Not surprisingly, this very stress-filled year has caused an increase in high blood pressure cases around the United States. Most likely this trend is happening here in Jackson as well. Lockdown, financial pressure and isolation are just some of the causes of these increases, according to a report by the American College of Cardiology.
Surprisingly, over 50% of American adults have hypertension, described as blood pressure equal to or greater than 130/80 mm Hg. And the percentage of cases climbs higher with advancing age.
This common condition, hypertension, is called the silent disease because many people have no idea they have it. The reason? There may be absolutely no symptoms. Since stroke and heart attack can be the result of long-term high blood pressure, it is important to take regular measurements. Home blood pressure cuffs or a visit to a medical care provider’s office will provide information.
The great news is that this cardiovascular risk factor is absolutely modifiable. Yes, you can fix it and, in doing so, reverse risk for heart disease and stroke.
Here’s how it works. First, a simple lifestyle change is adding daily movement. A study of inactive older adults recently showed that even minimal exercise can lower the upper number, or systolic blood pressure by 4 points. Better yet, movement improved the lower, or diastolic, by 4.5. Moderate 40-minute aerobic activity even three times a week produced these results.
Resistance training, high-intensity interval workouts and all types of aerobic exercise maximize drops in both the top and bottom numbers. Age is not a disincentive, since it works regardless of the number of trips you have had around the sun, or years you’ve spent sitting on the couch. So, dance around the kitchen, take the dog for a walk and meet the neighbors for a social distancing winter hike in the park.
Losing weight, even by a little bit, can also improve blood pressure. Just as with lowering diabetes risk, even 5 to 10 pounds lost can markedly improve it. This is related to the improvement through exercise.
Salt is often the nutritional topic that arises when patients think about changing their diet to lower blood pressure. And it does help. I often have clients say, “I never salt my food.” For those who are salt sensitive, watching intake of processed foods, restaurant and fast food meals, cheese, processed meats, soup and crackers can make a much bigger difference than simply throwing out the salt shaker. These days, most sodium comes from processed foods, not added salt. Nonetheless swapping out herbs, spices and toppings like Mrs. Dash seasoning for this mineral can help.
Many of my patients think sea salt is healthier. Yet, chemically, whether it comes from the plain blue box or a fancy kitchen shop, all salt is mostly sodium chloride. And it will raise blood pressure in those sensitive to it. Choose herbs and spices to flavor food for the best improvement.
Other minerals also help treat hypertension. That’s because while sodium constricts blood vessels, others, like potassium and magnesium, relax them. And most Americans are extremely deficient in these two. Even if blood pressure is normal, sports performance, mood and organ function, including heart rhythm, can be affected by limiting these two elements.
Magnesium is essential to all cells and over 300 enzymes in the human body. Low levels in the body may cause depression or migraine headaches. It is essential for bone health, especially for fracture healing and osteoporosis prevention. Yet more than half of those in the U.S. are deficient in this vital nutrient. High protein diets limit absorption of it. Highly processed diets simply do not contain enough magnesium to optimize mental and physical health. It is no wonder that so many have high blood pressure.
One of the best sources of magnesium is whole grains, specifically wheat, rice and oat bran. Other good food options include spinach, Swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, tofu, molasses and dark chocolate. Taking a supplement can also help boost the daily dose.
Potassium is another nutrient deficient in the standard American diet. According to Dr. Michael Gregor, from NutritionFacts.org, a whopping 98% of people in our country are not getting even the minimal adequate amount of this nutrient. Part of the problem is that farming practices eliminate it from the soil, and thus our food. That provides a very good reason to eat foods that come from local, sustainable farmers, your own garden or at least organic sources.
A staggering 4,700 milligrams is the recommended optimal intake. Yet, the highest sources, like the simple baked potato, contain about 700. Magnesium is available in all plant foods, especially produce, so simply upping your intake of these powerhouse plants can do the job simply and effectively. Best sources, besides potatoes, are sweet potatoes, dried fruit, broccoli, avocados, bananas, spinach, watermelon and coconut water.
It might seem overwhelming to plan this healthy diet, so here is a quick daily menu. Choose the rainbow of produce for optimal nutrition.
Start the day out with high-fiber hot or cold cereal, nuts and fresh or frozen fruit. At lunch, opt for a whole-grain vegetable or tuna with veggies sandwich, along with veggies or fruit. For dinner serve up plant-rich meals, like a stir-fry over quinoa, soup and salad, or fish, potato and a rainbow of sauteed veggies. Put the fruit bowl front and center in your house, and watch the blood pressure numbers tumble. Top off the day with some dark chocolate and a nice outside activity. You’ll sleep well and get a great report at your next doctor’s visit.
Call your local dietitian nutritionist for some help and support if living long and well are your goals.
Therese Lowe Metherell, a dietitian and nutritionist, has been in private practice in Jackson for 30 years. You can contact her at [email protected].