Being told you have high blood pressure can be enough to make it soar even higher. Especially if you’re then told that you need to relax or de-stress in order to lower it. That’s a recipe for heightened anxiety, if ever I heard one! It reminds me of time when I had insomnia and got myself more and more worked up the nearer bedtime arrived. It seems the more you ‘try’ to get to sleep, the more it eludes you. Likewise, the more you ‘try’ to relax, the harder it gets.
So while a continuous state of high blood pressure (hypertension) is potentially dangerous – due to the strain it imposes on the heart, blood vessels and kidneys – some basic information can help reduce some of the fear of this condition.
What is high blood pressure (Hypertension) ?
High blood pressure, often referred to as hypertension, is very common. The NHS estimate that one third of adults in the UK have this condition. It develops when blood flows through your arteries at higher-than-normal pressures. Blood pressure is made up of two numbers: systolic and diastolic. Systolic pressure (the first number) occurs as blood pumps out of the heart and is circulated around the body. Diastolic pressure (the second number) is created as the heart rests between heart beats.
Blood pressure is measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg) and the current ‘normal’ blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg. However, this figure has changed over time. Traditionally, doctors used to gauge a healthy systolic BP level as 100 plus your age. So if you’re 55, an acceptable reading would have been 155 mmHg. In the February 2018 edition of ‘What Doctors Don’t Tell You’ magazine, the authors said that back in the 1980s, hypertension was diagnosed with a reading of 160/100 mm Hg. So what might have been ‘normal’ then, would be classed as hypertension today.
If your numbers are consistently high, this can begin to put strain on the heart and blood vessels, plus the brain, kidneys and eyes.
I’ve had one high reading, does this mean I’m doomed?
First things first, it is perfectly normal for the blood pressure to fluctuate throughout the day. It’s usually at its highest in the morning. So having just one reading is a snapshot in time, and its not wise to jump to conclusions. It’s important to know whether you’ve done anything in the hour before taking the reading that could elevate the figures, such as drinking caffeine or smoking. It’s even suggested that just drinking water can raise blood pressure for a while! There is also a phenomenon called ‘white coat hypertension’ in which blood pressure can increase just through the stress of having it taken by your doctor! In this instance the systolic measurement (the top number) can raise by as much as 30mmHg.
Then there is the position you are in when taking a reading. Professor William B. White, is Chief of the Division of Hypertension and Clinical Pharmacology in the Calhoun Cardiology Center at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. He says “The patient’s position is critical—patients must be sitting in a chair with their back supported and feet on the floor. Having your BP taken while seated on the edge of an exam table, with your legs dangling and no back support, can create substantial errors, making BP appear higher than it actually is.”
Ideally, you’d take your own blood pressure readings at home, several times a day and note the average. Before taking it, be sitting, calmly for five to ten minutes. You want the cuff around your upper left arm just above the elbow, and your arm resting comfortably on the arm of the chair or a table. And remember Prof White’s advice to have your feet on the floor.
What causes high blood pressure?
It’s not unusual for blood pressure to increase during exertion or emotional stress, and in a healthy body it will return to normal quite quickly.
However, for some people, the blood pressure stays high and it can be for a number of reasons, including genetic disposition, sedentary lifestyle, poor diet and stress. So reducing high blood pressure requires attention to many aspects of your lifestyle such as reducing stress, eating healthily, maintaining a healthy weight, increasing physical activity and reducing smoking and alcohol use.
How will my Dr treat high blood pressure?
Your Dr will suggest lifestyle changes along with medication, depending on your reading and risk factors. Current treatment, as outlined from the NHS is:
- if your blood pressure is consistently above 140/90mmHg (or 135/85mmHg at home), but your risk of other problems is low – you’ll be advised to make some changes to your lifestyle
- if your blood pressure is consistently above 140/90mmHg (or 135/85mmHg at home) and your risk of other problems is high – you’ll be offered medicine to lower your blood pressure, in addition to lifestyle changes
- if your blood pressure is consistently above 160/100mmHg – you’ll be offered medicine to lower your blood pressure, in addition to lifestyle changes
Let’s dig deeper into some of the lifestyle changes you could try:
Here are some natural ways to reduce blood pressure
Acupressure is an ancient healing art which uses the fingers, thumbs or knuckles to press key points on the surface of the skin, which stimulates the body’s natural self-curative abilities. If you’ve ever used sea sickness bands on your wrists, then you’ve experienced the power of acupuncture. The NHS recommend the use of acupressure for reducing morning sickness.
In his book “Acupressure: How to cure common ailments the natural way”, author Michael Reed Gach recommends three potent points for hypertension:
GB20 – Just below the base of the skull, in the hollows on both sides. Use your thumbs to gradually push up and underneath your skull as you slowly tilt your head backwards. Breathe deeply and hold for one or two minutes until you feel a regular, even pulse on both sides.
B62 – In the first indentation, directly below the outer anklebone. This hollow is one third the distance from the outer anklebone to the bottom of the heel.
K6 – Directly below the inside of the anklebone in a slight indentation.
Use your thumbs to hold the K6 points on the inside of each ankle in an indentation directly below the inner ankle bone. Position your fingertips directly across from your phone to press B62, which is located directly below the outer anklebone. Hold these points for one minute as you breathe deeply.
You can practice holding these points twice a day. However, take professional advice if you are pregnant, as some acupressure points can stimulate contractions.
Massage with one or more of the essential oils known to decrease blood pressure can be calming, soothing, and deeply relaxing.
Long term studies in a London teaching hospital have shown that massage effectively reduces high blood pressure, and that this effect persists for a long time. The most important oils for use in these circumstances our lavender, marjoram, and Ylang Ylang, says aromatherapist Patricia Davis. In her book ‘Aromatherapy an A-Z’ Davis says “All these oils are pleasing and enjoyable to use in massage oils, and also as bath oils for use between treatments. You can also use chamomile, bergamot, neroli, rose and frankincense because these are sedative, antidepressant and uplifting oils.”
In her book “The fragrant pharmacy”, Valerie Ann Worwood, suggests a synergistic blend of marjoram, lavender and geranium to be used in a bath. She also recommends giving yourself a daily massage with diluted essential oils – always moving in the direction of the heart – with marjoram, geranium and hyssop.
In studies, inhaling bergamot, lavender and ylang ylang essential oils once a day for four weeks, was shown to lower both blood pressure and cortisol levels.
In another study, lavender, ylang ylang, marjoram and neroli were shown to decrease daytime blood pressure.
Although I’ll talk about more foods later, I wanted to give beetroot a section of its own. The humble beetroot – commonly associated with being a peasant food – comes up trumps when it comes to lowering blood pressure.
Drinking 250ml of beetroot juice each day could significantly lower the blood pressure of people with high blood pressure, according to research funded by the British Heart Foundation. Volunteers, who took part in the study, were found to have blood pressure levels back in the ‘normal’ range by the end of the study. This effect is caused by an active ingredient present in beetroot, called nitrate. This chemical is also available in foods such as spinach, kale, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce and watercress.
When we eat beetroot, bacteria that live in the mouth turn the nitrate in the beetroot into nitrite and this in turn is thought to get changed into nitric oxide which causes the blood vessels to dilate – lowering our blood pressure. In this experiment by Dr Chris Van Tullken, results showed that beetroot significantly lowered blood pressure.
Why not start your day with a juice such as beetroot, carrot (or cabbage), apple and ginger?
Breathing is such a simple thing, yet many of us overlook the importance of good breathing. If you watch a baby or an animal such as a cat or dog, you’ll notice that when they breathe, their chests are relatively still, while their abdomen rises and falls. Most adults are shallow breathers, taking fast breaths into their chests.
By consciously focusing on your breath, you can quickly lower both heart rate and blood pressure.
The American Journal of Cardiology found that short-term voluntary slow breathing can lower blood pressure and heart rate. This study shows that slow breathing, at around six breaths per minute, helps to lower blood pressure. Aim to build up to 15 minutes a day for the best benefit. And as you’ll discover later, doing your breathing with the backdrop of relaxing music can have even more benefits to you. An easy way to check if you are breathing correctly, is to put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. As you breathe, you want the hand on your chest to stay relatively still, while the one over your abdomen rises and falls smoothly.
If you’re a fan of gadgets and gizmos, the Power Breathe is a simple hand held device you might consider. The Power Breathe focuses on Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training (IMST). Think of it as resistance training for the muscles you use to breathe or a dumbbell for your diaphragm!
The University of Colorado’s researched showed that approximately 5-minutes (or 30 breaths), using a POWERbreathe gadget, lowered blood pressure as much as aerobic exercise and more than some medications. [source].
CBD oil is getting a lot of attention at the moment and has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and improve sleep. Research is limited on hypertension, but there were promising results shown in a study done on people with healthy blood pressure. When subjected to a stress test, participants were given a single dose of CBD oil, which was shown to lower blood pressure.
The NHS suggest basic guidelines, such as reducing the amount of salt you eat to less than a teaspoonful, or 6gms. They also recommend increasing fruits, vegetables along with plenty of fibre from wholegrain rice, bread and pasta.
However, not all salt is created equal. In this study done on rats, researchers learned that a healthy intake of sea salt may actually be beneficial in treating hypertension. They concluded it is likely that the major beneficial effect of sea salt is associated with the mineral content of the sea salt that is known to be anti-hypertensive such as potassium, calcium and magnesium. Research still needs to be done on humans.
Harvard Health list a more comprehensive eating plan, including a sample weekly shopping list.
I’m a great believer in using ‘food as medicine, and we’ve already mentioned beetroot, but there are other foods that can help lower blood pressure too:
Bananas and their peels: Banana peels have a long history of use in folk and traditional medicine for use in treating blood pressure, due to their potassium content and ability to relax the blood vessels.
Berries: The beautiful hues of red, purple and blue in berries is due to anthocyanins (ACNs). These anthocyanins have numerous health benefits. In this synopsis of 66 trials, a consistent number of studies documented a significant blood-pressure-lowering activity related to ACNs and ACN-rich berry consumption, suggesting that an effect indeed exists.
Citrus fruit: A 5-month study involving 101 Japanese women combined daily ingestion of lemons with walking which significantly lowered blood pressure.
In this study, grapefruit juice was shown to reduce blood pressure in both healthy patients and those exhibiting hypertension.
Oily fish: Oily fish such as salmon and mackerel are rich in omega 3 oils, which this source says “A higher Omega-3 Index is associated with statistically significant, clinically relevant lower [blood pressure]… Diets rich in [omega 3 fatty acids] may be a strategy for primary prevention of hypertension.”
Pumpkin seeds: Pumpkin seeds are a great food to snack on throughout the day. They are one of the best natural sources of magnesium, a mineral that’s important for keeping blood pressure in check. In one study, women taking 3gms pumpkin seed oil every day for three weeks, showed that their systolic blood pressure decreased significantly.
Raisins: This research was funded through the California Raisin Marketing Board, so make of it what you will, but they found that three handfuls of raisins a day for 12 weeks reduced high blood pressure. This could be because they are high in potassium. (And you’d need to watch your sugar levels if you were eating that many raisins per day.)
Spinach: Like beetroot which we mentioned earlier, spinach is rich in nitrates. It also contains potassium, magnesium and calcium – all of which are required, in balance, for healthy blood pressure. This study gave participants spinach soup, every day for a week. They found that dietary nitrate from spinach may have the potential to help manage elevated blood pressure.
EFT is an amazing tool I use with most of my clients. While it looks weird and sounds weird, there have been over 100 scientific studies done on the positive effects of EFT on many physical and mental health symptoms including anxiety, depression, phobias, cravings and addictions, PTSD and physical pain. It can also be used to improve athletic performance.
There are several accounts of people using EFT to treat high blood pressure successfully, including this German Dr, who discovered that many cases of hypertension are linked to emotional issues which can revealed by looking for stressful events in the clients life when the hypertension started. There are links to other blood pressure case histories on this page, one of which shows that following five rounds of tapping, one patient reduced her blood pressure from 149/95 to 119/84. This was later confirmed by her physician.
Exercise is an important factor in a healthy blood pressure, especially with our sedentary lifestyles. And walking is one of the easiest exercises to do and requires no special equipment. Aim for brisk walking, at least 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week. If you’re short on time, vigorous activity, like jogging, gives you the same benefit in 20 minutes, 3 to 4 days a week.
Data in this small study shows that aerobic exercise leads to a significant reduction of blood pressure – this occurred after 8-12 weeks of walking on a treadmill three times a week. Strength training can also help, as this study reveals. Another study shows that walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes each morning lowers blood pressure; it also highlights the importance of getting up regularly, if your lifestyle requires you to sit a lot (hello computer workers…)
Essentially any exercise that you stick to and enjoy should bring benefits – use a bike, go for a swim, take an aerobics class or pick up a skipping rope. Your commitment to what you are doing is more important than what you actually do.
If you sit for several hours a day, try to take 5- to 10-minute breaks each hour to stretch and move. Set a reminder on your phone for this if you need to.
Berberine is a naturally occurring compound found in many plants. It’s been used for hundreds of years in Chinese medicine to treat various ailments including reducing blood sugar levels, lowering cholesterol as well as helping people to lose weight. In this clinical trial – due to finish in May 2022 – researchers are investigating whether berberine hydrochloride tablets will have a positive effect on hypertension. In this study, promising results were found when using berberine on diabetic rats.
Hawthorn berry shows promising results in research too. In this study, volunteers took either 600 mg magnesium or 500 mg hawthorn berry extract daily for 10 weeks. They also set up groups taking both supplements or a placebo. At the end of the ten weeks, there was significant reduction in diastolic blood pressure for those taking hawthorn berry compared to the other groups. What’s interesting, is they also had lower anxiety scores. When you consider that stress can be a big component of hypertension, hawthorn berry could be a useful herbal remedy.
Another study was done on patients with diabetes, as well as high blood pressure. Patients with type 2 diabetes were randomly given either 1200 mg hawthorn extract or a placebo for 16 weeks. At the end of the research, patients who had been taking hawthorn extract had significant difference in mean diastolic blood pressure reductions. See the study here.
Isometric Hand grip exercises
I find this study very exciting, because it’s a fun thing to do. And when you’re feeling stressed, it’s important to bring fun into your life. For the study, participants used a handgrip tool at 30% of their maximum voluntary contraction for 3 minutes, then rested for 5 minutes and repeated this five times. This exercise was repeated three times a week for 10 weeks. They concluded that Isometric Hand Grip exercise training might be a simple, effective, inexpensive and non-pharmacological method in lowering blood pressure.
In another study, the Journal of the American Heart Association found similar results when participants performed 3 sessions per week, for 8 weeks, of unilateral handgrip exercises, consisting of 4 sets of isometric contractions for 2 minutes at 30% of maximum voluntary contraction and a 4‐minute interval between sets. You can read that in full, here.
Here’s a short YouTube on how to do the exercise:
If isometric exercises feel achievable to you, but you don’t have a hand grip tool, then there are other things you can do such as doing thigh squeezes while you’re sitting at your desk or watching TV, holding the plank bridge or squeezing a ball in your hand. This brilliant article talks you through half a dozen easy and fun exercises. The authors cite that in a handful of studies, people with normal blood pressure who did three 15 to 20 minutes sessions of isometric exercises every week for 10 weeks experienced more than a 10-point plunge in their systolic blood pressure. And their diastolic pressure fell almost 7 points. Not bad for not lifting a finger!
They continue by saying that in the research, the three weekly sessions included doing multiple 2-minute rounds of isometric exercises like those, with 1 to 3 minute rests in between.
Meditation, mindfulness and relaxation
Stress can be a major contributor to hypertension, so it’s important to reduce stress as much as possible. How you do that is an individual choice, but tools like mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and other relaxation techniques can help. You can find some simple audio files to listen to on the EppCymru site. [edit. That page has now been removed. You can find it on the archive page here.] Breathing techniques where the out-breath is twice the length of the in-breath can help you to relax. If you have a pet, you’ll know they are fantastic for releasing tension, so go and stroke your cat or dog! And don’t forget laughter, watch some funny videos on YouTube, call up a friend who shares your sense of humour or join a yoga laughter group.
Have you noticed how music can change your mood? Well it can lower your blood pressure too! In this small study, participants who listened to classical, Celtic or Indian (raga) music for just 30 minutes a day for one month had significant reductions in their blood pressure. This study found that listening specifically to Mozart or Strauss had similar effects on hypertension.
Taking good quality supplements can help support healthy blood pressure. For example:
Calcium is low in some hypertension patients. To ensure good uptake of calcium, you need vitamin D3 and K2 as well.
COQ10 A suggested daily dose of 150mg COQ10 may help lower blood pressure
EFAs We’ve already talked about EFAs in relation to oily fish.
Magnesium around 200-600mgs per day can help reduce blood pressure
Potassium helps regulate blood pressure, so consider taking a supplement and / or adding potassium-rich foods into your diet, such as bananas or raisins; which we’ve already mentioned.
Probiotics. It’s becoming more and more apparent that good health begins in the gut. In Hypertension journal, it was found that probiotic consumption over a couple of months may improve blood pressure. You could also include kefir in your diet, which has been shown to lower blood pressure in rats.
Keeping your weight at healthy levels can help reduce blood pressure. In fact, your blood pressure rises as your body weight rises, because your heart has to work harder to pump the blood around your body. Find out if you have a healthy BMI with this online calculator.
Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Yoga
While scientific evidence is limited, proponents of tai chi, qi gong and yoga believe these forms of exercise can relieve tension, help relaxation, aid sleep and improve a sense of well-being.
Yoga is an exercise-related and posture-related technique that involves gentle stretching, breath control and meditation. Here are several yoga poses reported to be beneficial for treating hypertension. While studies are limited, there is evidence that yoga can have a ‘moderate’ effect on lowering blood pressure. However, yoga has so many more benefits, that it felt right to include it here.
Both Qi Gong and Tai Chi use slow movements, postures and stretches, based on a Chinese martial art, used to enhance mental and physical health. When done regularly, both might enhance cardiovascular function and improve well-being by helping relaxation.
As mindful breathing, reduction of stress and increased exercise can help lower blood pressure, it’s worth taking a class in one of these disciplines to see how it might benefit you.
It can be terrifying to be diagnosed with hypertension, but it’s important to recognise that things can be done, if you address certain lifestyle factors, such as weight, exercise, diet and stress levels. If you are suffering from the stress caused by, or contributing to, high blood pressure, then contact me. I help stressed, overwhelmed, anxious people transform their lives so they feel happy, healthy and energised.