All experts agree that several major lifestyle changes are in order, not only because they are helpful in easing the disease but also because they may be instrumental in decreasing the need for as much medication. Regular bouts of exercise, 30 minutes three to five times a week, are recommended. This has a calming and BP-lowering effect, and if excess weight is contributing to your condition, as it often is, it helps a bit with that, too. The exercise can be anything that gets your heart racing, and something you enjoy is something you’re more likely to stick to, whether walking, running, bicycling, dancing, swimming, cross-country skiing, or even mowing the lawn and shoveling snow in the appropriate seasons.
Anything additional you can do to reduce your stress levels healthily is good, too, whether that be meditation, controlled breathing, massage, yoga, tai chi or biofeedback.
Getting adequate sleep is essential. Everyone has an ideal number of sleep hours needed: it may be six or it may be nine or somewhere in between. Get your number as often as you can. If you smoke and/or drink, you have to stop. The chemicals in nicotine and alcohol don’t do your blood vessels and heart any favors. Cut down on caffeine, too, and of course cut down, way down, on salt. Sodium increases blood volume and therefore blood pressure.
The DASH diet, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, is based on increasing your fruit, vegetable and whole-grain intake, plus increasing calcium with low-fat or fat-free dairy products. The diet is high in potassium, calcium and magnesium, and of course, low in sodium, fat and saturated fat. In traditional Chinese medicine, it’s believed that water chestnuts, turnips, Chinese celery, mung beans and honey help.
To control your sodium intake it’s good to decrease your consumption of processed foods, which usually have a lot. Check labels and you may get a few surprises. Some foods typically high in sodium include pickles, capers, canned chicken noodle soup and other soups, canned vegetables, frozen pot pies, ramen noodles, sauerkraut, French fries, bacon, some cereals (check the label) and ketchup.
I have to take my own advice. After a lifetime of being free with the salt shaker and scoffing at people who brag about not cooking with salt, I now have high blood pressure. When I was a teenager my mother had it but brought it down with lifestyle modifications. For a long time I’ve had “white-coat hypertension,” high readings due to anxiety about being at the doctor’s office. My readings used to be fine whenever I had a friend check it at work. But now it’s very high, and I just started to take an ACE-inhibitor and have to check it at home frequently.
And I have to face that I can’t do what I feel like doing any more. Of the big changes that have to be made, some are easier than others. I love walking, running, biking and dancing; I just have to do more. And I have to eat less than I want to and stay away from vices that call to me. Giving up pickles and canned soup isn’t so bad, as I’m not hooked on those, and it’s said you can lower your salt taste by weaning off it. Same with caffeine. Though some of this regimen seems more doable than other parts, it all seems absolutely necessary. A stroke or early dementia are not things I need in my life.
Nor do you. So get your blood pressure checked, and I hope it’s 120/80 or less.
Disclaimer: none of the material in this column substitutes for the advice of your own doctor. Please consult her or him before doing anything mentioned here