Imagine a clogged pipe. What's inside stops flowing and soon, pressure builds until too much stress leads to bursts or leaks.
"The same thing can happen to your body," said Patricia Calhoun, MD, a family physician with Baptist Primary Care – Mandarin North. "There are downstream effects of high blood pressure that can occur because of poor blood pressure control. Your brain, heart and kidneys are vital organs that can be damaged by uncontrolled hypertension."
High blood pressure: the silent killer
At least 50% to 70% of the patients Marcus Cox, MD, sees on a daily basis suffer from high blood pressure. The Baptist Heart Specialists cardiologist often warns them that the condition is a "silent killer," increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke and renal failure.
According to the American Heart Association's guidelines for high blood pressure, those with readings of 130/80 or higher are considered hypertensive. Patients with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease and other high-risk patients should be treated with medication if blood pressure is higher than that.
If you're borderline hypertensive, you're unlikely to show any symptoms. But when your blood pressure becomes significantly elevated, you may start experiencing headaches, dizziness and blurred vision.
3 lifestyle changes to lower blood pressure
Although patients should follow their doctors' recommendations, lifestyle changes can often help control or even reverse high blood pressure. Both Dr. Calhoun and Dr. Cox suggest reining in potential issues with hypertension by adjusting diet and exercise routines before trying any medicine, if possible.
"If patients can try some of these healthy modifications, their overall quality of life will be better than if they just took medication alone," Dr. Calhoun said.
1. Healthy eating
Small changes in diet can go a long way toward lowering blood pressure.
Reduce salt intake
Even a moderate reduction in daily salt intake along with weight management can help reduce hypertension, said Dr. Calhoun. Much of our salt intake occurs when we eat out, and many people don't realize that even "diet foods" may be high in sodium. For example, diet salad dressings often contain larger amounts of sodium to enhance their taste.
"Poor diet and lack of exercise always seem to be major factors with high blood pressure," Dr. Cox said. "Low salt is a must."
Follow the DASH diet
Dr. Calhoun recommended the DASH diet – Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The eating plan is high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, poultry, fish and nuts, and low in sweets, sugary beverages and red meat. It's rich in potassium, calcium, protein and fiber but contains limited saturated fats and cholesterol.
Caffeine is in the clear
For coffee drinkers, Dr. Calhoun offered some good news: Caffeine doesn't impact blood pressure. It can speed up heart rate, but it doesn't cause hypertension.
Cut the alcohol
Women who consume two or more alcoholic beverages per day and men who have three or more drinks per day have significantly increased incidence of hypertension compared to nondrinkers.
"Exercising at least 30 minutes a day is also very important," Dr. Cox said. "Diet and exercise go hand-in-hand, and it's practically impossible to have one without the other."
While exercise is important, those at risk for high blood pressure should not change their regimen without being cleared by a physician.
In general, try to get at least three to four sessions of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week, which equates to four 40-minute sessions, five 30-minute sessions, or just 21 minutes per day.
It's OK to start slow
"I always ask, 'How much can you walk? Can you walk for five minutes a day? How about 10?'" Dr. Calhoun said. "Every couple days add more time. Over 30 days, it gives my patients a challenge and helps them make walking a habit." Try to gradually build up to 150 minutes per week. "You don't want to injure yourself," she said. "Aim for increasing mileage by no more than 10% each week."
3. Weight loss
Exercise aside, weight loss can contribute to a significant decrease in blood pressure for overweight or obese people.
Every pound counts
For every pound lost, there's the potential for a corresponding decline in blood pressure. However, Dr. Calhoun cautioned that even thin people or those of normal weight can have other factors such as genetics, high sodium consumption or other medical causes of high blood pressure. It's important to evaluate all possible causes with your physician.
Making the healthy choice isn't always easy, but it's all a matter of habit, said Dr. Calhoun. Even small decreases in weight can positively impact blood pressure.
How Baptist Primary Care can help
If you need help controlling your blood pressure or would like to find out more about how to prevent hypertension, Baptist Health can help you find the right primary care doctor for you. To find a new doctor, contact our care coordinators online or call 904.202.4YOU (4968).