Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is one of the primary risk factors for heart disease. Given that heart disease remains our number-one killer, controlling one’s blood pressure is extremely important. But what are the risk factors for developing high blood pressure, and what can you do to minimize yours?
Smoking and Excess Weight
At a time when we’ve finally significantly reduced the number of people who are smoking, more than one-third of Americans are overweight or obese. In essence, we’ve traded one major risk factor for hypertension and heart disease for another. As smoking rates have gone down, rates of obesity have ballooned. That’s disheartening to heart doctors, because people are still putting themselves at risk for heart attack, stroke, and even cancer, by carrying around excess body weight.
Unfortunately, weight gain is nearly as difficult to reverse as the addiction to nicotine. They’re even grounded in the same reward circuitry in the brain, which cranks out neurotransmitters like dopamine in response to both nicotine and sugar. That’s right. We’ve essentially traded cigarettes for sugar—and sugar is winning. Simple sugars in soft drinks are especially egregious, but the reality is that modern Americans are consuming far more sugar per capita than in the past, in all sorts of foods.
The absence of excess simple carbohydrates and added sugars in whole foods diets, such as the DASH or Mediterranean diets, accounts for much of the success of these diets. They’re associated with significant reductions in blood pressure, body weight, and cardiovascular and type 2 diabetes disease risk. Even the risk of Alzheimer’s disease is significantly lower among people who adhere to a Mediterranean-style diet.
Plant-based diets provide heart-healthy nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber, antioxidants and natural anti-inflammatories. Ginger, for instance possesses potent anti-inflammatory compounds that quell inflammation. Make no mistake; the underlying cause of most heart disease is atherosclerosis, which begins with dysfunction within the tissue lining the blood vessels.
This tissue, the endothelium, responds well to dietary antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, while a high-sugar diet is inevitably damaging. In recent years it has become clear that heart disease involves a significant inflammation component. Thus, an anti-inflammatory diet is crucial to fostering good heart health.
Inactivity vs. Exercise
Smoking, being overweight or obese, eating a poor diet and advanced age are all well-known risk factors for hypertension and heart disease. We also know that people who get plenty of exercise tend to enjoy significant protection from heart disease. More recently, the opposite behavior—being sedentary—has emerged as another independent risk factor for hypertension. In essence, sitting is toxic.
Fortunately, the fix is simple: Get up and move. Even better, it doesn’t appear to make much difference what you do, as long as you’re not sitting for hours at a time being inactive. Walking the dog, vacuuming, shopping, raking leaves; virtually any activity that gets you up and moving can count toward your daily activity goal. Of course, more strenuous activities, such as swimming laps, jogging, playing basketball, lifting weights, etc., are all excellent ways to get the exercise you need.
Simple walking has recently been shown to significantly improve heart health indicators, and to confer protection against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and even obesity. To hit that mark, though, you’ll need to log about 15,000 steps per day. But don’t become discouraged if you find this distance challenging. Any amount of movement counts; the goal is to minimize sitting time as much as possible throughout the day.
Diets featuring lots of red meat and simple carbohydrates have been linked to a greater risk of hypertension and heart disease. Conversely, eating a whole foods diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, low-fat dairy, olive oil, nuts, legumes, etc. has been linked to a reduced risk of these dangerous conditions.
Certain whole foods, such as ginger, raw beets, arugula, spinach, pomegranate, etc., may be especially healthful, due to their high concentrations of nutrients such as dietary nitrates and unique polyphenol antioxidants. Both of these classes of compounds can directly impact blood vessel health and blood pressure.
Other Risk Factors
Other potential risk factors for hypertension include advanced age, a family history of heart disease, ethnicity (some groups, such as African Americans, tend to be more susceptible to hypertension), gender (men are more likely to develop hypertension before the age of 55; women are more likely to be diagnosed after 55), and finally, stress. Obviously, you can’t change your heritage, but you can take steps to alleviate or at least control the effects of stress.