“When I worked in the ER, the youngest patient I saw with a heart attack was in his early 30s. He didn’t even know he had hypertension until his blood pressure was taken for the first time in the ambulance.”
Sadly, because our society promotes processed foods, sedentary behaviour, overwork, and stress, we’re seeing high blood pressure, or hypertension, and its complications (like heart attack and stroke), earlier and earlier. Don’t become a devastating statistic. Check your blood pressure and start making positive changes today so you can live your longest, healthiest life.
So what causes high blood pressure?
Hypertension isn’t just about arteries narrowing — it’s caused by complex interactions between the nervous system, blood vessels, kidneys, and hormones.
Risk factors for high blood pressure include: stress, lack of physical activity, obesity, sleep apnea, higher salt and alcohol intake, older age, family history, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Certain prescription medications and recreational drug use can also raise blood pressure.
There are also a few rarer causes: tumours that secrete adrenaline (pheochromocytoma), diseases of the kidneys, and endocrine conditions such as thyroid disorders and Cushing’s disease.
What you’ll feel
High blood pressure is known as “the silent killer” because it typically doesn’t give any warning symptoms in the body. Instead, it manifests as a heart attack, stroke, or even sudden death. High blood pressure can only be diagnosed by having your blood pressure checked.
What conventional medicine offers
If your blood pressure is found to be high, your doctor will ensure that there are no underlying medical conditions that are contributing to its elevation. He or she will also search for damage to the organs, such as your eyes, heart, kidneys, and blood vessels.
When it comes to treatment options, however, the approach to high blood pressure offered by Western medicine often focuses heavily on medication, rather than addressing underlying causes. This approach can leave you at risk of developing other health problems in the future. It may also expose you unnecessarily to side effects and long-term risks of prescription medications. Blood pressure pills play a role in managing hypertension, but they shouldn’t be the focus of your treatment plan.
Enter integrative medicine: a holistic approach to hypertension
Integrative medicine is about taking the best of conventional medicine, and combining it with lifestyle, nutrition, herbal, and mind-body remedies to help you be your healthiest self.
In the case of high blood pressure, this approach comes into play before a diagnosis is made, guiding you in making lifestyle changes to prevent this condition. If you’ve already been diagnosed with hypertension, integrative medicine can also help you work on reducing your reliance on prescription medication, or even shedding yourself of this diagnosis altogether! Many of these treatments that help with high blood pressure also have other positive effects on your health: improving vitality, wellness and longevity.
So, whether you’re looking for help with prevention, treatment, or reducing your need for prescription medication, here are the best evidence-based, holistic treatment options that exist for managing hypertension. Focus on these “prescriptions” to lower your blood pressure naturally, and reap the overall health benefits too!
- Exercise. Aerobic exercise, such as moderate-paced walking, for 30-60 minutes daily can lower your blood pressure by more than 10 points (10 mmHg), and this effect lasts for 24 hours. Once you’re exercising regularly, you can maintain this effect by exercising for at least 30 minutes, three days per week.
- Try Tai Chi or Qigong. Regular practice (on average, 4 days weekly) can lower your blood pressure by 10-15 points. Sign up for a class, or try out online instruction.
- Practice Yoga. Its effects on blood pressure are impressive, coming in just shy of those gained from Tai chi and Qigong. Join a community class, or search YouTube for “Yoga” and “cat-cow”-it-up in the comfort of your pyjamas.
- Forest bathe. Shinrin-yoku, experiencing the forest atmosphere or forest bathing, lowers blood pressure and improves wellbeing. Not near Sherwood? Make an occasional special outing to the woods, and spend time regularly in natural settings closer to home.
- Adopt a regular mindfulness practice. It reduces stress (let’s face it, we all need this!), as well as blood pressure. Mindfulness-based stress reduction courses are offered in many communities, and online. Mindfulness can also come in the form of body scans, deep breathing, meditation and just paying attention with purpose.
- Quit smoking. Smoking increases blood pressure and your overall risk of dying from heart attack and stroke. This one, ladies and gentleman, will kill you. Help is out there. Please quit.
- Eat a whole food, plant-based diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Limit your consumption of animal products, especially red meats. Diets that lower blood pressure include the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. They’ll also ensure you get adequate calcium, magnesium and potassium, which help control blood pressure.
- Limit salt intake. Salt promotes water retention, and increases blood pressure. Don’t add salt, and limit processed foods which hide added salt.
- Add ground flax. Flaxseed has potent blood-pressure lowering effects. To emulate a study which saw a 10-point reduction in blood pressure, consume 30 grams of ground flax daily. It’s also a good source of heart-protective omega-3 fatty acids. Grind flaxseed (to ensure it can be best absorbed by the body), then sprinkle on yogurt, porridge, stir-fries, pastas, and smoothies.
- Eat more garlic. Garlic relaxes blood vessels and has a favourable effect on hormones that control blood pressure. Cook with at least 1-4 cloves of minced fresh garlic daily (or use powdered garlic). This also adds flavour in place of salt.
- Drink beetroot juice. Consuming between a half and a full cup of beetroot juice twice daily relaxes blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. For some, beetroot juice is as effective as taking a single blood pressure-lowering medication. Pro tip: beetroots play well with others in smoothies.
- Love dark chocolate. Dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao is rich in polyphenols (a powerful plant “phytochemical”) which has positive effects on heart health, including lowering blood pressure. Enjoy a square or two daily, but watch for added sugar.
- Load up on probiotics. Eating fermented foods increases your body’s good bacteria, also known as probiotics. A healthy supply of good gut bacteria has been linked to improved blood pressure. Dietary sources of probiotics include yogurt and kefir; non-dairy options include tempeh, kimchi and sauerkraut, to name a few.
- Drink hibiscus tea. It’s packed with antioxidants (even more than green tea), and has powerful blood pressure lowering effects. Hibiscus performs well even when pitted against prescription medications. To brew tea: pour 1 cup hot water over 2 tsp of dried hibiscus calyces, steep 15 minutes and enjoy! Drink 2-3 cups over the course of the day, hot or cooled. Pro tip: add dried hibiscus to your smoothies!
- Take the sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D deficiency can contribute to hypertension. In climates like Canada, you need a supplement to get enough. Start with 2000 international units (IU) of Vitamin D daily.
- Get stinky with Aged garlic extract (AGE). This natural supplement lowers blood pressure without the same taste, or aftertaste, of whole garlic. Dosing starts at 600 mg daily, increased to 1500 mg to 2000 mg daily, as tolerated. Side effects include heartburn, nausea and stomach upset.
- Try Grape seed extract. Rich in antioxidants, it also lowers blood pressure, especially in people with high blood sugar, obesity, and high cholesterol. In one study, blood pressure was lowered by 12 points after one month of supplementing with grape seed extract. Take 150-300 mg grape seed extract, standardized to 90% or higher proanthocyanidins or polyphenols. It’s usually very well tolerated.
- Get enough magnesium. In studies, supplementing with 300 mg of magnesium nightly for at least three months resulted in small reductions in blood pressure. Magnesium also increases the effectiveness of blood-pressure lowering medications. This is especially important for those whose diet may be lacking in magnesium, or who take medications which deplete magnesium.
- Take probiotics. If you’re not a fan of fermented foods, you can add a probiotic supplement in order to reap their blood-pressure lowering benefits. Probiotic supplements have similar effects on blood pressure to those found in whole foods.
Congratulations on taking this step toward achieving your best health! Enjoy the journey. (I’m honoured to be one of your humble guides).
Recommended products and resources
Sometimes, the world of holistic and natural medicine can be a difficult one to navigate when it comes to choosing products and services. Here are a few of my favourites that I suggest when patients are looking for a specific recommendation. Please let me know your favourites, too!
- Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction online course from Sounds True
- Free body scan meditation with mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat Zinn
- Free guided meditations from The Chopra Center
- Free yoga videos from Yoga with Adriene
An aside on what your blood pressure readings mean
Here are what your numbers mean when measuring your blood pressure:
|Systolic (top) BP||Diastolic (bottom) BP||diagnosis|
|130-139||80-89||Stage I hypertension|
|>140||>90||Stage II hypertension|
If your levels are normal, kudos to you (and be sure to thank your parents for their genes)! Now you can continue to ensure you’re doing everything you can to prevent developing high blood pressure in the future.
If your blood pressure is elevated, or if you have stage I hypertension, you’re in a great place to really implement some of my integrative medicine prescriptions — for healthier lifestyle, nutrition, and perhaps implementing remedies from the garden, or supplements. I do also recommend seeing your doctor, especially if you have a significant family history of heart attack or stroke, or other health conditions, to see if you might warrant investigations or treatment.
If you have stage II hypertension, see your doctor first. And, if your blood pressure is >180 (systolic) or >120 (diastolic), see your doctor immediately, or visit your local urgent care clinic or emergency department.
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