According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in the United States. More than 2,600 people die of heart disease every day, which translates into one cardiovascular death every 33 seconds. Is this because the average American consumes a diet high in fat, cholesterol, calories and salt, and sedentary and stressful lifestyle?
The heart, a muscle about the size of a fist, is one of the hardest working organs in our bodies. Over the course of an average lifespan, it beats about two and a half billion times without ever taking a break. The daily choices we make about how we live our lives determine our hearts' ability to function optimally.
Hypertension or high blood pressure is often a precursor to heart disease. High blood pressure that goes undetected or isn't properly controlled can lead to heart attack, heart failure, kidney failure, stroke or premature death. Because hypertension has few early symptoms, many people aren't aware they have it.
Despite the seriousness and prevalence of heart disease, cardiovascular problems are preventable, as almost every chronic disease is as well. Steps like eating a healthy, low-fat diet and moving your body daily in the form of walking or exercise can greatly reduce your risk. But keep up the habits such as smoking and drinking too much alcohol too long will do just the opposite and overburden already busy hearts and cause them to break down.
The Mayo Clinic reports that only about half of the people in this country who have high blood pressure know they have it, and of those who know they have it, only about half are being treated for it. And of those being treated for it, only about half actually, have their blood pressure under control. Nationwide, that translates into about 25 percent of hypertensive patients who are controlling their blood pressure.
Statistics show that African Americans are 50 to 100 percent more likely to develop high blood pressure than their white counterparts. African Americans also develop hypertension at younger ages than whites; have a harder time keeping it under control and die from it at much higher rates.
If you've been diagnosed with high blood pressure (a systolic pressure—the top number—of 140 or above or a diastolic pressure—the bottom number—of 90 or above), you might be worried about taking immediate steps to bring your numbers down.
Lifestyle plays the most important and role in treating high blood pressure, though medication can surely patch symptoms momentarily. To successfully control blood pressure with a healthy lifestyle, there has to be a long-term commitment to change.
On top of all the other dangers of smoking, the nicotine in tobacco products can raise your blood pressure by 10 mm Hg or more for up to an hour after you smoke. Smoking throughout the day means your blood pressure may remain constantly high.
You should also avoid secondhand smoke. Inhaling smoke from others also puts you at risk of health problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease.
The role caffeine plays in blood pressure is still debatable. Drinking caffeinated beverages can temporarily cause a spike in your blood pressure, but it's unclear whether the effect is temporary or long lasting.
To see if caffeine raises your blood pressure, check your pressure within 30 minutes of drinking a cup of coffee or another caffeinated beverage you regularly drink. If your blood pressure increases by five to 10 points, you may be sensitive to the blood pressure raising effects of caffeine.
Regardless of your sensitivity to caffeine's effects, doctors recommend you drink no more than 200 milligrams a day — about the amount in two cups of coffee.
Stress or anxiety can temporarily increase blood pressure. Take some time to think about what causes you to feel stressed, such as work, family, finances or illness. Once you know what's causing your stress, consider how you can eliminate or reduce stress.
Eliminating all of your stressors can be difficult. Learn easy coping tools such as taking short breaks for deep-breathing exercises, treating yourself to a relaxing massage, or taking up yoga or meditation. Scientists at the Medical College of Georgia found that people who studied Transcendental Meditation (TM) had a 6.5% decrease in vasoconstriction when meditating. People who didn’t meditate, on the other hand, showed a 1.6% increase in vasoconstriction during a non-meditative relaxation session. Buddy up with a friend or social network and spend time with him/her/them.
Blood pressure often increases as weight increases. Losing just 10 pounds can help reduce your blood pressure. In general, the more weight you lose, the lower your blood pressure. Besides shedding pounds, keep an eye on your waistline and the fat around your belly.
❢ Men are at risk if their waist measurement is greater than 40 inches (102 centimeters, or cm).
❢ Women are at risk if their waist measurement is greater than 35 inches (88 cm).
❢ Asian men are at risk if their waist measurement is greater than 36 inches (90 cm).
❢ Asian women are at risk if their waist measurement is greater than 32 inches (80 cm).
Regular physical activity—at least 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week— can lower your blood pressure by 4 to 9 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). If you have not been active in a while, increasing your exercise level can lower your blood pressure within just a few weeks. Even household chores count as moving your body! Researchers at Indiana University found that simple household chores can lower your blood pressure as much as some medications. The team, led by Professor Janet Wallace, found that a few hours of “lifestyle physical activity” such as moping, laundry, gardening, dusting, and vacuuming, a day can drop systolic blood pressure by an average of about 13 points. That’s enough to yank most guys out of the “hypertensive” classification (anything higher than 140/90) and put them in a less worrisome category.
If you have prehypertension (systolic pressure between 120 and 139 or diastolic pressure between 80 and 89), exercise can help you avoid developing full-blown hypertension. If you already have hypertension, regular physical activity can bring your blood pressure down to safer levels.
If you are new to exercising, and worried about stating an exercise program, talk to your healthcare provider or trainer about developing an exercise program. They can better determine whether you need any exercise restrictions. But remember, even moderate activity for 10 minutes at a time, such as walking around your block and light strength training, can help.
Eating a diet that is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products and skimps on saturated fat and cholesterol can lower your blood pressure by up to 14 mm Hg. This eating plan is known as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. I personally recommend Dr. Fuhrman’s Food Pyramid as a template when shopping and preparing foods to cook and eat. (http://www.drfuhrman.com/library/foodpyramid.aspx)
Also, track eating with a food journal. Monitor what you eat, how much, when and why. Writing down what you eat, even for just a week, can shed surprising light on your true eating habits. Consider boosting potassium. Potassium can lessen the effects of sodium on blood pressure. The best source of potassium is food, such as fruits and vegetables, rather than supplements. Talk to your doctor about the potassium level that's best for you. Be a smart shopper. Make a shopping list before heading to the supermarket to avoid picking up junk food. Read food labels when you shop, and stick to your healthy-eating plan when you're dining out, too. Cut yourself some slack. Although the DASH diet is a lifelong eating guide, it doesn't mean you have to cut out all of the foods you love
Even a small reduction in the sodium in your diet can reduce blood pressure by 2 to 8 mm Hg.
❯ Limit sodium to 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day or less.
❯ A lower sodium level — 1,500 mg a day or less — is appropriate for people 51 years of age or older, and individuals of any age who are African-American or who have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.
Track how much salt is in your diet by reading food labels and jotting consumption down in a food diary to estimate how much sodium is in what you eat and drink each day. Choose low-sodium alternatives of the foods and beverages you normally buy. Eat fewer processed foods, including potato chips, frozen dinners, meats, especially bacon and processed lunch meats, which are all high in sodium. Do not add salt to foods. Just 1 level teaspoon of salt has 2,300 mg of sodium. Use herbs or spices, instead to add more flavor to your foods. Trust me. Your taste buds are retainable and your palate will adjust over time.
Alcohol can be both good and bad for your health. Research has shown that in small amounts, it can potentially lower blood pressure by 2 to 4 mm Hg. But that protective effect is lost when too much alcohol is consumed, generally more than one drink a day for women and more than two a day for men. When people drink more than moderate amounts of it, alcohol can actually raise blood pressure by several points. It can also reduce the effectiveness of high blood pressure medications. Remember that there may be more potential harm than benefit to drinking alcohol.
Track your drinking patterns. Along with your food diary, keep an alcohol diary to track your true drinking patterns. One drink equals 12 ounces (355 milliliters, or mL) of beer, 5 ounces of wine (148 mL) or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor (45 mL). If you're drinking more than the suggested amounts, cut back. Consider tapering off. If you're a heavy drinker, suddenly eliminating all alcohol can actually trigger severe high blood pressure for several days. So when you stop drinking, do it with the supervision of your health care practitioner or taper off slowly, over one to two weeks. Also, it is good to note that binge drinking — having four or more drinks in a row — can cause large and sudden increases in blood pressure, in addition to other health problems.
A study at Broussais Hospital in Paris found that poor sleep leads to hypertension. The researchers studied about 7,900 workers in Paris and found that those who had nightmares, tossed and turned snored or woke frequently during the night had higher blood pressure than those who slept uninterruptedly.
Another study published in the Medical Journal Hypertension found that a dose of melatonin at bedtime can reduce nighttime blood pressure and improve sleep. Melatonin is a natural hormone that is thought to help with the body’s daily biological rhythms and sleep. For the last few years, it has been available as an over-the-counter supplement. However, because melatonin is naturally occurring, it can’t be patented, so drug companies and the FDA haven’t done long-term research on the supplement.
A third study has also linked sleep quality with hypertension. Researchers at Columbia University found that people who get five hours or less of sleep a night are more likely to develop hypertension. In the study, about 4,800 people were tracked for 10 years. The researchers found that almost a quarter of the people who slept less than five hours developed hypertension, while only 12% of those who got seven or eight hours had elevated blood pressure, so turn that television or electronic device off late at night and get some quality ZZZ’s.
Resources: American Heart Association, MayoClinic, Columbia University, Medical Journal of Hypertension, FDA.gov