This is a common scenario: You’re at the doctor’s office for your routine physical exam, and after checking your weight and heartbeat, the nurse measures and reads your blood pressure.
“150 over 90. That’s high,” she says.
But what do those numbers mean? How are they measured? And how high is too high?
Although commonly misunderstood, blood pressure is a relatively simple calculation that can reveal a great deal about our physical health. When it is high, there are several easy, natural ways to lower our numbers and lead a healthier life.
What Is 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. 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.
- Diastolic blood pressure measures the amount of pressure in the arteries when your heart rests between beats.
These two numbers are measured in millimeters of mercury, or mmHg. (When medical professionals first discovered a way to accurately test for pressure, they used mercury in their gauges. The name has stuck, and medicine still uses millimeters of mercury as its unit.)
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.
Normal Blood Pressure Reading
Blood pressure is considered normal when the systolic reading is below 120 and the diastolic is below 80. Numbers that are higher are considered high blood pressure.
What Is Considered High Blood Pressure?
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 and of itself may not reflect an urgent concern but can lead to serious complications. While it’s possible to have hypertension for years without experiencing any symptoms, this does not mean that damage has not been inflicted on your heart and blood vessels. A doctor may consider prescribing blood pressure medication at this stage.
Hypertension stage 2: Those in this stage of hypertension have a systolic blood pressure at or above 160 or diastolic blood pressure at or above 100.
These blood pressure readings are considered abnormal and should prompt immediate lifestyle changes. In most circumstances, blood-pressure lowering medication will be prescribed immediately, and consistent follow-up care with a healthcare professional will be necessary.
Hypertensive emergency: Diastolic blood pressure at or above 120 with additional symptoms indicates you are in a state of hypertensive emergency. This blood pressure range demands immediate emergency medical attention.
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
For many people who have high blood pressure, there is no specific cause. Called primary hypertension, this type of high blood pressure tends to develop over many years.
For others, high blood pressure can be caused by an underlying condition. This is referred to as secondary hypertension. Secondary hypertension can be caused by various conditions and medications, including:
- Sleep apnea
- Problems with the kidney
- Adrenal gland tumors
- Thyroid problems
- Congenital birth defects
- Birth control pills
- Cold medication
- Over-the-counter pain relievers
- Illegal drugs
High Blood Pressure Symptoms
What’s concerning about high blood pressure is that most people aren’t aware they have it because there are usually no symptoms—even if the levels are dangerously high.
In some cases, a person with high blood pressure might experience headaches, difficulty breathing, or nosebleeds; however, these symptoms typically don’t show up until the blood pressure has become severe.
Is High Blood Pressure a Disease?
High blood pressure in itself is not a disease; it is a symptom of disease.
From kidney problems to adrenal gland tumors to congenital defects, high blood pressure is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. Because of this, it is important that you monitor your blood pressure regularly.
High Blood Pressure and Headaches
It’s rare that high blood pressure would cause a headache or nosebleed. If you’re experiencing a headache that you believe is caused by high blood pressure, it may mean that your blood pressure is 180/120 mmHg (a systolic of 180 and a diastolic of 120) or higher—this is considered hypertensive crisis.
If you have a headache and high blood pressure when you measure it, wait five minutes and measure again. If it is still at 180/120 mmHg or above, call 911 immediately.
If you’re experiencing recurring headaches or nosebleeds, you should contact your doctor, who can rule out any other health conditions.
High Blood Pressure and Pregnancy
Women who experience high blood pressure during pregnancy may have had high blood pressure prior to pregnancy or developed it during pregnancy. Here are the three types:
- Chronic hypertension is high blood pressure that was either present before pregnancy or occurred during pregnancy, before 20 weeks. Because high blood pressure usually doesn’t have symptoms, it’s often difficult to determine when it began.
- Gestational hypertension is high blood pressure that develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy. With this type of high blood pressure there is no excess protein in the urine and no signs of organ damage. Some women with gestational hypertension eventually develop preeclampsia.
- Preeclampsia occurs when hypertension develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy and is associated with signs of damage to other systems, including the kidneys, liver, blood or brain. Untreated preeclampsia is serious and can lead to severe or fatal complications for the mom and her baby, including the development of seizures.
Menopause and High Blood Pressure
Typically, blood pressure rises after menopause, believed to be caused by natural hormonal shifts. In addition, these can be contributing factors:
- Because hormone changes can lead to weight gain and make your blood pressure more reactive to salt in your diet, it can also cause your blood pressure to rise.
- Many doctors believe that some types of hormone therapy can contribute to high blood pressure.
To maintain a healthy blood pressure before and after menopause, simply follow a healthy lifestyle that includes a nutritious diet of heart-healthy foods, regular exercise, stress management, limited use of alcohol and avoidance of smoking.
Pediatric Blood Pressure
High blood pressure in children has become an increasingly common problem.
There isn’t a specific number that signifies a child has high blood pressure because the number constantly changes as the child grows.
For children under age 6, high blood pressure can be indicative of another medical condition. High blood pressure in older children, on the other hand, is often caused by the same issues in adults—obesity, poor nutrition and lack of exercise.
Foods That Lower Blood Pressure
Vegetarian diets, which are abundant in plant-based foods, are proven to have a positive effect on blood pressure.
- Vegetables like broccoli, spinach, carrots and plain potatoes are great additions to a healthy diet.
- Fruits, grains and legumes help to bring down blood pressure.
- Potassium-rich foods—bananas, oranges, raisins, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, peas and cucumbers to name a few—are most powerful for lowering blood pressure. Aim for at least 4,700 milligrams of potassium a day.
Some patients report a drop in blood pressure in just six weeks after adding more of these foods to their diet.
Salt and High Blood Pressure
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 a day.
If you’re the type of cook who reaches for the salt to liven up a dish, try experimenting with other spices for some new and delicious flavors. Even cinnamon can add an interesting dimension to a savory dish without impacting your blood pressure.
Exercise to Lower Blood Pressure
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.
High Blood Pressure Medication
For those who have high blood pressure, it’s not uncommon for a doctor to prescribe a prescription medication to help lower blood pressure. These include:
- Thiazide diuretics. Often referred to as water pills, diuretics act on the kidneys to help the body eliminate sodium and water, which in turn reduces blood volume.
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. These medications work to help relax blood vessels by preventing the formation of a natural chemical that narrows the vessels.
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers. These medications also help relax blood vessels by blocking the action rather than the formation of the natural chemical that narrows blood vessels.
- Calcium channel blockers. By helping to relax the muscles of your blood vessels, these medications can keep the blood pumping at a normal pace.
Lower Blood Pressure Naturally
There are many ways to lower blood pressure naturally without the use of medication. Here are some things to try:
- Modify your diet to a heart-healthy one with lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish and low-fat dairy.
- Keep your weight in check. If you are overweight, aim to get to a healthy weight.
- Increase your regular physical activity. Not only will this lower your blood pressure, it will also help you manage stress and reduce your risk of health problems.
- Drink only in moderation. This means up to one drink daily for women and up to two drinks daily for men.
- Because tobacco can cause a buildup of plaque in the arteries, it is best to stop smoking altogether.
- Try to reduce stress as much as possible. Yoga, muscle relaxation, deep breathing and meditation are all great ways to keep your stress at bay.
How to Check Blood Pressure?
Monitoring your blood pressure, either at home or at a self-monitoring station, can help you keep closer tabs on your numbers. It isn’t a substitute for visiting the doctor, but it can allow you to see if medication is working and even alert you to potential complications.
The easiest way to check your blood pressure yourself is to go to a pharmacy with a blood pressure station or buy an automated cuff, reasonably priced in most drug stores and online.
If you don’t have an automated cuff, you can check your blood pressure manually using a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope. Follow these steps:
- Make sure you’re relaxed with your arm resting comfortably on a table or the arm of a chair with the palm facing up.
- Place the cuff on your bicep and squeeze the balloon until the cuff is inflated. (The cuff should be inflated about 20-30mmHg over your normal blood pressure.)
- Once you’ve inflated the cuff completely, place the stethoscope flat side down on the inside of your elbow crease.
- As you begin to deflate the balloon, watch the blood pressure meter while listening through the stethoscope for the first heartbeat sound. This is your systolic blood pressure. When the beating sound stops, this is your diastolic blood pressure.
How to Prevent High Blood Pressure?
Preventing high blood pressure can decrease your risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney disease. And the good news is it usually only takes some simple lifestyle changes. Preventive measures are similar to the steps that you would take to naturally lower blood pressure. They include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Eating healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and limiting fat and sugar
- Reducing the amount of salt you consume
- Exercising at least 30 minutes three days a week and then working up to an ideal 150 minutes of some form of moderate exercise weekly.
CareNow® Can Help
If you’re concerned about your blood pressure, or simply want to have it monitored, consider visiting your local CareNow® clinic.
With more than 112 urgent care clinics around the United States, there’s a location near you.
Before your visit, be sure to utilize the Web Check-In®.
Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.