Meet our expert: Professor Gareth Beevers is an emeritus professor of medicine and a trustee of Blood Pressure UK www.bloodpressureuk.org; Fiona Hunter is a nutritionist and writer. She is co-author of High Blood Pressure: Food, Facts and Recipes (£8.99, Hamlyn) www.fionahunter-nutrition.co.uk
Do you know your blood pressure level? More than five million people in the UK have high blood pressure but don’t know it, putting them at risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney failure and even dementia if left untreated. It has no symptoms and you’ll only know you have it if you know your level. Getting it checked and finding a way to bring yours down if you need to, could save your life.
What is high blood pressure?
It’s the force that drives blood around your body, delivering oxygen and nutrients to your organs and tissues. It changes all the time, depending on what you’re doing, and also rises naturally with age as your blood vessels become less elastic.
But when your blood pressure is consistently high, it puts an extra strain on your heart and blood vessels, which causes them to become weaker and damaged. In time, this can lead to heart failure, strokes and other serious illnesses such as kidney disease. And the longer this damage goes on, the worse it becomes, which is why it’s important to take action quickly.
Is my blood pressure too high?
Getting regular blood pressure checks is the only way to know if your blood pressure is too high. If you’re aged between 40 and 74, you can get yours checked as part of your free NHS Health Check.
When your blood pressure is measured, you’ll be told two numbers, for example, 140 over 90 (140/90mmHg). Unless your doctor says otherwise, you have high blood pressure or hypertension if your top number is over 140 and your bottom number is over 90. The ideal healthy reading for most people is 120/80mmHg.
Some people have low blood pressure too, when their reading is below 90/60. This can cause wooziness and fainting and is sometimes a symptom of another problem– ask your doctor for advice if yours is low.
Am I at risk?
There are a few factors that put you at a greater risk of high blood pressure that unfortunately we can’t do anything about, such as age, having a family history of high blood pressure and being of African, Caribbean and South Asian background.
But diet and lifestyle also have an enormous impact on our risk. Factors that make you more likely to have high blood pressure are:
- Being overweight or obese
- Regularly eating more than 6g salt a day
- Not exercising enough
- Frequently drinking more than the recommended daily alcohol allowance – 3-4 units for men, 2-3 for women.
What can I do to lower my blood pressure?
Compare food labels
“There’s lots of evidence to say that too much salt in our diet is one of the main causes of high blood pressure,” says Professor Beevers of Blood Pressure UK. “People who are at greater risk of high blood pressure are more sensitive to salt. This means their blood pressure rises more than other people’s when they eat it, making it even more important for them to cut down.”
Taking away the table salt shaker is a good step to cutting back. “Try swapping cooking salt for herbs and spices, or a squeeze of lemon,” says nutritionist Fiona Hunter.
But about 75 per cent of the salt we eat comes from processed foods, such as ready meals, soups, sauces and pre-packed sandwiches. “Compare the labels of different food brands and go for the one with the lowest salt,” says Fiona. “Less than 0.3g of salt per 100g food is low salt, while 1.5g or more per 100g is high. Where possible, cook from scratch.” If you’re used to lots of salt, your taste buds will adjust after just a few weeks, so give it time.
Take up a new hobby
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to improve your health and help beat high blood pressure. Even moderate exercise could make a difference. Repetitive and rhythmic exercises are best for the heart, such as walking, dancing, swimming, or mowing the lawn. Try to do 30 minutes of activity a day, five days a week. Or break this into 10-minute chunks, such as walking to the shops or taking the stairs.
Stand up to stress
Stress and anxiety can have a big effect on our blood pressure. So find out how to tackle your stress, whether that’s yoga or a relaxing bath.
One study found that having brief physical contact with a loved one could lower blood pressure, which is a great excuse for having a good cuddle with your partner or giving your friend a hug every so often. Another study found listening to classical music could lower blood pressure, so try listening to music when you’re feeling anxious.
Get your five a day
“Studies show people who eat a diet rich in fruit and veg have a lower risk of high blood pressure, so be sure to get your full daily quota,” says Fiona. “Foods that are rich in potassium, such as bananas, tomatoes, carrots, spinach and watermelon, are especially good because potassium helps to reduce the effects of sodium.”
A recent study found a daily handful of blueberries could reduce blood pressure in post- menopausal women with borderline hypertension, so stock up on them.
Rethink your drinks
If you love a glass or two of red wine each evening, why not try switching to a glass of beetroot juice at least every other day? It looks exactly the same as your usual red but contains properties that dilate your blood vessels and could help to bring your blood pressure down.
The drug options
Lifestyle changes can make a big impact on your blood pressure and for some people, are enough to keep it under control. But others will need to take one or a combination of drugs to reduce their risk of illness. It’s important to keep on taking what your doctor prescribes for you, even if you don’t feel unwell. Get into the habit of taking them at the same time every day, for example, with your evening meal.
Take your blood pressure at home
It’s always best to see your GP first to find out your blood pressure, but once you know your numbers you can keep track of this at home. B Choose a monitor that’s fully automatic, has been ‘clinically validated’ and measures your blood pressure at your upper arm, rather than your wrist or finger. You can buy these from Boots, Lloyds Pharmacy and online retailers such as Amazon.
- Before taking a reading, go to the loo and make sure you’ve not eaten or had coffee in the last half an hour.
- Sit down in a peaceful place with your feet on the floor and your arm resting on a firm surface. Make sure the monitor cuff is at the same height as your heart –use a cushion to raise it if you need to.
- While taking the reading, keep still and stay quiet.
- Take two or three readings a few minutes apart and work out the average to record. Avoid taking your blood pressure too often as this can make you anxious, too.
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