High blood pressure, or hypertension, is not just a health condition, it’s a disease.
Blood pressure is the body’s reflection of the tension in the blood vessels— the more tense they are, the higher your blood pressure is and harder the heart has to work, said Dr. Vincent Bufalino, a spokesperson for the American Heart Association.
High blood pressure increases your risk for heart attack and stroke, and if it’s not well-controlled, kidney failure can result as well. It’s in the same group of other serious risk factors including high cholesterol, obesity, type 2 diabetes, smoking and family history.
“The more of those you have the more likely you are to develop heart disease,” Bufalino said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate about one in three Americans have hypertension. Blood pressure increases with age, too. By age 60, about 50 percent of people have it. And for most, it’s genetic.
Although there are several medications available to treat high blood pressure, experts say, with simple lifestyle changes, you can control with without medication— even if you have a genetic predisposition. Plus, small improvements in your numbers can make a huge difference in your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Here are 13 ways to prevent and control high blood pressure.
1. Know your numbers.
Blood pressure of 120 over 80 is the ideal for healthy people. Yet for those who have high blood pressure, new guidelines published in 2013 in the Journal of the American Medical Association say blood pressure targets of 140 over 90 or below are ok.
If you have high blood pressure, your physician may recommend you check your levels every day. For most healthy people however, at the yearly physical and a few times throughout the year is enough.
2. Get your own blood pressure cuff.
In addition to getting your blood pressure checked at your doctor’s office, it’s a good idea to check it at home, too. Experts agree the “white coat phenomenon,” or angst in the doctor’s office, can cause your numbers to rise.
“The ideal way to do it is at home in bed when you wake up,” said Dr. Jonny Bowden, a board-certified nutritionist and author of “The Great Cholesterol Myth.” Purchase a cuff at any drugstore or get one that syncs with an app.
3. Nix the processed foods.
Surprisingly, consuming too much sodium may not raise your blood pressure.
“Sodium is overrated. Most people are not salt sensitive,” Bowden said.
Nevertheless, experts agree it’s a good idea to reduce your intake to 2,000 milligrams or less a day. Processed foods are the most significant and sneaky sources of sodium, which is why it’s a good idea to cut them out of your diet altogether.
4. Eat more vegetables.
Studies show that the more potassium in the diet, the lower blood pressure is. The best sources of potassium are in vegetables, so aim to get upwards of nine servings a day.
5. Lose weight.
Your risk for hypertension is higher if you’re overweight or obese. Get on a weight=loss plan like the DASH diet, which has been shown to control high blood pressure. Plus, aim to get 2 and 1/2 hours of exercise a week, including at least two days of strength training.
6. Get enough sleep.
Insomnia may be linked to high blood pressure, a recent study in the journal Hypertension found. Try to identify your triggers— an evening coffee, stress, or late night iPad use— and make modifications to get more shut-eye.
Whether it’s short-term or chronic, stress can throw your numbers off.
“Any disruption in your life will lead to elevations in your blood pressure,” Bufalino said.
Carve out time in your schedule for a daily practice of deep breathing, meditation, exercise and fun.
8. Cut caffeine.
Caffeine is a driver for blood pressure. You don’t have to stop your habit cold- turkey but try to limit your intake from coffee, tea, soda, sports drinks and chocolate.
9. Deal with snoring.
Obstructive sleep apnea, which causes frequent pauses in breathing, puts stress on your body and raises your blood pressure. Sleep apnea can also lead to atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heartbeat. If your partner has told you that you snore or if you wake up exhausted and tired throughout the day, talk to your doctor.
10. Eat bilberries.
According to a recent study in the journal PLOS One, wild blueberries, known as bilberries, can improve blood pressure in a high-fat diet. Although eating these little gems won’t negate a poor diet, they can help you reduce some of the negative effects as you start to overhaul your diet.
11. Eat cocoa.
Studies show that flavanols found in cocoa may help to reduce blood pressure. But don’t go overboard— a one-inch square of dark chocolate a day is just enough.
12. Get enough magnesium.
“Magnesium relaxes the blood vessel walls and the mind,” Bowden said.
Dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds and avocado are all great sources. Add at least two servings of fatty fish a week which have omega-3 fatty acids that can help to lower blood pressure as well.
13. Quit smoking.
Smoking is bad for your health in so many ways, but it also makes your blood pressure rise right after you finish a cigarette. Sign up for a smoking cessation plan today and kick the habit for good.
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.