At Westchester Health, many of our patients have high blood pressure (hypertension) and come to us looking for ways to bring it down to healthier levels. In some cases, this means prescribing medication. However, for many people, lifestyle changes can significantly reduce their blood pressure numbers and lower their risk of cardiovascular disease without having to resort to prescribed drugs.
If you are one of those people who doesn’t necessarily need blood pressure medicine, we’ve compiled our list of the best 10 lifestyle changes you can make to lower your blood pressure and keep it down.
How blood pressure is measured
Blood pressure refers to the force of your blood pushing against your artery walls as it flows throughout your body. Too much force, i.e., high blood pressure, can damage your arteries and lead to life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and stroke.
Unfortunately, it’s not unusual to have high blood pressure for years without any symptoms. The only way to know for sure if your blood pressure is too high is by having it tested regularly at checkups, which is why we at Westchester Health strongly recommend annual physicals, no matter your age.
Your blood pressure consists of two numbers, one written on top of the other: the systolic (top number) and diastolic (bottom number). These numbers are determined by the amount of blood your heart pumps and the amount of resistance to blood flow in your arteries. The more blood your heart pumps and the narrower your arteries, the higher your blood pressure.
When your heart beats, it pushes blood through your arteries to the rest of your body. This is your systolic blood pressure.
- If you are younger than 60, normal systolic pressure is below 140.
- If you are older than 60, normal systolic pressure is below 150.
- 180 or more is a hypertensive crisis and you should call 911 right away.
The pressure in your arteries when your heart rests between beats is your diastolic blood pressure.
- Normal diastolic blood pressure is lower than 90.
- Even if your diastolic number is below 90, you can still have high blood pressure if the systolic reading is above 140
10 things you can do to lower your blood pressure
If you can successfully control your blood pressure with a healthy lifestyle, you can avoid, delay or reduce the need for medication and hopefully prolong your life. Here are 10 important lifestyle changes you can make without resorting to prescription drugs.
Lose weight if you’re overweight
If you’re overweight, losing even 5-10 pounds can reduce your blood pressure. Plus, you’ll lower your risk for other medical problems. Just as importantly, you also need to keep an eye on your waistline. Carrying too much weight around your middle puts you at greater risk of high blood pressure. Did you know:
- Men are at risk if their waist measurement is more than 40 inches
- Women are at risk if their waist measurement is more than 35 inches
Regular physical activity—at least 40 minutes 3-4 times a week—can lower your blood pressure significantly. As you regularly increase your heart and breathing rates, over time your heart gets stronger and pumps with less effort. This puts less pressure on your arteries and lowers your blood pressure. It’s important to be consistent because if you stop exercising, your blood pressure can rise again.
Increasing your activity level can be as simple as:
- using the stairs
- walking instead of driving
- doing household chores
- going for a bike ride
- playing a team sport
Eat a healthy diet
Eating a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol, can lower your blood pressure by up to 14 mm Hg.
Reduce sodium (salt) in your diet
Even a small reduction in the sodium in your diet can reduce your blood pressure by 2-8 mm Hg. Try these tips:
- Read food labels carefully and don’t choose items high in salt. When possible, choose low-sodium alternatives of the foods and beverages you normally buy.
- Avoid processed foods. Only a small amount of sodium occurs naturally in foods. Most sodium is added during processing.
- Don’t add salt to your food. Just 1 teaspoon of salt has 2,300 mg of sodium. Instead, use pepper, herbs or spices to add flavor to your food.
Limit your alcohol consumption
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Alcohol can raise your blood pressure, even if you’re healthy, by 1 mm Hg for each 10 grams of alcohol consumed. A standard drink (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor) contains 14 grams of alcohol.
Smoking causes an immediate but temporary increase in your blood pressure and an increase in your heart rate. In the long term, the chemicals in tobacco can increase your blood pressure by damaging your blood vessel walls (causing inflammation) and narrowing your arteries. The good news: quitting smoking helps your blood pressure return to normal. People who quit smoking, regardless of their age, substantially increase their life expectancy.
Cut back on caffeine
Caffeine temporarily raises your blood pressure by as much as 10 mm Hg, with the effects lasting 45-60 minutes (varies from person to person). Some people may be more sensitive to caffeine than others, so if you’re caffeine-sensitive, you should cut back on your caffeine consumption or switch to decaffeinated drinks.
Reduce your stress
Stress is a major contributor to high blood pressure, particularly if you react to stress by eating unhealthy foods, drinking and/or smoking. Instead, look for healthy ways to reduce your stress, such as exercise, yoga, reading a book, painting/drawing or gardening.
Monitor your own blood pressure at home and see your doctor regularly
Taking your blood pressure regularly at home can help you keep up to date with your numbers, reveal if your lifestyle changes are working, and alert you and your doctor to potential health complications. Blood pressure monitors are easily available without a prescription.
Get good, restful sleep
Your blood pressure typically lowers when you’re sleeping. If you don’t sleep well, this can affect your blood pressure. In fact, people who suffer from sleep deprivation, especially those in middle-aged, have an increased risk of high blood pressure. There are many ways to help you get restful sleep, such as setting a regular sleep schedule, taking time to relax and wind down before going to bed, exercising during the day, avoiding daytime naps and making your bedroom an environment that’s conducive to sleep.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help
At Westchester Health, we believe that having supportive family and friends can really help you in your efforts to lower your blood pressure. If you find you need support beyond your family and friends, consider joining a support group which can put you in touch with others who can give you valuable encouragement and advice in your efforts to get healthier.
Risk factors for high blood pressure
- The risk of high blood pressure increases as you age. Men are more likely to develop high blood pressure around age 45, while women are more likely to develop it after age 65.
- High blood pressure is particularly common among African Americans, often developing at an earlier age than in Caucasians. Serious complications, such as stroke, heart attack and kidney failure, also are more common in African Americans.
- Family history. High blood pressure tends to run in families.
- Being overweight or obese. The more you weigh, the more blood you need to supply oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. As the volume of blood circulated through your blood vessels increases, so does the pressure on your artery walls.
- Not being physically active. People who are inactive tend to have higher heart rates. The higher your heart rate, the harder your heart must work with each contraction and the stronger the force on your arteries. Lack of physical activity also increases the likelihood of being overweight.
- Using tobacco. Not only does smoking or chewing tobacco immediately raise your blood pressure temporarily, but the chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls. This can cause your arteries to narrow, increasing your blood pressure. Note: Secondhand smoke also can increase your blood pressure.
- Too much sodium in your diet. Too much salt in your diet can cause your body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure.
- Too little potassium in your diet. Potassium helps balance the amount of sodium in your cells. If you don’t get enough potassium, you can accumulate too much sodium in your blood.
- Drinking too much alcohol. Over time, heavy drinking can damage your heart. Having more than 2 drinks a day for men and more than 1 drink a day for women may affect your blood pressure.
- High levels of stress can lead to a temporary increase in blood pressure. But if you try to counteract stress by eating more, smoking or drinking, you may only increase your risk of high blood pressure.
- Chronic conditions. Certain chronic conditions also may increase your risk of high blood pressure, such as kidney disease, diabetes and sleep apnea.
- Pregnancy sometimes contributes to high blood pressure.
If you’re concerned that your blood pressure is maybe too high and want to get it checked, please come see us
If you think you might have high blood pressure and are concerned about it, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health family medicine practitioners. We’ll take your blood pressure and evaluate if it is normal, too high or too low, then together with you, decide on the best treatment and a lifestyle plan so you can be as healthy as possible. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.