‘You have high blood pressure’ is a phrase no one wants to hear. But many people have no real idea of what high blood pressure is and how, or indeed if, they can prevent or lower it.

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This month, the world’s attention is drawn to matters of the heart. Not our love lives, but instead the health of our most vital organ and how we can take care of it. So with Saturday 17 May being World Hypertension Day, we thought we’d share with you this easy-to-follow guide to high blood pressure.

What is high blood pressure or “hypertension”?

Blood pressure is the force of blood coursing through your arteries as it passes around your body. If your artery walls are healthy, they’ll expand to allow your blood to pass, but when the walls become hardened or lined with plaque, the channel is narrowed and your heart has to work harder to move the blood.

When your doctor takes your blood pressure reading, it is expressed as one figure ‘over’ another, for example, 120/80. This reading is considered a ‘normal’ blood pressure in a healthy adult. A single high reading does not necessarily mean that you have high blood pressure, but high blood pressure is diagnosed if someone has a blood pressure of 140/90 or above, measured on several occasions.

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, could lead to the formation of a blood clot that can cause a heart attack, stroke or cardiovascular disease. Blood vessel damage can also raise your chances of getting dementia, kidney failure and vision problems. The risk increases in the presence of other factors such as diabetes.

[custom_frame_right shadow=”on”]emergency[/custom_frame_right] Currently, more than six million South Africans have high blood pressure, and every day 130 of them are struck down by heart attack and 240 suffer a stroke. That’s 10 strokes and five heart attacks every hour! Because there are few obvious symptoms, many of the sufferers don’t even know that their bodies are hosting the ‘silent killer’.

What causes high blood pressure?

You can have a genetic risk if members in your family have a history of hypertension and heart disease, but there are other factors that can cause high blood pressure too. You are more at risk if you have reached middle age; have diabetes; smoke; are under severe stress; take no exercise; regularly eat refined and processed foods, foods that contain lots of salt, excessive amounts of foods with high carbohydrate content, high sugar containing foods and drinks, excessive amounts of poor quality fats; and especially if you think that fresh fruits and vegetables are only for rabbits.

How can you prevent or treat high blood pressure?

High blood pressure is both preventable and treatable. The first step is to know what your blood pressure is – you can find this out at your doctor, local hospital, clinic, or at a Heart and Stroke Foundation screening event near you (www.heartfoundation.co.za).

If you discover that you are hypertensive, don’t panic – the condition is treatable. For many people, it can be controlled with lifestyle changes alone, and, in some cases, medication. However, detecting high blood pressure early is key. Minimise your risk of developing high blood pressure or lower your reading by making these simple changes to your lifestyle:

Eat to beat high blood pressure

  • Eat healthily and have small, regular meals.
  • Limit your salt intake: reduce the amount of salt you add to your food during cooking and at the table; eat fewer high-salt foods such as processed chips, processed meats, takeaways and convenience meals, stock cubes and soup powders. Learn to read the sodium (salt) content on cans on supermarket shelves
  • Eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day.
  • Choose whole grain and high-fibre foods such as wholegrain bread and brown rice. Oats lower both cholesterol and blood pressure. Beans, such as red and white kidney beans and sugar beans, help lower blood cholesterol, thereby assisting to reduce high blood pressure and prevent heart disease.
  • Include fatty fish (sardines, pilchards, salmon, mackerel) at least twice a week. NOTE: Look for the Heart Mark on cans of fish – these have lower levels of salt. Grilled salmon, sardines on toast, fish curry for anyone?
  • Limit excessive fatty meat, poor quality fats or burn-damaged fat, fried foods and high-fat snack foods, and replace poor quality fats with good quality fats – use high quality oils like coconut or palm oil for cooking, use olive, flaxseed or nut oils for dressings; nuts, seeds and avocado pear also provide good fats. Avo helps reduce cholesterol, but it is not great if you are watching your waistline – one portion is equivalent to a quarter of a small avocado.
  • Eat nuts. Walnuts are rich in healthy fats that lower cholesterol levels and prevent blood clotting. They also contain fibre and vitamins A, C and E. Other healthy nuts include almonds, peanuts, pecans and cashews. Sprinkle crushed nuts over salads or yoghurt. They are also kilojoule-rich, so a small handful rates as a single portion.
  • Research that shows that moderate consumption of alcohol in some populations may lead to a small increase in HDL (‘good’) cholesterol and have an anti-clotting effect on the blood. If you drink alcohol, we recommend that you limit it to no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. One drink is equivalent to 340 ml of beer, 120 ml of wine, 60 ml of sherry or 25 ml of spirits. More than this will increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart failure and raised levels of triglycerides (a type of fat) in the blood. Excessive and binge drinking can also lead to a stroke, damage to the heart muscle, disturbances in the heart rhythm and sudden cardiac death.

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Definite high blood pressure no-nos!

Smoking almost triples the risk of heart disease and more than doubles the risk of a stroke. It narrows the blood vessels, leading to high blood pressure, and expands blood clots. Reduce blood flow to your heart and you risk a heart attack; reduce it to your brain and you risk a stroke.

Walk your way to a lower blood pressure, briskly

[custom_frame_left shadow=”on”]exercise[/custom_frame_left]In South Africa, more than a quarter of the male population and almost half of the female population are physically inactive. The cost of this physical inactivity is staggering! It increases the chance of developing a range of diseases, of which high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, cancers, osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease (CVD) are just a few. Inactive people double their risk of suffering a heart attack and have a higher risk of dying immediately after such an attack than people who exercise regularly.

Just a little regular exercise can give you profound long-term health benefits. The heart is a muscle and needs exercise to stay fit and healthy – the heart of someone who exercises regularly will beat 45–50 times per minute; the couch potato’s heart will beat 70–75 times per minute. This means 36 000 extra beats per day and 13 million extra beats every year! 
Exercise can lower high blood pressure by 4–9 mmHg (that’s almost the same as the effect achieved by certain antihypertensive medications); reduce your cholesterol levels and improve ‘good’ cholesterol; lower your blood sugar (that’s good news if you are anxious about diabetes); help you to control your weight; strengthen your bones and muscles; improve blood flow to the brain, allowing you to think more clearly; and delay or even prevent the chronic conditions associated with ageing.

How much do you need to exercise? At least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity five days a week. It may sound so much that you feel like sinking back on the couch, but you needn’t do all your exercise in one go – you can split your 30 minutes into 10-minute bouts during the day.
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Reduce and cope with your stress

Stress is nothing new. Cavemen stressed about dangerous animals and how to catch their lunch; today we face the increasing pressures and demands in our everyday lives. When the levels of stress become intolerable, your body can respond by developing high blood pressure, aches, pains and even illness. Stress often aggravates disorders that are already present.

Some stress is good – remember feeling jittery with excitement on the night before your birthday or, if you celebrated it, Christmas? Worrying about money or health presents an entirely different form of stress. When your stress levels start affecting your health, it’s a good idea to visit your healthcare practitioner.

Natural products for high blood pressure

Flora Force has some excellent products to support the health of your heart. Hypertension Formula™ may help to manage blood pressure, has anti-coagulant properties and dilates the blood vessels. Cholesterol Aid™ capsules is formulated to support healthy cholesterol levels and Turmerynne™ assists in lowering cholesterol and obesity-induced glucose intolerance.

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Acknowledgements & Photo credits

We’d like to thank the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa for the bulk of the information in this article, which is featured on its excellent website www.heartfoundation.co.za. You’ll find more advice about coping with high blood pressure and other heart health issues there.

  1. Blood pressure photo courtesy of marcuso / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  2. Emergency photo courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  3. No-no photo courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  4. “Running is key” photo courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  5. Stress photo courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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