We’ll start on a morbid note to get your attention: One in three Americans has high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. And high blood pressure, or hypertension, greatly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke — the first and third leading causes of death in the United States, the CDC says.
On a positive note: Your blood pressure is simple to track on your own, no blood tests or complex procedures required. Any time you’re a patient at a medical facility, you get a reading. Plus, some non-med spots have screening machines you can use — Publix grocery stores, for example.
“Hypertension is a silent killer, so blood pressure should be monitored on a regular basis,” says Grace Adeniji-Ilesanmi, a nurse practitioner with Unum. “One to two times a year is sufficient.”
The best way to get an accurate reading is to rest for at least 3 to 5 minutes beforehand, according to the American Heart Association. Then sit quietly with your legs uncrossed and your back and testing arm supported. It doesn’t matter what time of day you check your blood pressure, but try to make it consistent so that, for example, you’re always getting late-morning readings. Also, don’t exercise or have caffeine or tobacco within 30 minutes of your reading. Make sure your bladder is empty.
“Sometimes, readings at a clinic setting may be absurdly high due to anxiety about the visit,” Adeniji-Ilesanmi says. If you think you’ve gotten a wacko reading, get a true handle on your blood pressure by obtaining a reading away from a medical setting (an “ambulatory reading”) and comparing it with the one you got while you were in the medical setting, she says.
Over the years, what’s considered a healthy reading has gotten stricter. Now the AHA considers below 120/80 ideal. Anything higher, for both top and bottom numbers, means lifestyle changes should help. To keep the science nerd-dom down, here are the basics: The top number (systolic) tells you how much pressure your blood is exerting on your artery walls when your heart beats. The bottom number (diastolic) tells you how much pressure your blood is exerting on your artery walls when your heart is at rest, so between heartbeats.
Not being overweight, exercising regularly and consuming a whole-food plant-based diet, along with drinking little (if any) alcohol and not smoking, help stabilize blood pressure. If you read that sentence as “blah, blah, blah” you’re forgiven. Seems the same line of advice pops up for improving everything health-related. So here are four achievable ways to meet much of that recommendation.
1. Cut back on sodium … slowly.
Dialing down sodium is a big deal: Just one salty meal raises blood pressure and can strain your arteries.
That said, swift change works well in some situations, and lowering your sodium intake isn’t one of them. That’s because your palate will taste the difference immediately (read: you’re on a bland new diet). But if you gradually have a little less sodium each day, you won’t notice the difference, and eventually you’ll unwittingly consume less. Keep the flavor-factor high by replacing sodium with herbs and spices.
First, get your baseline: Figure out whether your current diet has too much sodium. “When most people think of sodium, they think only in terms of table salt,” Adeniji-Ilesanmi says. “However, they must also take into account that most processed food, canned food and some frozen meals are very high in sodium.”
You want fewer than 2,300 mg (1 teaspoon of salt) a day. But if you’re middle-aged or older (blood pressure generally increases as you age), black or already have high blood pressure, you’d do better keeping it to 1,500 mg (somewhat less than ¾ teaspoon of salt). Actually, we all probably would.
2. Eat more fruits and veggies — and less meat.
Bet you’re tired of hearing this one. But there’s a reason it’s on replay: Eating more whole plant-based food helps your health all-around. Do up your veggies in (reasonable) ways (so not a ton of salt) that make you want to eat them. Try interesting vinegars. An aged white balsamic and champagne blend is slightly sweet and very interesting. Mix it with olive oil and just a sprinkle of salt on a salad of greens and scallions. Add fresh strawberries or dried cherries for extra flavor and more health benefits.
3. Replace refined flours and starches with whole grains.
You don’t want “wheat bread” or “wheat flour,” for example. You want “whole wheat bread” and “whole wheat flour.” Also in this category: barley, bulgur, farro, millet, oats, quinoa. All are easy to cook and can work as breakfast or go with main dishes.
4. Eat ground flaxseeds.
Flaxseeds are powerhouses for your overall health, not just lowering blood pressure (preventing and fighting breast and prostate cancer, to name two). But since we’re focusing on hypertension, a 2013 study showed flaxseeds “induced one of the most potent antihypertensive effects achieved by a dietary intervention.”
They’re so easy to work into your diet, there’s no reason not to eat them. Simply grind them up (with mortar and pestle, in a coffee bean grinder, whatever works) and sprinkle on cereals, casseroles, desserts, pasta, salads, soups. Bake them into muffins and pancakes. Blend them with your smoothie. They don’t taste like much of anything so aside from a slight change in texture, you can’t tell they’re there. Shoot for one tablespoon a day.
Journalist Mitra Malek regularly creates and edits content related to wellness, including as a contributing editor for Yoga Journal. Connect at www.mitramalek.com.