From heart disease to diabetes, in today’s health-conscious environment, it can feel like there are a lot of conditions to watch out for. One that doesn’t always get as much attention? High blood pressure, aka hypertension. And lest you think it’s not a concern for you or anyone you know, the number of people dealing with it is pretty astounding. “This is a common issue in the U.S., with nearly one-third of adults (approximately 75 million people) diagnosed with this condition,” says Brittanie Volk, PhD, RD, a clinician and researcher at VirtaHealth. “Unfortunately, many people with hypertension do not have their condition under control,” she adds. So what does it take to get it under control, and what kinds of lifestyle changes make a difference?
Ahead, find out what experts want you to know about having high blood pressure, plus the natural way to get it back into the healthy zone.
What Is High Blood Pressure?
You may be familiar with the phrase “high blood pressure,” but unless you have a medical background, you may not know what it means. “Hypertension or high blood pressure is just as it sounds,” says Anna Mason, an RDN and nutrition communicator. “It is a condition in which the force or pressure of the blood against the walls of blood vessels runs too high.” There’s no one clear cause of high blood pressure, but a variety of factors go into elevating your risk for it. “Researchers have identified age, race, genetics, excess weight, tobacco use, physical inactivity, and even stress as key risk factors in the development of high blood pressure,” Mason notes.
So how do you know if you have it? Well, it’s easy to get checked with a blood pressure cuff, which is the simplest solution since otherwise, it often goes undetected. “While people often do not feel any physical symptoms of high blood pressure, it puts stress on both the heart and blood vessels, as the blood runs with a high force through the body,” Mason explains. “This increases a person’s risk of stroke, heart attack, aneurysm, kidney dysfunction, vision loss, memory issues, metabolic syndrome, and heart failure.” In other words, if you have high blood pressure, it’s important to address it.
Meds Versus Diet
Luckily, high blood pressure can be treated with the help of your doctor. “Typical management of hypertension includes the use of medications,” Volk explains. “In fact, there are hundreds of medications available to treat high blood pressure. A healthy diet, however, is an effective way of lowering blood pressure naturally.” Mason agrees, noting that “as with many chronic conditions, nutrition is one of the risk factors we have control over. We can’t change our ethnicity or genetics, but we can craft eating habits that fight for the heart instead of against it.” Volk says that it’s a good idea to get approval from your doctor before you embark on a plan to change your diet.
It's All About the Plant-Based Approach
Plant-based diets are all the rage right now, and for good reason. “Nutrition now recognizes that plant-based proteins are better than animal ones,” notes Joseph Feuerstein, MD, director of integrative medicine at Stamford Hospital and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University. “My patients who keep up whole-food plant-based diets tend to have a lower weight and better blood pressure,” he adds.
What’s more is that it seems like opting for a diet high in fresh produce and whole grains is a good idea in general. “There is extensive evidence that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of chronic disease across the board. High blood pressure is no exception,” Mason says. “An eating pattern that covers the rainbow of fruits and vegetables is going to be effortlessly high in vitamins and minerals and low in unhealthy fats, sodium, and added sugars. As I tell my clients, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a downfall to eating more fruits and veggies.” Another solid approach is the DASH (aka dietary approaches to stop hypertension) diet, which recommends high amounts of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains with complements of lean protein and low-fat dairy, Mason says. In fact, DASH has been dubbed the best diet for your overall health by nutrition experts.
Foods to Avoid
While it’s safe to load up on fruits and veggies, there are certain types of foods you should steer clear of if you’re trying to treat your high blood pressure naturally. “Salt is the flag-waving team captain of dietary risk factors for high blood pressure,” Mason says. “The recommended daily allowance for sodium is 2300 mg, which is less than a teaspoon of salt per day. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends dropping that number to between 1500 and 2000 mg salt each day for the high blood pressure folks out there,” she notes. That’s because salt causes fluid retention and can pull extra fluid into your vessels as it builds up in your blood. With more fluid in your blood and your blood vessels staying the same size, the result is high blood pressure.
Reducing salt intake is tricky since Mason points out that an average American eater is coming in at well over the basic RDA. “High-salt foods are going to be any sort of processed food, fast foods, canned vegetables, frozen dinners, and even shellfish,” she explains. And while you can, of course, eat these foods once in awhile, they shouldn’t be part of your daily routine if you’re working on your blood pressure. “Of course, that table salt is never your blood pressure’s friend,” she adds. One other thing to watch out for? “There may be benefits to a glass of wine, but healthy limits should be set at one alcoholic drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men,” Mason says.
Get Individualized Supplementation Advice
It’s easy to recommend supplements that might help with high blood pressure, but Mason emphasizes that “supplementation is incredibly specific to each person.” Instead of guessing what you might need, she recommends working closely with your doctor or an RD who can look at your blood test results to determine which supplements you require. “Supplementation of vitamin D, omega-3s, magnesium, or potassium can be a very important step in working toward a lower blood pressure. However, supplements are meant to be supplements. Before self-diagnosing deficiencies and adding a supplement, check with your doctor and dietitian to see where you might be falling short and whether it can be remedied with dietary changes,” she says. “There’s no reason to spend money on supplements for vitamins and minerals you already eat.”
Sweat It Out
Working out is a great way to ease many health issues, so it’s not that surprising that it’s recommended in this case, too. “Physical activity is immensely important in the prevention and treatment of high blood pressure, and it’s something I would highly recommend to everyone but especially those looking to treat high blood pressure naturally,” says Michael Wolfe, RD, of The Vitamin Shoppe. “Just 30 minutes of an activity that raises your heart rate above resting can have significant and immediate effects that last well into the next day.”
Get Your Mind Right
“A regular mindfulness practice can lower blood pressure as much as meds,” Feuerstein notes. And he’s not the only one who uses mindfulness for clients with this issue. “I recommend daily meditation to my patients with hypertension and cardiovascular disease,” says Charles Passler, nutritionist and founder of Pure Change. “It doesn’t cost you anything but your time. Just 10 minutes every morning can not only help reduce your blood pressure, but it can improve your overall health and emotional well-being. If you’re wondering how to get started, just go to YouTube, and search the word ‘meditation.’ The options are almost limitless.”
Have you switched to a plant-based diet? Tell us if you’ve noticed any benefits.
Steinberg D, Bennett GG, Svetkey L. The DASH Diet, 20 Years Later. JAMA. 2017;317(15):1529-1530. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.1628
Get The Scoop on Sodium and Salt. American Heart Association. April 16, 2018.
Reiner M, Niermann C, Jekauc D, Woll A. Long-Term Health Benefits of Physical Activity--A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies. BMC Public Health. 2013;13:813. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-813