High Blood Pressure: The Silent Killer
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is one of the most common chronic diseases and the leading cause of stroke worldwide. It’s estimated that high blood pressure affects over 29% of adults in the United States and the numbers are expected to continue growing (1).
Often referred to as the “silent killer,” high blood pressure frequently goes undetected because its not typically accompanied by any obvious, major physical symptoms. In fact, many people with high blood pressure are able to continue their usual daily activities without ever knowing that their heart and blood vessels are in danger.
Physical symptoms that are present are often mistaken for something other than elevated blood pressure, or the onset of symptoms occurs so slowly that significant changes aren’t wholly recognized as abnormal.
How High Blood Pressure Can Cause a Stroke
Your heart uses pressure to pump nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. In order for this process to work effectively, it is important to maintain a certain level of pressure at all times. If the pressure is too high or too low, serious complications arise.
As blood pressure rises, circulating blood presses more forcefully against the walls of blood vessels, causing them to stretch. As the vessels stretch beyond their means, microtears form along the delicate tissue. These tiny abrasions trigger an inflammatory response and hard plaques adhere to the surface of the damaged tissue to form a protective barrier (2).
As more plaque accumulates, blood vessels narrow and become stiff and brittle, making it more difficult for blood, oxygen, and nutrients to pass through them. Blood vessel openings will continue to become progressively more narrow, creating more and more pressure on the system resulting in a cascade of devastating consequences (2).
Eventually, the narrowed, brittle vessels can rupture or become completely blocked, limiting blood flow to the heart, brain, and other vital organs potentially causing a life-threatening event such as a stroke or heart attack.
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
Complications associated with high blood pressure are among the leading causes of death, but exactly what causes it still isn’t well understood.
In fact, over 90% of high blood pressure cases cannot be attributed to any single cause. Instead, it is usually considered to be caused by a variety of confounding factors, including those of environmental, genetic, and behavioral origin (1).
Certain risk factors for high blood pressure cannot be controlled, such as your age, family history, race, and gender. However, there are a variety of lifestyle factors that you can control that may help you reduce your risk for developing high blood pressure or experiencing a stroke.
The major modifiable risk factors for high blood pressure are (3):
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Diet: low in antioxidants, fiber, and potassium but high in sodium
- High stress
- High cholesterol
- Poor blood sugar control
- Inadequate or poor quality sleep
- Excess alcohol consumption
How to Protect Yourself
Because the onset of high blood pressure can be sneaky and difficult to identify, your best bet at protecting yourself is to learn what your risk factors are and slowly begin to implement healthy preventative behaviors.
There are a variety of ways you can reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure, but here are a few simple suggestions to get you started:
- Eat a healthy diet
A “healthy” diet can look different for everyone. The main things to focus on are limiting high sodium, ultra-processed foods and filling your plate with lean proteins and lots of whole, plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Many plant-based foods are naturally low-calorie and contain a wide array of nutrients and antioxidant compounds that can help reduce internal stress and blood pressure in a variety of ways.
For instance, research suggests that vegetables like beets, garlic, and dark leafy greens can support your body’s production of a compound called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a signaling molecule that tells the muscles in your blood vessels to relax which contributes to improved blood flow and reduced blood pressure (4, 5, 6).
- Incorporate physical activity regularly
It’s no secret that incorporating exercise into your routine can reduce blood pressure, but if you don’t fancy spending gobs of time in the gym you don’t have to worry.
Exercise doesn’t have to be extreme or militant, unless you enjoy it that way. Even small changes like taking the stairs or making time for a few 10-minute walks throughout the day can reduce your risk. The key is to find an activity you enjoy so you’re more likely to stick with it (7).
- Find positive ways to manage stress
High stress lifestyles are common in the Western world and they can play a huge role in increasing blood pressure. Many people turn to vices like drinking alcohol or smoking to manage their stress, but if you want to reduce your blood pressure it’s important to seek more healthful outlets for stress management.
Meditation, yoga, a good book, digital detoxes, spending time outside, or even a good conversation with a friend or family member can all be good stress management techniques. Figure out what kinds of activities make you feel calm and work on incorporating them into your routine on a regular basis (10).
- Improving your sleep quality
It can be difficult to prioritize sleep in the fast-paced, non-stop lifestyles so many of us have grown accustomed to. However, adequate amounts of high-quality sleep is essential for reducing blood pressure and supporting total heart health (11).
One way to improve sleep is to turn off your phone, computer, and TV screens an hour or two before you’d like to go to bed. Not only can these devices keep your brain buzzing, but the blue light emitted from them can also reduce melatonin production, making it more difficult to get a restful night’s sleep (12).