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High blood pressure (aka hypertension) is often called the "silent killer" because we don't usually feel its effects until it's too late. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can damage blood vessels, raising the risk for stroke, kidney failure and heart attack.
Although some people report headaches, dizziness, blurred vision and even nosebleeds when their pressure is high, most people don't have a clue that they have high blood pressure until they get it checked. Blood pressure is so important to health that your doctor will check it even if you're there for an unrelated issue.
Certain lifestyle factors are known to exacerbate high blood pressure:
- Being overweight
- Being sedentary
- Eating too much sodium (salt)
- Consuming excessive caffeine
- Drinking alcohol
- Using certain over-the-counter cold and pain medications
- Taking birth control pills
These herbal supplements may increase blood pressure in susceptible people, so check with your doctor if you are taking them:
- Bitter orange
- Ephedra (ma-huang)
- St. John's wort
Doing the following can help decrease blood pressure:
- Losing weight: Sometimes just a small amount of weight loss can reduce blood pressure
- Exercising: Even just walking 15 to 30 minutes every day can make a difference
- Cutting down on salt: It's not hard to significantly reduce sodium in your diet. Taste your food before you put salt on it, avoid salty snacks, cut back on preserved meats and fish, and eat out less (because you have no control of how much salt goes into your meal)
- Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat or fat-free dairy products (also known as D.A.S.H. Eating Plan)
- Limiting or avoiding caffeine, alcohol and smoking
- Practicing stress-reducing activities like yoga and meditation
There's some evidence that eating dark chocolate (in moderation!) as well as using olive oil in conjunction with a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products may help to reduce blood pressure.
Adding foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids like fish, as well as foods high in calcium (dairy products, some dark green vegetables) and even garlic have been shown to reduce blood pressure.
For more information, check out the American Heart Association. There's a handy blood pressure tracker form to use when taking your blood pressure at home. And visit the NHLBI (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute) Guide to Lowering High Blood Pressure to get tips for healthier eating, like these recipe substitutions:
- Use two egg whites for each whole egg
- Substitute low-fat margarine or oil instead of butter
- Try nonfat yogurt instead of sour cream
Remember to always read the labels on any packaged foods you buy. You might be surprised by the sodium content, as well as the amount of saturated and trans fat. Cottage cheese, whole-wheat bagels and tomato juice all sound healthy, but depending on the brand, they can be surprisingly high in sodium content. Many popular brands of canned soups and instant ramen noodles are not only high in sodium, they contain trans fat as well.
About the Author
Sharon Salomon, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian, freelance writer and dedicated eater with professional culinary training. Her articles have appeared in Today's Dietitian, Edible Phoenix, Sweat Magazine as well as many other food and nutrition publications and websites. Sharon works diligently to meet the challenge of balancing the calories she consumes in the interest of pleasure and research with sufficient exercise to keep her weight stable.