots of fresh fruits and veggies.

Although table salt should also be avoided, the scary numbers above far exceed anything you could get from whole foods even if you sprinkle them with a little himalayan sea salt.

Other foods that may help lower your Blood Pressure:

So you transition to a plant-based diet, free of animal products and centered around whole foods - GREAT! You're on the road to success. You should expect a very quick and significant drop in blood pressure, depending on just how clean you eat. But feeling antsy to see results?

Well, I've got good news. I can help you get the results you want even faster. I've got a few evidence-based tricks up my sleeve.

Read on.

In addition to the avoidance of animal products, salt, and processed foods, I also recommend adding a few delicious foods into your diet that have an incredibly positive effect on blood pressure.

1. Flaxseed

Flaxseed is one of the most powerful tools for decreasing BP7. Consuming 1/3 cup per day may lower BP even more than pharmaceuticals! Grind it up for best results!

2. Berries

Time after time, berries continue to demonstrate a strong ability to lower blood pressure 24,25,26.

3. Foods rich in nitric oxide

Here is where you'll find this healthy molecule:

Leafy greens like arugula, beet greens, kale, spinach, lettuce, and green herbs

Beets

Chinese cabbage

Radish

Rhubarb

Spirulina

Raw cacao

Citrus

Pommegranates

Walnuts

Watermelon

Saffron

4. Potassium rich roods

Potassium helps release nitric oxide - but you don't have to eat a banana to get your fill! In fact, potatoes, sweet potatoes, white beans, adzuki beans, beet greens, and edemame all pack in more! Check out this list composed by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion for more delicious food ideas: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-10/

5. Hibiscus Tea

Drinking 2 glasses/day may lower BP as effectively as pharmaceuticals 30!

6. Nuts

Nuts provide a protective effect against hypertension, especially walnuts 31!

The Take Home

So maybe your blood pressure is well above 115/80. Maybe it's only 10 points higher. Maybe your family has a history of cardiovascular disease that you would like to change.

Whatever your position, there is hope. Your blood pressure is maleable - it's just up to you to do something about it. And truthfully, it's simpler than you may think.

Take out the processed junk. Enjoy as many homemade meals as you can.

The meat and animal by products need to go too. Instead, fill your plate with some delicious leafy greens, a few orange slices, and a glass of iced hibiscus tea. Finish it off some strawberry rhubarb pie topped with an oatmeal walnut streusel. You're on the [delicious] path to success.

Try not to think of it as a restriction. It's an opportunity to improve your health and explore a new world of delicious, plant-based food.

And truthfully, I think you'll find this transition to be exciting. A challenge with tangible results you will experience in a very short amount of time.

So what are you waiting for? Give your health a chance. Modify your diet and see what exciting changes are in store for you.

Have questions, comments, or need more support?

Drop me a line!

We all need a little help to achieve our goals; someone to support us and offer one-to-one, evidence-based guidance.

That’s what I'm here for!

Beatifylife@gmail.com

References

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  2. American Heart Association (2018). Understanding Bloop Pressure Readings. American Heart Association. Available from https://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/KnowYourNumbers/Understanding-Blood-Pressure-Readings_UCM_301764_Article.jsp [Accessed 5 March, 2018].

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Nuts provide a protective effect against hypertension, and walnuts may be the most powerful of all!

3

#bloodpressure #cardiovascular #heartdisease #hearthealth

Achieving health and happiness through evidence-based nutrition

 

Nikola Hamilton

MSc GLobal Public Health Nutrition

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Medical Disclaimer: The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition. Furthermore, it is important to work closely with a qualified healthcare provider when starting any new exercise regimen, diet or treatment as dietary adjustments may alter medication needs or have other effects on physical health.