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Taming the Pressure Within: A Guide to Lowering Hypertension.

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Did you know that nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure, yet many are unaware of it until it’s too late? Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a silent threat that can lead to serious health issues such as heart attacks and strokes if left unmanaged. This blog explores how emotional factors and physical conditions, such as body fat and muscle tone, affect blood pressure. We’ll also examine how dietary choices can damage and inflame the lining of our blood vessels. Finally, we’ll provide evidence-based practices to help you manage and reduce hypertension effectively.

Lets get started :

Measuring Blood Pressure: Understanding the Numbers

High blood pressure is measured with a sphygmomanometer (blood pressure cuff). You’ll hear two numbers, such as 120 over 80. The first number, systolic pressure, is the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats. The second number, diastolic pressure, indicates the pressure in your arteries when your heart rests between beats. Both numbers reflect the force of blood against artery walls. Consistently high readings mean your heart works harder, potentially causing arterial damage and affecting blood flow to vital organs.

  • Normal: Below 120/80 mmHg
  • Prehypertensive: 120/80 to 139/89 mmHg – Time for lifestyle changes
  • Hypertension: Above 140/90 mmHg – Often requires medication, especially when accompanied by conditions like diabetes or heart disease.
  • Emergency: Around 180/110 mmHg – Seek immediate medical attention
Prehypertension? Time to reassess your lifestyle habits.

A common misconception is that normal blood pressure with medication equates to overall health. While medications manage hypertension, they often don’t address the underlying unhealthy lifestyle habits which created the hypertension. Without lifestyle changes, individuals remain at risk for chronic inflammation, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, dementia, high cholesterol, and cancer. Prioritizing healthy lifestyle changes alongside medication is crucial for long-term health and reducing the risk of associated diseases.

Understanding the Mechanics of Hypertension

Understanding how your blood pressure rises boils down to grasping the basics of arterial mechanics. Your arteries serve as conduits, transporting blood from your heart to every corner of your body. Structurally, they consist of three layers. The innermost layer, the endothelium, is delicate. High pressures can cause microtears, leading to clot formation, scarring, and ultimately, narrowing and stiffening of the artery. The middle layer contains smooth muscle cells that control arterial diameter, known as vascular tone. These muscles contract or relax in response to stimuli such as stress, changing the artery’s diameter and influencing blood pressure. 

Delicate endothelium and smooth muscle: Key players in blood pressure regulation and artery health

Impact of Body Weight on Blood Pressure

Arteries aren’t suspended freely; they’re surrounded by muscle and fat tissue. Excess fat around the arteries can physically compress them (especially abdominal fat), narrowing their diameter and making it harder for blood to flow through. This compression increases resistance to blood flow, leading to elevated blood pressure.

Research consistently emphasizes the importance of maintaining an ideal BMI (Body Mass Index) of 18.5 to 24.9 for heart health. However, BMI doesn’t fully account for factors like muscle mass and body fat distribution. Nevertheless, a BMI above this range can strain blood vessels, raising blood pressure and burdening the heart. Prolonged high pressure can overwork heart muscles, potentially leading to heart failure, where the heart can’t pump blood effectively, resulting in fluid back-up into the lungs.

Interestingly, excess muscle mass is generally not linked to high blood pressure; instead, it’s often associated with better cardiovascular health. This is because excess fat, particularly abdominal fat, contributes to numerous health problems beyond simply compressing our arteries, as we will explore further below.

Healthy BMI (18.5-24.9) supports heart health; consider muscle and fat distribution too.

The Role of Diet in Hypertension

Contrary to popular belief, in the context of a Western diet, highly processed foods and high-glycemic (high-sugar) carbohydrates are the primary culprits behind the obesity epidemic. Consider how farmers fatten livestock: they feed them grain! Let me repeat this: they do not feed them fat to fatten them; they feed them corn, wheat, barley, and oats!

High glycemic/processed foods not only contribute to obesity but also trigger insulin resistance (diabetes) and metabolic syndrome. When we consume high glycemic foods (foods that rapidly spike our sugar), our bodies experience a roller coaster of sugar highs followed by crashes, leading to symptoms like anxiety, depression, sleepiness, and inability to concentrate. This roller coaster ride eventually leads to insulin resistance, where cells become less responsive to insulin’s signals to take up glucose from the bloodstream. Over time, this can lead to metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions including high blood sugar, elevated blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, sleep apnea, non-alcoholic fatty liver, and excess abdominal fat.

High glycemic foods can lead to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome

Chronic Inflammation: A Hidden Risk Factor

A diet high in processed foods and refined carbohydrates can also lead to chronic, low-grade inflammation. Seed oils such as soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower, and cottonseed oils are often used in processed foods due to their affordability, stability, and ability to prolong shelf life. These oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential for our immune system to fight infection or heal wounds. However, when our diet is unbalanced with excessive intake of pro-inflammatory omega-6 and insufficient anti-inflammatory omega-3, our body is tipped into a state of chronic inflammation. The average Western diet has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 20:1, tipping us way into a chronic inflammatory state!

Remember that delicate inner lining of our arteries that can develop microtears, especially under high pressure? While a small tear can typically heal quickly with the help of circulating inflammatory agents, chronic inflammation perpetuates the damage, leading to excessive scabbing and plaque formation (atherosclerosis). Atherosclerosis is essentially a chronic inflammatory condition. It narrows and stiffens arteries, reduces blood flow and eventually leads to heart attacks, strokes and dementia. 

Thus, the same diet that contributes to fat accumulation, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and elevates the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and hypertension also fosters chronic inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune diseases, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Unraveling the Stress-Hypertension Connection

Atherosclerosis: Microtears and chronic inflammation lead to plaque buildup, reducing blood flow and increasing risks of heart attacks, strokes, and dementia.

When stressed, our bodies enter a state of heightened alertness, triggering the ‘fight or flight’ response and releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Recall the smooth muscles lining our arteries; adrenaline binds to receptors on these muscle cells, prompting contraction. This constriction serves to divert blood flow to vital organs like the heart and brain, which are crucial for responding to perceived threats. While this response is natural and healthy in short bursts, prolonged stress can lead to persistently high levels of these stress hormones. This sustained vasoconstriction, coupled with increased pressure, damages artery linings and strains the heart, potentially leading to heart failure.

5 Steps to Lowering the Pressure Within

1. Harnessing Exercise for Hypertension Management

Exercise is key in managing hypertension by addressing multiple factors. Exercise strengthens heart muscles, boosts blood flow via nitric oxide release, and fosters anti-inflammatory compounds while inhibiting pro-inflammatory ones. Additionally, exercise helps counter the body’s fight-or-flight response to chronic stress. Activities such as boxing or tennis mirror the ‘fight’ response while running, cycling, or hiking emulate the ‘flight’ response, effectively reducing stress and normalizing adrenaline and cortisol levels, thus alleviating arterial constriction caused by stress hormones.

Ready to act: 

Exercise lowers stress hormones, easing vasoconstriction and blood pressure.
  1. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise weekly, keeping your heart rate within zone 2 (60-70% of your maximum heart rate) for moderate intensity and zone 3 (70-80% of your maximum heart rate) for vigorous intensity. 
  2. Spread sessions across the week for at least 10 minutes each. 
  3. Try outdoor workouts to leverage nature’s extra benefits for reducing hypertension, stress, and other chronic illnesses. 

2. Choose Low-Glycemic Carbs

Weight loss is about informed food choices, not just calorie counting. Weight loss medications like Ozempic work by mimicking GLP-1, a hormone that curbs appetite. Guess what? Fat triggers GLP-1, promoting fullness. In contrast, high-glycemic carbs like bread and cookies spike blood sugar, leading to insulin surges and crashes, causing mood swings and constant and sometimes intense hunger (‘hangry’). This cycle also starves our gut microbiome, as high glycemic carbs are quickly absorbed, leaving little to nourish our gut flora.

Ready to Act: 

  1. Opt for low-glycemic/ slow-digesting carbs like lentils, quinoa, and non-starchy veggies, which prevent blood sugar spikes. These carbs are rich in antioxidants, fibre, and resistant starch, nourishing both body and microbiome. 
  2. Aim for 30 different low-glycemic carbs weekly to foster a diverse microbiome. 
  3. Consider downloading a glycemic index app for better management.
Consider a Low-Glycemic App

3. Prioritize Real Foods

Opt for whole, unprocessed foods over highly processed ones. Highly processed foods contain harmful ingredients such as added sugars, artificial sweeteners, artificial additives, refined carbohydrates, trans fats, emulsifiers, and high levels of salt, all of which disrupt the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome and contribute to inflammation, cancer, hypertension, and other chronic diseases. Remember, the longer the ingredient list, the more processed the food likely is. Aim to shop around the perimeter of the supermarket, where fresh produce, lean proteins, nuts and seeds are typically found. Whole foods don’t need labels. 

4. Emphasize Anti-Inflammatory Fats:

Remember, high-glycemic carbs, not fat, are the primary culprits behind the obesity epidemic. However, not all fats are equal. Diets high in omega-6 fats and trans fats (found in processed foods) promote inflammation. In contrast, those rich in omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory. 

Ready to Act:

  1. Replace high omega-6 cooking oils like soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower, and cottonseed oils with extra virgin olive oil for low heat and avocado oil for high heat.
  2. Cut out processed and fast foods, major sources of omega-6 in the Western diet.
  3. Incorporate foods abundant in omega-3 fatty acids such as fatty fish (like salmon, sardines, and mackerel), nuts, and seeds.
  4. Choose meat and dairy from organic, grass-fed cows for higher omega-3s, antioxidants, and a healthier fat profile. These meats are often produced using more humane, sustainable, and eco-friendly practices, benefiting the cows, us and the environment. 
  5. Boost your omega-3 intake with a 2000mg DHA/EPA omega-3 supplement daily.
  6.  
Eat More Omega-3, Less Omega-6

In essence, the ideal diet, whether for weight loss, hypertension, or any chronic disease, comprises:

  • Protein: 1-1.2 grams per kilogram per day (higher if very physically active). 
  • Carbs: Focus on low-glycemic/high-antioxidant carbs options.
  • Fat: Prioritize omega-3 fats and omega-9 fats (such as olive oil and avocado oil). 

The percentage of calories from fats versus carbs should be tailored to your current health status. If you’re showing signs of abnormal sugar levels, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, or obesity, lean towards a low-carb or ketogenic diet.

5. Avoid Toxins like Alcohol and Tobacco

Alcohol increases cortisol, impairs blood vessel function and reduces insulin sensitivity. Alcohol is also highly inflammatory and classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, alongside asbestos, radiation and tobacco.

Smoking constricts, inflames, and hardens blood vessels, raising blood pressure. Certain OTC medications, such as NSAIDs and decongestants, licorice root, and ginseng, can also elevate blood pressure.

Ready to Act:

  1. Eliminate alcohol and tobacco—no amount is safe for blood pressure. 
  2. Consult your pharmacist to ensure OTC medications and supplements don’t interfere with your medications.

 

Alcohol and tobacco: Both classified as Class 1 carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Lowering Blood Pressure for a Healthier Life

While genetics may predispose some individuals to hypertension, lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, stress, and habits play a more significant role. Genetics account for less than 30% of hypertension cases, and even in these cases, lifestyle habits significantly influence how these genetic variations impact your blood pressure. Medications can be lifesaving but should complement, not replace, lifestyle changes. You have the power to manage your blood pressure through consistent, incremental adjustments. Begin today by incorporating one new healthy habit into your routine. Every step counts towards a healthier you. By making these adjustments, you can lower your blood pressure and improve your overall heart health. Start today, and take control of your health for a better, longer life.

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