take the pressure down: manage high blood pressure naturally

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High blood pressure kills! For every point that your blood pressure increases above normal, your risk of dying in the next year, from any cause, rises by 1% on average!

Your blood pressure is an excellent 'barometer' of overall health, and the state of your circulatory system in particular. It consists of two readings: the systolic pressure, which is the amount of pressure in your circulatory system while your heart muscle is contracting to pump blood; and diastolic pressure, which is the amount of pressure in the system when your heart relaxes between beats.

There are five main reasons why blood pressure becomes elevated:

Arteriosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Whereas healthy arteries are flexible, and assist the heart's pumping action by contracting and releasing their muscle-lined walls, hardened arteries are rigid. Without the arteries flexing and relaxing to assist it, the heart has to pump harder to move blood around the circulatory system. This pushes up blood pressure. Arteriosclerosis is often said to be an inevitable part of the aging process, yet people living in remote areas of China, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, Panama, Brazil and Africa do not suffer increasing blood pressure as they get older. In fact, hypertension seems to be virtually absent from such societies - until people migrate to less remote areas and begin consuming a more processed diet. Then the incidence of hypertension skyrockets. The major contributors to arteriosclerosis are smoking and a high-protein, high-fat, high-salt, nutrient-poor diet.
Atherosclerosis or plugging of the arteries with a thick plaque made from oxidised fats, cholesterol and calcium. The heart has to pump harder to get blood through arteries narrowed by atherosclerotic plaque. Without a constant supply of fresh, oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood, cells die from starvation, suffocation and 'drowning' in their own waste products, within minutes. Unfortunately, people with high blood pressure make more of the hormone, insulin, which aggravates atherosclerosis - a vicious circle indeed.
Increased blood viscosity or thickening of the blood. This occurs after you eat a fatty meal (including vegetable fat), and lasts for hours. Excess fat makes the blood thick, more like treacle, so it's harder for the heart to pump it around your body. Having excessive amounts of fat in your bloodstream also predisposes you to developing atherosclerosis.
Increased blood volume or having more blood than your system is designed to handle. The two main causes of this are excessive sodium (salt) intake and obesity. Our kidneys aren't very efficient at excreting excessive sodium, largely because we evolved on a very low-sodium diet which 'taught' our bodies to hang onto sodium rather than urinating it out. When you eat too much sodium it concentrates in your bloodstream, so the circulatory system retains water in order to dilute the increased blood-sodium concentration. This pushes up the volume of blood circulating in your system, forcing the heart to work harder to pump it all around.
When you develop excess fatty tissue, your body has to 'grow' a network of extra blood vessels and more blood, to nourish all those superfluous fat cells. Again, this forces the heart to work harder to pump blood through what is basically useless tissue. Being overfat also raises the insulin level, and this pushes up the amount of sodium in your body, which further raises blood volume and hence, blood pressure.

5. Increased muscle tone in the arteries, which occurs when you are under stress or have consumed caffeine, nicotine, alcohol or sugar. All of these make your adrenal glands secrete adrenaline, causing the arteries to contract and sodium levels to rise, and thus pushing up blood pressure.

'Normal' or average blood pressure is conventionally defined as 120/80, where 120 is the systolic pressure and 80 is the diastolic pressure. A truly healthy blood pressure is more like 110/70, and many healthy, fit people (including the author!) have much lower blood pressures than this, without suffering symptoms of 'low blood pressure' such as dizziness on standing.

'High blood pressure' or hypertension is defined as consistent readings greater than 140/90. But even a blood pressure of 120/85 means you are about 34% more likely to suffer a stroke, and 21% more likely to have a heart attack, than if your blood pressure was 120/80. Over time, even slightly elevated blood pressure damages arteries and causes the heart muscle to weaken and enlarge. So high blood pressure is a dangerous condition that requires urgent treatment.

Sadly, the standard treatment - blood pressure-lowering or antihypertensive drugs - is extremely dangerous in itself. For people with 'mild to moderate hypertension' (blood pressure up to 145/95), the risks of taking the drugs are actually greater than the risks of having untreated high blood pressure [source: Dr Alan Goldhamer, July 1999 ANHS Conference, Miami Florida]. It may seem incredible, but the very drugs prescribed to lower high blood pressure can actually increase your risk of suffering a stroke or heart attack! They can also cause erectile dysfunction (impotence) in men, fatigue, faintness, headaches, bone marrow depression, impaired kidney function, abdominal pain and anaemia, among a host of other side effects. In spite of their associated problems and limited effectiveness, antihypertensives are among the most widely prescribed drugs. How ironic, then, that drug treatment is not even particularly effective at lowering blood pressure. Most drugs used singly will reduce sy stolic blood pressure by no more than 12, and diastolic pressure by no more than 6.

Comprehensive lifestyle management is far more effective. Medical studies show that:

Losing weight decreases systolic blood pressure by about 1.6 mm mercury and diastolic pressure by 1.3 mm mercury for every kilogram of excess weight lost. So if your blood pressure is 140/100 and you are 20 kilograms overweight, you can return your blood pressure to 'normal' just by getting that excess weight off. (A healthy, low-fat, plant-based diet makes this relatively easy - I have many clients who have shed 30 kg or more in under a year, and kept it off.)
Dramatic restriction of sodium intake drops systolic blood pressure by 16 and diastolic by 9 on average.
Decreasing alcohol intake from one drink per day to one per week, will typically lower systolic pressure by 4.8 and diastolic by 3.3. Alcohol is definitely not a heart-friendly substance - even at intakes considered 'low to moderate', it measurably increases blood pressure.
Regular moderate exercise -just 20 to 30 minutes of walking or other aerobic exercise, three times per week - can be expected to lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressures by 6 - 7 points.
The combination of a plant-based, low-fat, low-salt diet and moderate physical activity will typically lower systolic pressure by 17 and diastolic by 13.
Unfortunately, most hypertensive people receive dietary advice that is completely ineffective at lowering blood pressure. The conventional advice for heart health is to reduce your total fat intake to 30% of total calories by choosing 'lean' cuts of meat, swapping white meats for red meats, using 'low-fat' dairy products instead of full-cream, buying 'reduced-fat' dips and biscuits and so on. The advice also includes avoiding adding salt to food. When people try this approach and it fails to work - as it is bound to - they are told that they have 'resistant' high blood pressure, and they need to go on drugs to prevent a heart attack or stroke. This is completely untrue. Several large studies have shown conclusively that a plant-based, whole-food, low-salt diet drawing 15% or less of calories from fat, safely and rapidly reduces blood pressure to a healthy level.

The major sources of both fat and sodium in the Australian diet are animal products - meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy products - so adopting a plant-based diet is the most vital step to take to lower your blood pressure. But vegetarians and vegans can still take in too much fat and sodium if they eat a lot of processed, restaurant or take-away foods, or use oil, butter, cream, cheese, milk, salt, soy sauce, miso or other salty condiments in their home-prepared meals. (Beware of convenience products made from textured vegetable protein (TVP), such as vegetarian sausages, mince and 'fake' meat! These products are often as heavily laden with sodium and fat as their animal-based counterparts.)

Everyone who is overweight and has high blood pressure should immediately adopt a very low-fat, low-sodium, high-fibre, high-potassium diet in order to safely lose excess weight. This in itself is often enough to bring elevated blood pressure back to normal. I highly recommend Dr Dean Ornish's book, Eat More, Weigh Less, which provides easy-to-understand information and hundreds of delicious, mostly vegan recipes.

Eating a small amount of raw nuts, seeds or LSA (à la Dr Sandra Cabot's formula) every day will ensure that you obtain adequate linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid which strongly lowers blood pressure. Bear in mind, though, that aspirin prevents linoleic acid from exerting this beneficial effect on blood pressure.

All hypertensive people (and the rest of us!) need to develop a variety of strategies to cope better with stress. Stress is an inevitable part of life, even in the most idyllic surroundings. However, certain features of modern life generate types of stress that human beings are ill-equipped to deal with - social isolation; work that is boring, repetitive and lacks a sense of purpose; overcrowding; alienation from the natural world; various forms of pollution (noise, air, water, food, electromagnetic, light); information overload and so on.

Regular physical activity and relaxation/meditation practices are great stress-busters. Possibly of even greater importance in stress management, however, is the need to rebuild some sense of community with others. Whether through charity work, or involvement with a social, hobby or sporting club, or simply spending more 'quality time' with family and friends (not parked in front of the idiot box!), all of us need to regularly get connected to some greater 'whole' than our lonely little selves.

High blood pressure, like all 'dis-eases', is a multifactorial condition, stemming from multiple causes and requiring a multifaceted approach to treatment. The conventional medical tactic of prescribing blood pressure-lowering medication is akin to 'shooting the messenger'. It targets elevated blood pressure, which is purely a marker of a disordered system, without addressing any of the reasons why it became elevated in the first place.

This failure to address root causes explains why pharmaceutical treatment doesn't lower cardiovascular death rates: drug-treated people continue with all the dietary and lifestyle mistakes that caused their blood pressure to rise originally, and these habits continue to damage their heart, arteries, and every other organ and tissue. On the other hand, a comprehensive lifestyle management approach -incorporating healthy eating, regular moderate exercise, and effective ways of managing stress - will help bring blood pressure down to a healthy level and keep it there, while protecting you against chronic degenerative disease.

References available on request.

Robyn Chuter, N D, Grad Dipl Courts, is a naturopath and counselor practising in Cronulla, NSW. She is also Hopewood Health Centre's Stress Management Consultant. She can be contacted on 02 9544 0445.

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By Robyn Chuter

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