Blood pressure varies throughout the day in response to factors such as excitement, exercise and a rugby world cup semi-final! However, it should quickly return to a normal level.
Blood pressure is a measure of how much resistance there is to blood flowing around your body and how hard your heart has to work to overcome that resistance to keep blood flowing. As the heart pumps, it creates pressure inside the blood vessels and moves the blood forward. In between heartbeats, the heart relaxes and pressure within the blood vessels falls. These high and low-pressure states can be measured and an overall blood pressure determined.
Blood pressure also increases with age, so what may be a normal blood pressure reading for someone in their 60's may be considered abnormally high for someone in their 20's.
Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) and recorded with the systolic number first, followed by the diastolic number. For example, a normal blood pressure would be recorded as something under 120/80 mm Hg. A person is said to have high blood pressure when either the pressure during a heartbeat, or the pressure between heartbeats, or both, are consistently above what is considered a healthy range, i.e. over 140/90. One in five New Zealanders have high blood pressure but many don't know it.
If you were to water delicate flowers with a very high-pressure hose, you would damage them. The body is exactly the same when blood under very high pressure is delivered to delicate organs such as the kidneys and eyes. Persistent high blood pressure can cause the heart to enlarge and weaken. It also damages the blood vessels, especially if you also have high cholesterol, diabetes, or if you smoke. If blood vessels become narrowed or blocked, a heart attack or stroke may occur. High blood pressure is also linked to kidney and eye damage and poor circulation in the legs.
There are usually no signs and symptoms of high blood pressure until the condition has been present for a long time – sometimes for many years. Because of this, many people are not aware that they have high blood pressure. It is advisable, therefore, to have blood pressure measured regularly, such as during a routine doctor's appointment. Your pharmacist can also do this for you.
People with high blood pressure are at greater risk of developing medical conditions such as:
High blood pressure often runs in families. Sometimes kidney or glandular disease may be responsible. However, eating a diet high in processed food and low in real, nutrient-dense food, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, being overweight, and not moving around enough each day, can also contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease.
For a diagnosis of hypertension to be made the blood pressure must remain elevated for several readings over a period of time. If the blood pressure remains elevated the doctor may also order blood tests, urine tests, an ECG (tracing of the heart's electrical activity), a chest x-ray and examine the blood vessels in the eye with a special light (ophthalmoscope). These tests assess for any damage already caused by hypertension.
In general, treatment of hypertension will focus on two main areas – lifestyle changes and medications. If blood pressure is not significantly elevated the doctor may initially recommend lifestyle changes in an attempt to lower blood pressure. Blood pressure will be regularly monitored for any improvement. However, if lifestyle changes alone do not adequately lower the blood pressure within a three to six month period, then a combination of lifestyle changes and medications may be recommended.
The good news is that preventing and improving high blood pressure is achievable through a range of healthy habits. We recommend the following:
Basing your diet around whole, nutrient-dense real food is the best diet to help improve your blood pressure and maintain healthy body weight. This includes a variety of vegetables, fruit, meat, chicken, eggs, fish, nuts and seeds and healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut or avocado that are nutrient-dense.
Reducing the amount of processed food and baked goods high in sugar, salt, additives and preservatives will help to improve your blood pressure and maintain a healthy weight. This includes reducing your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, confectionery, fried and baked food, cereals and other processed foods.
Alcohol and Caffeine contribute to your stress levels, dehydrate you and elevate blood pressure. Try to reduce your caffeine and alcohol intake as much as you can to improve your blood pressure. Finding non-caffeinated and non-alcoholic beverages to replace these drinks can help such as soda water, herbal tea, kombucha or decaffeinated tea and coffee.
Low-intensity movement such as standing or walking more throughout your day will help to reduce your stress levels and blood pressure throughout the day. It's also the easiest way to move more. Aim to move for at least two minutes every hour if you can. Look for ways to incorporate more movement into your day such as taking the stairs, walking during your breaks and over to colleagues, walking part or all of the way to your destination.
If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure and are currently not active, make sure you start slowly with a 10-20 minute walk and then build this up by 10 minutes each week. If you are already active then try to include three to four sessions a week of moderate to high-intensity movement including walking, jogging, skipping, cycling (stationary or outdoor), rowing, high- or low-impact aerobics, swimming, and water aerobics or aqua jogging. Choose activities you enjoy and do with others to help you stick to a regular movement plan.
Building strength can help build a stronger heart, maintain a healthy weight and prevent injury. Aim to include two to three resistance training sessions throughout the week. You don't need to go to a gym or lift weights, you can use your own bodyweight with yoga or pilates, especially if you are new to strength training.
The nicotine in cigarettes raises your blood pressure and heart rate, narrows your arteries and hardens their walls, and makes your blood more likely to clot. It stresses your heart and can contribute to your risk of a stroke or a heart attack.
Everyone copes with stress differently and has different indicators or signs of stress. Our body's response to stress is to increase our heart rate and blood pressure to help deal with stress. Understanding what stresses you out (your stressors) and your signs and symptoms of stress (stress indicators) is important. This could include headache, poor sleep, racing heart rate or mind, unexplained muscle or bone pain and more.
There are many resources about blood pressure, reducing stress levels, how to quit smoking, healthy eating and exercise amongst hundreds of other articles in the Accuro Health Hub, which is free to all Accuro members.