Can you lower your blood pressure naturally, through dietary changes, regular exercise and managing stress? Absolutely, doctors and dietitians agree, as long as you are properly monitored and take medication as prescribed.
The result of lifestyle modifications can lead to fewer or no medications for those with hypertension or those who have elevated blood pressure readings and are “pre-hypertensive.” Making more people aware that they can treat blood pressure without the side effects of medications is one of the factors behind new guidelines  by the American Heart Association (AHA), the American College of Cardiology and other groups of healthcare professionals.
The updated category of high blood pressure is now 130/80, down from 140/90. This stricter standard, the first major change in blood pressure guidelines in 14 years, means that nearly half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure. Doctors hope the tighter definition of hypertension will result in earlier screenings and blood pressure management, including motivating more patients to make critical lifestyle changes.
The Role of Sodium in High Blood Pressure
The biggest culprit in the American diet when it comes to high blood pressure is sodium, the most common form of which is table salt. A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that about nine in 10 U.S. adults and children are ingesting more than the daily recommended amount of sodium. Eating salt raises the amount of sodium in the bloodstream, making it hard for the kidneys to remove water. The result in some individuals is a higher blood pressure because of the extra fluid and additional strain on blood vessels leading to the kidneys.
“Studies have linked too much sodium to high blood pressure, and a higher risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney problems,” said Yeisel Barquin, M.D. , an internist and family physician with Baptist Health Primary Care .
Controlling sodium means more than just putting down the salt shaker, says the American Heart Association. It also means checking the nutrition labels on packaged foods before purchasing them. That’s because up to 75 percent of the sodium consumed is hidden in processed foods. When buying prepared and prepackaged foods, read the labels carefully. Look for the words “soda” and “sodium” and the symbol “Na” on labels. These words show that sodium compounds are present.
“Anything that comes in a can, jar or box can be loaded with salt, even if it doesn’t taste salty,” Dr. Barquin said.
Americans should limit daily sodium consumption to 2,300 milligrams, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But this is the limit, not necessarily a recommended daily allowance. For many people, the daily amount of sodium intake could be lower.
Reducing Blood Pressure Naturally
Blood pressure, usually two numbers, measures the force the heart exerts against the walls of arteries when pumping out blood through the body. Systolic pressure (the top number) records the pressure as the heart beats and forces blood into the arteries. Diastolic pressure (the bottom number) measures pressure as the heart relaxes between beats. Taking medications as prescribed and making positive lifestyle changes can help enhance quality of life and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and more, says the American Heart Association (AHA).
“We will now focus much more on getting patients to initiate lifestyle changes, including better diets, adding exercise and diminishing the consumption of alcohol. We want to prevent the high blood pressure from worsening,” says Ian Del Conde, M.D. , a cardiovascular specialist at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute .
According to the AHA, lifestyle changes that can lower blood pressure naturally include:
- Eat a well-balanced, low-salt diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes.
- Avoid or limit sodium; saturated and trans fats; red meat (if you do eat red meat, compare labels and select the leanest cuts available); and sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages.
- Exercise regularly. For lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, an average of 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity three or four times per week is recommended by the AHA .
- Quit smoking. Smoking is a contributor to high blood pressure and heart disease, in addition to being a top risk factor for lung disease and several cancers.
- Limit alcohol. Drinking alcohol in excess puts one at a higher risk for high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, liver damage and cancer.
- Manage stress. Stress can temporarily increase your blood pressure by causing your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to narrow. The effects of repeated stress can contribute to hypertension.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Individuals who are overweight or obese are at an increased risk for chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Read more on figuring your ideal weight .
- Take your medications properly. There is a range of high blood pressure medications and some can cause side effects. Consult with your doctor and monitor your blood pressure as needed.
- Get checked regularly. Make sure you know your numbers, including blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Regular checkups include blood labs that cover all the necessary data your doctor needs to treat high blood pressure and other risk factors related to heart disease.