When people think of blood pressure they tend to equate it to a stressful or anger-inducing incident, which makes it spike. But what is it? What do those numbers mean? And most important, can you keep it under control without relying on over-the-counter products or prescriptions?
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against your blood vessel walls from the heart. Blood flow is critical as it carries oxygen necessary for the healthy functioning of tissues and organs through your arteries, veins and capillaries.
When you have your blood pressure reading, the nurse expresses it in two numbers, one over the other. This reading represents two forces. The top is systolic pressure, measuring blood pumping from the heart, and the second number is diastolic pressure, which is created when the heart rests between its beats.
According to the Mayo Clinic, normal blood pressure should be 120 or below systolic and under 80 diastolic. When the systolic begins to creep up, say between 120 and 129 and diastolic is still under 80, this is considered elevated and this is the time to begin to adjust diet and lifestyle to lower it. Stage 1 high blood pressure is when the numbers are 130-139 systolic over 80 to 89 diastolic, and is medically known as hypertension.
When your blood pressure is high, consistently over time, the more frenetic pace creates higher friction that damages the interior tissues lining the arteries. When the arteries have wear, LDL cholesterol nestles in, forming plaque that through time stiffens the arteries, eventually causing a potentially devastating condition called arteriosclerosis.
There are factors that create higher blood pressure that you cannot control; these include family history/genetics and aging. Happily, there are many factors that you can control and will result in lowered blood pressure. If you are physically inactive, have high cholesterol, are overweight, smoke, and eat salty foods, it is recommended that you exercise, stop smoking (if you do), and remove high-salt and excess foods from your diet. Give it a few months and your doctor will give you great news that your blood pressure has lowered—likely along with your cholesterol counts and your weight.
One of the more mysterious or misunderstood factors that raise blood pressure is salt (“sodium” on food labels). Most foods naturally contain salt, but processed foods often have more added. In fact, nearly 80% of the average person's daily salt intake comes from processed foods.
Sodium is necessary for healthy function. The body requires 500 mg per day to function. However, most people consume about 10 times that amount and nearly 80% of the average person’s daily intake of salt comes from processed foods.
Too much salt, however, can impact blood pressure. Excess salt from the diet winds up in the bloodstream where it attracts water. Excess water in the blood increases the blood’s volume, which raises blood pressure. For those with a genetic predisposition toward high blood pressure, or if your systolic is creeping up, the recommended amount of salt for those with high blood pressure is 1500 mg a day—so be mindful and count or approximate to reduce to 1500 mg per day.
The Role of the Microbiome
Research has found that there are bacteria in the microbiome that can facilitate increased blood pressure. In one study, rats that were given hypertensive bacteria in their microbiota developed high blood pressure. In the study of two sets of animals, one group had hypertension while the other had normal blood pressure. The researchers transplanted hypertensive microbiota to the normal group, and vice versa. The normal group receiving the hypertensive bacteria experienced elevated blood pressure.
The researchers concluded that their results are “further evidence for the continued study of the microbiota in the development of hypertension in humans and supports a potential role for probiotics as treatment for hypertension. Studies showing that supplementing the diet with probiotics can have modest effects on blood pressure, especially in hypertensive models.”
Similarly, another team analyzed the microbiota of 41 individuals with healthy blood pressure, 99 with hypertension and 56 with pre-hypertension. Those in the latter two group showed a reduction in bacteria diversity, with higher amounts of the genera Prevotells and Klebsiella. The team then transplanted the subjects’ microbiota-containing material into germ-free mice (mice bred to lack gut bacteria) and found that those with bacteria from the individuals with hypertension developed hypertension themselves.
In a systematic review and meta–analysis of 11 randomized controlled trials researchers sought to illuminate effects of probiotics on blood pressure as well as lipid profiles on 641 individuals with type 2 diabetes. Their analysis suggested that probiotic supplementation significantly lowered systolic and diastolic blood pressure, compared to placebo. The authors concluded, “This systematic review suggests probiotic supplementation may be helpful for control of dyslipidemia and hypertension in type 2 diabetic patients.”
Meanwhile, levels of the bacterial genus Odoribacter were found to be lowest in overweight pregnant women with the highest blood pressure readings. The authors are optimistic about this area of study, writing, “Future studies aimed at manipulation of the gut microbiome by probiotics, prebiotics, or dietary intervention may shed light on whether this is a novel way to aid pregnant women in maintaining healthy blood pressure and reducing low-grade inflammation thereby improving outcomes for mother and baby.”
Obese post-menopausal women can also receive some blood pressure management benefit by taking probiotics. Researchers in another study found that in 81 obese post-menopausal women, supplementing with a high-dose multi-species probiotic for 12 weeks saw decreases in their systolic blood pressure, as well as other markers such as vascular endothelial growth factor, pulse wave analysis systolic pressure, pulse wave analysis pulse pressure, and more. Low doses of probiotic supplementation decreased the systolic blood pressure. They concluded that “We show for the first time that supplementation with multispecies probiotic Ecologic® Barrier favorably modifies both functional and biochemical markers of vascular dysfunction in obese postmenopausal women.”
And single strains can be beneficial for blood pressure management, too. For example, the probiotic strain Lactobacillus plantarum DSM 21380, when consumed in popular dairy foods such as cheeses and yogurt for three weeks, showed an anti-hypertensive trend, according to another study. The authors found that the strain reduced both diastolic and systolic blood pressure.
The Role of Stress
Oh, and a stressful situation only causes your blood pressure to spike temporarily. If you’re stressed, exercising 30 minutes a few times a week reduces your stress level, and therefore has a positive impact on blood pressure.
The Mayo Clinic offers the following tips to reduce blood pressure via reducing stress:
• Simplify your schedule: eliminate time wasters and non-priorities.
• Deep breathing: inhale deeply, hold it, let it out slowly. You will feel yourself relax and your mind clarify.
• Get a good night’s sleep, regularly: between six and eight hours every night.
Thankfully, genetic predisposition aside, there are actions you can take to manage blood pressure. If you’ve heard of the DASH diet, it can lower your systolic blood pressure by 11 mm Hg. Since diet is responsible for numerous aspects of health, DASH is very similar to your standard sound eating plan: consume more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and if you eat meat, ensure you eat more fish and lean meats. Omit processed, high-sugar, high sodium and high carb foods. Exercise regularly and take probiotics.
These healthy habits should dramatically lower your odds of receiving a blood pressure prescription from your doctor as you get older.