Before I address the high blood pressure risk factors that you may have and not know about and tell you what you can do about them, let’s go over a few basics.
Blood Pressure Basics
Your arteries are responsible for carrying blood from your heart to the rest of your body. With each heartbeat, your heart pumps blood into your arteries. The force that your blood exerts on your artery walls is called blood pressure.
When your doctor gives you a blood pressure reading, it’s always represented as a fraction, such as 120/80. The top number represents your systolic pressure, which is your blood pressure when your heart beats. The bottom number is your diastolic pressure—the pressure in between beats, when your heart is at rest.
A blood pressure reading of 120/80 or less is healthy, and a reading of 140/90 or higher is hypertensive. A systolic reading between 121 to 139, or a diastolic reading between 81 to 89, is considered prehypertension. While this may not sound serious, even slightly elevated blood pressure is dangerous and must be treated.
Monitor Your Own Blood Pressure
The best way to proactively maintain healthy blood pressure is to monitor it on your own. Your blood pressure varies naturally according to what’s going on in your body and mind at the time. So, no single reading can accurately represent what your blood pressure is overall. For this reason, I believe that every household should have a digital blood pressure machine (which can easily be found at most pharmacies).
To monitor your blood pressure, I suggest checking it about every four hours for three days straight. Keep a log of each reading, noting the time, what you were doing, and your emotional state. Then, average the systolic and diastolic figures to create a daily average.
If your blood pressure is 120/80 or lower, you are in good shape (although I still recommend that you follow a daily heart health routine that includes the steps below). If you find that your blood pressure is higher than 120/80 (even slightly), you need to start lowering those numbers immediately.
In a nutshell, a heart health routine should include:
• No saturated fats and a mostly vegetarian diet, with foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as ground flaxseed and salmon.
• Daily exercise for 30 minutes, preferably more.
• Heart-healthy supplements taken every day, such as 60–120 mg of CoQ10, 600–1,000 mg of L-carnitine, and 800–1,000 mcg of folic acid.
• Avoid cigarettes and secondhand smoke.
Fight the Other Risk Factors
While healthy lifestyle habits are crucial in helping to maintain normal blood pressure, there are factors that may contribute to high blood pressure that you don’t even know about. I’ll describe each factor and then tell you what else you can do to reduce your risk.
A gas called nitric oxide is produced by the cells that line your arteries. It diffuses into the arterial walls and relaxes them, naturally lowering blood pressure. Without adequate nitric oxide, arteries stay too tense and blood pressure goes up. Taking a moderate dose of supplemental L-arginine significantly lowers blood pressure in patients whose values are elevated and, just as importantly, doesn’t significantly lower blood pressure in people whose values are normal to begin with (October 2004, Journal of Nutrition).
In one study, 29 volunteers (10 of whom had elevated blood pressure) took 1 gram of L-arginine twice daily. At the end of just one week, the systolic pressure in those who started with elevated blood pressure was 11 points lower (March 2006, Alternative Medicine Reviews).
I recommend taking 1–2 grams of L-arginine twice daily with food—though not a high-protein meal, since protein can interfere with absorption.
GABA is a calming neurotransmitter made from the amino acid glutamic acid. GABA is known to control blood pressure by inhibiting the release of the stimulant neurotransmitter noradrenaline. Studies have shown that a variety of prescription blood pressure medications work, at least in part, by increasing GABA levels. Fortunately, there are a number of natural ways to achieve the same effect.
In a 12-week study, the systolic and diastolic values in 39 hypertensive patients decreased by 17 and 7 points, respectively, within just two weeks of taking supplemental GABA (March 2003, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition). In another 8-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 50 men and women with mild hypertension, daily supplementation with GABA safely reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 10 and 5 points, respectively (2006, Yakuri To Chiryo).
To help lower elevated blood pressure that’s exacerbated by stress and an insufficient amount of calming neurotransmitters, I recommend 1,000 mg of GABA twice a day.
Detoxifying Sulfur Compounds
While you probably know that heavy metals are toxic, you may not know that high blood pressure is one of the effects of their toxicity. But sulfur-containing nutrients help the body eliminate these heavy metals.
Heavy metals such as mercury and lead are virtually impossible to avoid these days. Mercury is abundant in fish that live in polluted waters, as well as in dental amalgams. Astonishingly, an average of one in five women of childbearing age has mercury levels that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended limit. And this statistic doesn’t even include older women, who aren’t as widely studied for mercury toxicity, but who are equally affected.
Lead is even more readily found in the environment—particularly in polluted drinking water, soil, and air. Many older houses have been painted with lead-based paint, which can chip away, get into the air, and add to the risk of exposure. And even the most seemingly innocuous things like metal costume jewelry, candles (in particular, wicks), and ceramics have been shown to contain harmful levels of lead.
Sulfur binds to these heavy metals so that they can be eliminated from the body. Therefore, people who don’t have enough sulfur in their body are especially sensitive to the toxic effects of mercury and lead. Supplementing with sulfur compounds naturally restores the body’s ability to bind to heavy metals and escort them out through the urine or stool.
I recommend using N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) and SAMe. NAC enhances urinary excretion of heavy metals, and SAMe reduces the toxic effects of lead and enhances the enzymes that support liver detoxification and the binding of lead in the bile for elimination.
I advise that every person, especially those who have high blood pressure, get tested for the presence of heavy metals. If test results show that you have heavy metal toxicity, I suggest taking up to 1,200 mg of NAC daily or 400 mg of SAMe two to four times a day with meals. For prevention and general health, I recommend 600 mg of NAC daily or 200–400 mg of SAMe twice a day with meals.
It’s Also in Your Head
Your three-day log of blood pressure readings will probably demonstrate what most people already know—that your mental state plays a role in your blood pressure. But, just as your mind can be part of the problem, you can also train it to be part of the solution.
Many of my patients have reported great success in lowering their high blood pressure by using Qigong, meditation, deep breathing, and biofeedback training. Biofeedback seems tailor-made for lowering blood pressure because it can easily monitor finger temperature, which drops when blood pressure rises. When programmed to give a signal linked to finger temperature, biofeedback can teach patients to raise or lower their blood pressure on command.
In one study, 204 British industrial workers with blood pressures of 140/90 or higher were randomized to receive either eight weeks of biofeedback (the treatment) or educational materials (the control). At the end of the eight weeks, systolic and diastolic pressures dropped in the biofeedback group an average of 19 and 10 points, respectively. Eight months later, readings were not only still low, but they had actually dropped a couple more points (June 1981, British Medical Journal).
To find a certified biofeedback practitioner, visit the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America’s Web site, www.bcia.affiniscape.com. You also can try biofeedback on your own by using the ThoughtStream biofeedback device, available at www.mindplace.com.
Another useful modality is autogenic training, used alone or in conjunction with biofeedback. Autogenic training teaches mental exercises that increase warmth and heaviness in the extremities, which further lowers blood pressure. An excellent book on this subject is The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Eshelman, and Matthew McKay.
I get countless questions from women who have high blood pressure. In fact, next to menopause-related symptoms, high blood pressure is the biggest health concern that my readers have. I hope that this article helps to answer some of your questions and provides practical, effective ways to lower your blood pressure and improve your heart health.