Keeping your blood pressure below 120/80 mm Hg is important to good health. High blood pressure (also called hypertension) is 140/90 mm Hg or greater, and blood pressure between 120/ 80 and 139/89 is considered "prehypertension." This means that you are more likely to develop high blood pressure.
Both hypertension and prehypertension can increase your risk for stroke, coronary heart disease, kidney failure, and congestive heart failure, especially if they are uncontrolled, says the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. People with prehypertension often show early signs of stiffening of the arteries, enlargement of the heart, or changes in the way their kidneys work.
Although maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most effective ways to lower your blood pressure without taking medication, you can take other steps to beat this leading cause of cardiovascular disease.
These lifestyle suggestions can help keep blood pressure in control.
Work out regularly and build more physical activity into your day, even if you're not overweight. For example, pace while talking on the phone, walk instead of driving, or play with your children instead of watching from the sidelines.
There's evidence that exercise alone slightly lowers blood pressure. It can also make weight loss easier, even if you don't reduce calories. People who exercise burn calories more efficiently than those who don't. A 200-pound man who exercises moderately, for example, generally needs to consume 400 more calories per day to maintain his weight than a same-sized man who's sedentary.
Moreover, working out can set the tone for other healthy habits. People who exercise tend to be mindful of their diets and avoid smoking. Good habits tend to cluster.
The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) was developed and researched by the National High Blood Pressure Education Program. This Mediterranean style diet has proven benefit to lower blood pressure. It doesn't require special foods. It’s a plan that includes a certain number of servings from a variety of food groups: vegetables, fruits, fat-free or low-fat milk, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, and nuts. It also provides a combination of foods rich in minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins. The DASH diet limits intake of saturated fats and cholesterol.
Some people with borderline hypertension, especially African-Americans, are very salt-sensitive. When they consume salt, they see an immediate rise in their blood pressure. When they reduce their salt intake, their blood pressure falls.
If you're salt-sensitive, it may help to go on a reduced-sodium diet. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone — no matter what age, ethnic background, or medical condition — consume less than 1,500 mg of sodium a day.
The recommended daily intake of potassium is 4,700 mg, according to the Institute of Medicine, but Americans average about 2,000 mg less than that. Adequate potassium is associated with reduced blood pressure.
To increase your intake and reduce your hypertension risk, try consuming at least two servings daily of any of the following potassium-rich foods: one cup of cantaloupe (494 mg), one medium banana (450 mg), eight ounces of orange juice (450 mg), 15 raw baby carrots (420 mg), eight ounces of skim milk (405 mg), or six ounces of nonfat yogurt (390 mg). Some salt-substitutes are a combination of salt and potassium; they can be a source of additional potassium and lower the sodium in your diet.
If you drink, do so in moderation. That means no more than two drinks daily if you're a man and one if you're a woman. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, four or five ounces of wine, or one 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor, all of which supply about 0.5 ounce of alcohol.
In studies, moderate amounts of alcohol have been shown to be heart-healthy.
Moderate alcohol users have higher HDL ("good") cholesterol and better cardiovascular prognoses than people who don't drink at all. But a person who chronically consumes three drinks a day will experience a rise in blood pressure.
People who have a family history of alcoholism or addiction shouldn't drink at all.
Smoking only increases blood pressure when you're actually smoking. But if you smoke 20 to 30 times a day, the amount of time your blood pressure is elevated because of smoking quickly adds up to several hours. That's a meaningful change and can put you at increased risk for hypertension complications, such as heart disease and stroke.
For women who take birth-control pills, smoking is especially dangerous if their blood pressure is already slightly elevated. Taking birth-control pills at any age increases your blood pressure almost invariably by two or three points. But being on the pill, having blood pressure that's already slightly elevated, and being a cigarette smoker is a dangerous triad that can lead to stroke in women as young as 20.
To play it safe, get your blood pressure checked every time you go to the doctor. Check it at home on a regular basis and keep a log of the readings to share with your physician.