You’re in for your routine checkup, and after checking your weight and heartbeat, your nurse measures and reads your blood pressure.
“150 over 90 – that’s high,” she says.
But what do those numbers mean - and how are they measured?
Although commonly misunderstood, blood pressure is a relatively simple calculation that can reveal a great deal about your physical health. And when blood pressure is high, there are several easy, natural ways to lower your numbers and lead a healthier life.
Getting to the Bottom (and Top) of Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is measured in two numbers, presented as one number over the other. The top number is your systolic blood pressure, and the bottom number is your diastolic blood pressure. While many consider systolic blood pressure to be the more important number, you could still be diagnosed with high blood pressure even if only your diastolic number is too high.
The difference between these two numbers is as simple as the beat of your heart. Systolic blood pressure measures the amount of pressure exerted against your artery walls when your heart beats, while diastolic blood pressure measures the amount of pressure exerted against your artery walls when your heart is resting in between each beat. These two numbers are measured in “millimeters of mercury.” When medical professionals first discovered a way to accurately test for pressure, they used mercury in their gauges. Since then, the name has stuck, and pressure in medicine still uses millimeters of mercury as its unit.
Once you have your blood pressure measured, it is important to understand where your numbers fall, according to the American Heart Association’s blood pressure ranges:
- Normal: A systolic blood pressure below 120 and a diastolic blood pressure below 80 signifies normal blood pressure. It is recommended to start taking steps to lower your blood pressure, if either number is considered high.
- Prehypertension: If your systolic blood pressure is between 120 and 139, or if your diastolic blood pressure is between 80 and 89, you may have prehypertension. While this range is not as severe as hypertension, it should be considered as a warning to begin making healthier choices.
- Hypertension Stage 1: A systolic blood pressure between 140 and 159 or a diastolic blood pressure between 90 and 99 indicates the first stage of hypertension. Blood pressure readings in this range in of itself may not reflect an urgent concern, however they can lead to serious complications. While it is possible to have hypertension for years without experiencing any symptoms, this does not mean damage has not been inflicted upon your heart and blood vessels. A doctor may consider prescribing blood pressure medications at this stage.
- Hypertension Stage 2: Those in this stage of hypertension have a systolic blood pressure ≥ 60 or diastolic blood pressure ≥ 100. This blood pressure range is considered abnormal and should prompt immediate lifestyle changes. In most circumstances, blood pressure lowering medicine will be prescribed immediately and consistent follow up care with a healthcare professional will be necessary.
- Hypertensive Emergency: Diastolic blood pressure above or at 120with additional symptoms indicates you are in a state of hypertensive emergency. This blood pressure range demands immediate emergency medical attention.
Is It All My Fault?
While high blood pressure is often caused by lifestyle choices that can be addressed, high blood pressure can also have nothing to do with your lifestyle and everything to do with your family tree.
Scientists and doctors point to genetics as a contributing factor of high blood pressure. Many families pass down hypertension from parent to child in the same way they would pass on red hair or green eyes. There are several different genes and mutations that can lead to the development of high blood pressure, but these instances of bad genetic luck only account for between 2-3 percent of all cases of high blood pressure.
For the vast majority of those with high blood pressure, lifestyle factors and personal health choices are the culprit:
- Bad Health Habits: While it may enhance your French fries, excessive sodium intake is a leading cause of high blood pressure, in addition to lack of exercise and a sedentary lifestyle.
- Obesity: If you are overweight or obese, your heart has a more difficult time pumping blood throughout the body. This added stress can lead to high blood pressure.
- Smoking and Drinking Alcohol: Excessive drinking or smoking can bring about immediate rises in blood pressure. The chemicals in tobacco are particularly dangerous, as they can permanently damage the lining of your artery walls.
In addition to the most common causes of high blood pressure (genetics/lifestyle) secondary factors related to undiagnosed medical conditions (e.g. renal disease, hormonal disorders, and vascular abnormalities) or medications (prescription or over the counter) may be the cause.
What’s the Big Deal?
Regardless of the cause of high blood pressure, it can have significant consequences to your overall health. Here are a few of the most common complications and symptoms of high blood pressure:
- Aneurysms: These occur when a bulge forms in the wall of an artery, and the severity of an aneurysm depends on where it is located. While they may take years to grow and develop, aneurysms can burst suddenly and without warning. Additionally, aneurysms can block blood flow or press against nearby parts of the body.
- Heart Failure: Heart failure occurs when the heart can no longer adequately pump blood to meet the body’s needs. Symptoms include fatigue, difficulty breathing and swelling in the lower body and neck.
- Stroke: Your brain relies on the oxygen in your blood to perform its functions. A stroke occurs when part of your brain is no longer receiving the oxygen it needs. Stroke symptoms include numbness or paralysis of the face, sudden weakness, impaired vision and difficulty communicating through speech.
- Vision Problems: High blood pressure can have a traumatic effect on the blood vessels in your eyes. Elevated pressures over the long term damage the blood vessel walls which may lead to changes in your vision or even sudden blindness.
High blood pressure is not something to be taken lightly, given the potential ramifications. But if your numbers are higher than 120 over 80, there are many simple changes you can make to help get your blood pressure under control.
The Keys to Keeping Control of Your Blood Pressure
There’s no need to despair if you have high blood pressure. With smart decisions and a little hard work, you can put yourself back on track to healthy blood pressure levels.
- Think Like an Herbivore
Vegetarian diets, which are heavy on plant-based foods, are proven to have a positive effect on blood pressure. Vegetables like broccoli, spinach, carrots and potatoes are great for healthy eating. Additionally, fruits, grains and legumes help to bring down your blood pressure. In particular, foods rich in potassium are the most powerful for lowering blood pressure; aim for at least 4,700 milligrams of potassium per day. Some patients report a drop in blood pressure in just six weeks after making positive changes to their diet.
- Just Say No to Salty Foods
As mentioned above, excessive sodium intake is a leading cause of high blood pressure. From potato chips to salted butter, unnecessary added sodium puts stress on your arteries and makes it more difficult for your heart to pump blood. Keep track of the amount of sodium you’re eating on a daily basis and try to keep it below 2,300 milligrams. If you’re the type of cook who immediately reaches for the salt to liven up a dish, try experimenting with other spices for some new and delicious flavors. Even cinnamon can add a new dimension to a savory dish without impacting your blood pressure.
- Get Up and Get Moving
Your heart needs exercise to stay healthy, and regular aerobic exercise is the best way to keep it in shape. You don’t need to go from couch potato to Olympic swimmer overnight, either. Adding a half hour of brisk walking or jogging to your daily routine is more than enough to bring down your blood pressure. If you prefer to space out your workouts, an hour of aerobic exercise every other day will lead to similar results. A consistent exercise regimen, in addition to improving heart health, will also help you maintain a healthy weight.
- Break Your Bad Habits
Excessive drinking and smoking are habits that can be difficult to break. However, these habits can lead to disastrous health results, including hypertension. Smoking tobacco has an immediate impact on blood pressure, leading to narrowed arteries and increased risk of stroke and heart disease. Even secondhand smoke can be a problem. Do your best to avoid prolonged exposure to tobacco.
There is a little more room with alcoholic beverages: women should limit themselves to one drink per day, while men should not drink more than two alcoholic beverages per day. Men over the age of 65 should also limit their alcohol intake to one drink per day.
These tips may seem like obvious suggestions, but they have an immediate and measurable impact on heart health. Switching to a plant-based diet can reduce your blood pressure by up to 20 millimeters of mercury, while a more active lifestyle can prompt drops in blood pressure of 4 to 9 millimeters of mercury.
You Can Take Control of Your Blood Pressure
From healthy eating choices to light exercise, you can take immediate steps to control your blood pressure. Visit your nearest CareNow clinic to check your blood pressure and see if significant lifestyle changes are necessary for your health and use our simple Web Check-In to shorten your lobby wait time.