Try these smart, drug-free ways to bring your numbers down.
When you get a high blood pressure reading at the doctor’s office, it might be tough for you to understand exactly what impact those numbers can make on your overall health, since high blood pressure has no unusual day-to-day symptoms. But the truth is, having high blood pressure is a serious health risk—it boosts the risks of leading killers such as heart attack and stroke, as well as aneurysms, cognitive decline, and kidney failure. What’s more, high blood pressure is a primary or contributing cause of death in more than 1,000 deaths a day in the United States.
Even scarier? One in five U.S. adults with high blood pressure don’t know they have it, says the CDC. If you haven’t had your numbers checked in two years, see a doctor. Anything above 130/80 mmHg is considered high.
While medication can lower blood pressure, it may cause side effects such as leg cramps, dizziness, and insomnia. The good news is that most people can bring their numbers down naturally without drugs. “Lifestyle changes are an important part of prevention and treatment of high blood pressure,” says Brandie D. Williams, MD, FACC, a cardiologist at Texas Health Stephenville and Texas Health Physicians Group.
First, get to a healthy weight (these tips can help!). Then try these natural ways to lower your blood pressure without having to take a single pill.
Go for power walks
Regular exercise—like brisk walking—seems to be just as effective at lowering blood pressure as commonly used BP drugs, according to an analysis of nearly 400 studies. Exercise helps the heart use oxygen more efficiently, so it doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood.
Shoot for 30 minutes of cardio on most days of the week for low blood pressure, Williams recommends. Over time, you can keep challenging your ticker by increasing the speed, upping your distance, or adding in weights.
Our bodies react to tension by releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into the blood. These hormones can raise your heart rate and constrict blood vessels, causing your blood pressure to spike. But slow breathing and meditative practices such as qigong, yoga, and tai chi can help keep stress hormones—and your blood pressure—in check, Williams says. (And if you haven’t heard, health benefits of meditationinclude reduced inflammation, natural pain relief, and more.) Start with five minutes in the morning and five minutes at night and build up from there. The breathing exercise above is designed to help you fall asleep fast.
Pick potassium-rich foods
Loading up on potassium-rich fruits and vegetables is an important part of any blood pressure-lowering program, says Linda Van Horn, PhD, RD, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Potassium encourages the kidneys to excrete more sodium through urination, and that sodium excretion can help lower blood pressure.
Bananas are one great source of potassium, but there are other tasty ways to get your fill. Potatoes actually pack more potassium than the yellow fruit (and you might be surprised to learn there are plenty of other health benefits of potatoes, too). Sweet potatoes, tomatoes, orange juice, kidney beans, peas, cantaloupe, honeydew, and dried fruits like prunes or raisins are other good sources. In all, you should aim to get 2,000 to 4,000 mg of potassium a day, Van Horn recommends.
Cut your sodium intake
Certain groups of people—the elderly, African Americans, and those with a family history of high blood pressure—are more likely than others to have blood pressure that’s particularly salt-sensitive. But because there’s no way to tell whether any one individual is at risk, everyone should consume less sodium, says Eva Obarzanek, PhD, a research nutritionist at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
How low should you go? Aim to keep your sodium intake below 1,500 mg for healthy blood pressure, recommends the American Heart Association. That’s about half of what most Americans consume per day. Going easy on the saltshaker can help, but you’ll make a bigger impact by watching the sodium count in packaged or processed foods, Obarzanek says. (Pay extra attention to bread and rolls, pizza, soup, cold cuts, poultry, and sandwiches, which tend to pack the most salt.) Then try these other simple ways to slash your salt intake.
Indulge in dark chocolate
The sweet serves up flavanols that help lower blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels and boosting blood flow. On average, regular dark chocolate consumption could help lower your systolic blood pressure (the top number) by 5 points and your diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by almost 3 points, suggests an Australian analysis. How dark are we talking? Experts haven’t been able to determine an ideal percentage of cocoa, says Vivian Mo, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. But the higher you go, the more benefits you’ll get.
Of course, eating chocolate shouldn’t be your main strategy for lowering blood pressure, says Mo. But when you’re in the mood for a treat, it might be a better choice than, say, a slice of cake
Drink (a little) alcohol
Too much booze is known to raise blood pressure. But having just a little bit could do the opposite. Light to moderate drinking (defined as one drink or fewer per day) is associated with a lower risk for hypertension in women, according to research from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Moderate drinking could play a role in heart disease prevention too, studies show.
One drink counts as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits. “High levels of alcohol are clearly detrimental,” says Obarzanek. “But moderate alcohol is protective of the heart. If you are going to drink, drink moderately.” (And if you’re trying to keep your weight in check, stick to these low-calorie alcoholic drinks recommended by registered dietitians.)
Switch to decaf coffee
Scientists have long debated the effects of caffeine on blood pressure. But an analysis of 34 studies seems to have delivered a verdict. On average, consuming 200 to 300 mg caffeine (the amount found in one or two cups of coffee) raises systolic blood pressure by 8 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure by 6 mmHg. And the effects can last for up to three hours. (For reference, 8 ounces of drip coffee contain 100-125 mg of caffeine; the same amount of tea, 50 mg; an equal quantity of cola, about 40 mg.)
Caffeine can raise blood pressure by tightening blood vessels and magnifying the effects of stress, says James Lane, PhD, a Duke University researcher who studies caffeine and cardiovascular health. “When you’re under stress, your heart starts pumping a lot more blood, boosting blood pressure,” he says. “And caffeine exaggerates that effect.” (Not sure whether you need to cut back? Here are 6 physical symptoms that mean you’re drinking too much coffee.)
Take up tea
Lowering high blood pressure is as easy as one, two, tea: Adults with mildly high blood pressure who sipped three cups of hibiscus tea daily lowered their systolic BP by seven points in six weeks, found Tufts University researchers. The phytochemicals in hibiscus are probably responsible for the large reduction in high blood pressure, the study authors say.
Work (a bit) less
Putting in more than 41 hours per week at the office raises your risk of hypertension by 17%, according to a study of more than 24,000 California residents. Working overtime makes it harder to exercise and eat healthy, says Haiou Yang, PhD, the lead researcher.
While it might not always be easy to clock out early, try to leave at a decent hour as often as possible so you can hit the gym or have time to cook a healthy meal. Set an end-of-day message on your computer as a reminder to turn it off and go home. (And try these tips to make your weekends stress-free too.)
Relax with music
The right tunes can help bring your blood pressure down, according to Italian research. Researchers asked 29 adults who were already taking BP medication to listen to soothing classical, Celtic, or Indian music for 30 minutes daily while breathing slowly. When they followed up with the subjects six months later, their blood pressure had dropped by an average of 4 mmHg.
Seek help for snoring
It’s time to heed your partner’s complaints and get that snoring checked out. Loud, incessant snores are a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a disorder characterized by brief yet potentially life-threatening interruptions in breathing during sleep. And many sleep apnea sufferers also have high levels of aldosterone, a hormone that can boost blood pressure, according to University of Alabama researchers. In fact, it’s estimated that sleep apnea affects half of people with high blood pressure.
If you have hypertension, ask your doctor if OSA could be behind it. (In addition to loud snoring, common symptoms include excessive daytime tiredness and early morning headaches.) Getting your sleep apnea under control could be helpful for improving your blood pressure, says Robert Greenfield, MD, Medical Director of Non-Invasive Cardiology & Cardiac Rehabilitation at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA.
Have a glass of milk
Dairy or soy—it’s your choice. Replacing some of the refined carbohydrates in your diet with foods high in soy or milk protein (like tofu or low-fat dairy) can bring down systolic blood pressure if you have hypertension or prehypertension, findings suggest. “Some patients get inflammation from refined carbohydrates, which will increase blood pressure,” says Matthew J. Budoff, MD, FACC, Professor of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine and Director of Cardiac CT at the Division of Cardiology at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
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