High blood pressure, also known as hypertension affects 1 in 5 Australians, although some may not even know they have it. It is one of the most commonly occurring health issues throughout the country.
High blood pressure is regularly caused by genetics or poor dietary choices. It occurs in as much as 70% of the elderly population. It occurs even more commonly in people with other conditions such as diabetes or alcohol dependence and presents several risks to the affected individual.
What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure is simply a measure of the physical pressure of blood in the vessels. High blood pressure occurs when there is more pressure than normal pushing against the veins and arteries as the blood is circulated through the body.
You have probably heard that a healthy blood pressure is 120/80, but what exactly does this mean? Blood pressure is measured with two parts: systolic and diastolic pressure. The larger number (120) is systolic pressure, and this represents the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats, pumping blood into the arteries. The lower number, diastolic, is the pressure when the arteries are relaxed between each heartbeat.
Having a high diastolic pressure means your heart is still working hard even when it is supposed to be relaxing. A high reading of systolic pressure on the other hand, means your heart needs to work hard to simply pump the blood. Having one or both numbers elevated can lead to a diagnosis of high blood pressure or hypertension.
What is hypertension?
Blood pressure differs between individuals, and each person has their own normal rate of blood pressure. For most people, this is somewhere around 120/80, which is why this is considered a normal range. Blood pressure is affected by several factors, such as exercise, water and salt intake, stress and elevation. It is normal for blood pressure to have some fluctuation. But when it deviates too far from the recommended 120/80 for extended periods of time, this can mean an individual has high blood pressure.
Generally speaking, doctors consider anything over 140/90 to be high and will treat the patient accordingly. It is important to seek the help of a healthcare professional to control and lower high blood pressure. Having high blood pressure puts an individual at risk for cardiovascular disease. Being at risk is whereby the heart is unable to maintain the demands of the body and can lead to complications such as heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure.
What causes high blood pressure?
For some people, high blood pressure occurs through genetics, whereby they have an increased risk of occurrence due to the fact that hypertension runs in the family. In these patients, being aware of their risk and taking steps to prevent it, such as eating a healthy, whole foods diet, exercising regularly and reducing sodium intake is extremely important.
For other individuals, who are not genetically pre-disposed to the disease, high blood pressure can be caused by obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, an unhealthy diet rich in processed foods and high in sodium and refined sugar, or as a complication of other diseases such as diabetes. One of the biggest risk factors – which we also have the greatest control over – is our lifestyle. Maintaining a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of hypertension because the body never receives any help in pumping the blood, and the cardiovascular system never gets any exercise to encourage increased movement. In individuals who are active, the exercise helps with the physical flow of blood. While movement encourages blood flow, it thereby decreases the pressure on the arteries.
High Sodium Intake
Likewise, eating an unhealthy diet is a major cause of increased blood pressure. One of the biggest culprits in this is sodium intake. In recent years our food has become increasingly higher in sodium content. Processed foods and pre-packaged foods in particular do contain high amount of sodium. In the body, sodium is strictly balanced with water via specific mechanisms within our bodily systems.
When we have a high level of sodium in our body, this increases the need for water in our body. As a result, it reduces the kidney’s ability to remove water through elimination and thereby increasing our blood volume. Increased blood volume results in increased blood pressure as there is more fluid trying to get through the arteries.
Decreasing sodium intake allows the body to more easily maintain the water balance in the body, eliminating excess water via urine and maintaining a healthier blood volume level that decreases the blood pressure.
Running hand in hand with lifestyle, including diet and exercise is weight. Individuals who are overweight have an increased risk of high blood pressure. This is because increased fatty deposits put increased physical pressure on arteries. The fatty deposits can start to build up in the arteries and cause blockages, or impede blood flow. For this reason, it requires more pressure to move the deposits out for the blood to flow. This is typically what we hear about when it comes to high cholesterol.
High cholesterol levels lead to cholesterol being deposited on the walls of the arteries, narrowing the space for the blood to flow through, increasing the pressure on the artery walls and causing an overall rise in blood pressure. The body does need a certain amount of cholesterol, but it can make this in the liver and circulate it throughout the body.
When there is excess cholesterol, it needs to be picked up and eliminated or recycled back through to be used later. This becomes difficult however when the intake of fat and cholesterol is so high that the body can’t keep up with the surplus. It happens when the cholesterol ends up being deposited in the arteries. That scenario can lead to hypertension, or worse yet, a heart attack causing a blockage.
Finally, studies have shown that drinking alcohol causes an increase in blood pressure as well. Alcohol increases blood volume which may heighten blood pressure . The more alcohol is consumed, the more chance of pressure elevation. This is worse for individuals who engage in regular binge drinking as opposed to those who just drink casually. If you are at risk for high blood pressure or have been diagnosed with hypertension, it is advisable to reduce or limit your intake of alcohol. As preventive measure, it is best to only drink 1-2 servings of alcohol 1-2 times per week.
How do you treat high blood pressure?
Once an individual is diagnosed with high blood pressure, it usually does not go away on its own. It tends to simply go up with time, thereby also increasing the risk of complications. Given the inherent life-threatening risks, doctors often tend to prescribe medication to help bring the disease under control. These drugs are typically blood thinners, which allow the blood to flow more easily through the arteries.
These drugs, however, do come with risks and side effects. Such may include dizziness, nausea, or interactions with other medications. There is also the risk of the body becoming reliant on said drugs to keep the blood pressure at a healthy level. It is therefore advisable to also make other changes which can support long-term lowered blood pressure levels without the use of medication.
How can I reduce my chances of getting hypertension?
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help decrease your chances of being diagnosed with high blood pressure. This involves regular exercise, eating nutrient-rich whole foods, reducing alcohol intake and drinking plenty of water.
Aim to do 45-60 minutes of exercise, 4-5 days per week, with at least 15 minutes being at an elevated heart rate. This can be as simple as going for a walk, using the stairs instead of the elevator, or doing bodyweight exercises while you watch TV at night.
Together, these changes, as well as reducing your stress levels and being aware of your genetic factors for high blood pressure, will ensure you are able to stay healthy and not be at risk for hypertension.
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