We doctors know it’s difficult to get our patients enthused about taking blood pressure medicines. Our plea that “this will help you to prevent problems in the future” doesn’t compel most people just struggling to make it through the day. And of course, it’s hard to convince someone to take medicines that often have unpleasant side effects to control a condition that has no noticeable symptoms. A lot of doctors acknowledge that high blood pressure is probably overtreated. Mild-to-moderate pressure levels (140/90 to 160/100 mm Hg) can usually be reversed by lifestyle changes alone. Levels consistently above these numbers do require medical treatment. However, despite the American Heart Association’s statement that blood pressure medicine is a lifetime commitment, if successful lifestyle changes create a new and healthier you, there’s no reason why (with your doctor’s help) you can’t begin to trim down your morning load of prescription pills–maybe even to none.
Let’s see how an integrated WholeHealth Chicago approach can help.
What is High Blood Pressure?
High blood pressure or hypertension, as the condition is known medically, is a chronic elevation of the force that blood exerts on the walls of arteries and veins as it is pumped through the body. Regulated by your body through a complex system involving the heart, bloods vessels, brain, kidneys, and adrenal glands, blood pressure fluctuates virtually from moment to moment, tending to increase temporarily in response to stress and physical exertion. But blood pressure that stays high, even when a person is at rest, can damage both arteries and complex but basically delicate organs like the brain, heart, and kidneys. By receiving their blood supply under continuously high pressure, these organs can become damaged, a situation that can lead to serious health problems, including stroke, heart attack, and kidney failure. A blood pressure reading, taken with a device called a sphygmomanometer, is a measure of how high (in millimeters) arterial blood pressure can raise a column of mercury (Hg) at two different stages of a heartbeat. The first and higher number is the systolic pressure–the force of blood against arterial walls when the heart contracts to pump blood to the rest of the body. The second, lower, number is the diastolic pressure, or the pressure within arteries when the heart relaxes and fills with blood.
A blood pressure reading of 120 (systolic) over 80 (diastolic)–120/80 mm Hg–or less is considered normal. Hypertension is usually defined as blood pressure that averages 140/90 or higher in at least three separate readings taken over a period of a week or more. Some studies have shown that organ problems sometimes develop at levels not usually considered hypertension by definition. For this reason some doctors believe that the numbers for hypertension should be even lower, at 130/85, which is usually considered “high normal.”
High blood pressure is among the most common medical problems, affecting about 60 million Americans, and it’s the most treatable risk factor for preventing heart attack and stroke. For many people, high blood pressure can be prevented altogether simply by following a healthy lifestyle: good eating habits, regular exercise, avoiding tobacco, and learning to control stress. But high blood pressure can run in families or even appear in someone for no apparent reason. In such situations, lifestyle changes, supplements, and some safe and effective prescription medications can quickly bring down high blood pressure to safe and normal ranges.
There usually aren’t any overt symptoms of this serious ailment, which is why high blood pressure is often called “the silent killer.” Hypertension is most often detected during a routine physical exam or when it has led to a complication such as a heart attack or stroke, or to retinal (eye) or kidney damage. Sometimes, when blood pressure rises to dangerously high levels, people can experience symptoms. These may include:
- Headaches or a sense of “fullness” in the head
- Ringing in the ears
- Heart palpitations
- Numbness or tingling sensation in the hands or feet
- Confusion or drowsiness
- General malaise (just not feeling well).
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
The vast majority of people with high blood pressure have what is curiously called essential hypertension (even though there’s nothing at all “essential” about it). This just means high blood pressure without any known cause. Doctors are still uncertain why one person might develop blood pressure problems and another won’t, even though both might have the same risk factors. When hypertension does have an identifiable source (fewer than 10% of cases), it is usually caused by kidney, thyroid or adrenal gland disease, or by pregnancy. This type of high blood pressure is known as secondary hypertension and the treatment is aimed at the underlying condition rather than the blood pressure itself.
The risk factors for essential hypertension include:
- Lack of physical activity
- A high-sodium diet
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Emotional stress
- Advancing age
- A family history of high blood pressure.
- Gender (hypertension is about twice as common among men as it is among women)
- Race (blacks are more prone to high blood pressure than whites and are affected by it more severely).
Treatment and Prevention
Lowering blood pressure usually begins with weight control and other lifestyle changes. If the condition persists or is severe to begin with, your doctor will probably recommend one or more prescription antihypertensive drugs. But these drugs can have bothersome side effects, so people with mild hypertension (140 to 159 systolic and 90 to 99 diastolic) might want to try lifestyle changes combined with supplements that widen blood vessels and foster good circulation. Try this approach for two or three months. If your blood pressure drops, it’s certainly possible to continue your healthful lifestyle changes and use the supplements indefinitely.
On the other hand, if, despite your best efforts, your blood pressure remains high, you’ll likely need prescription medication. If you are already taking medication, never, ever stop or reduce the dosage without consulting your doctor.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it’s always a wise idea to talk with your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
Making lifestyle changes and taking calcium and magnesium supplements may be enough to lower mildly elevated blood pressure. Both minerals have positive effects on the contraction and functioning of blood vessels. Magnesium also helps reduce blood pressure by maintaining the balance between potassium and sodium in the blood, as well as by acting as a smooth muscle relaxant. (Potassium, too, plays a role in lowering blood pressure, but as long as you eat enough fruits and vegetables, potassium supplements aren’t necessary.) Do not use magnesium supplements if you have kidney disease.
If your blood pressure does not improve after a month of taking calcium and magnesium, maintain your lifestyle changes and add vitamin C and the herb hawthorn, both of which help widen blood vessels. (Hawthorn also helps regulate heart rate and acts as an angiotensin-convertin enzyme (ACE) inhibitor, which works on hormones in the kidneys to decrease blood pressure.)
Garlic can also widen blood vessels, helping the blood circulate more freely. This is because garlic makes blood platelets less likely to stick to artery walls and possibly discourages plaque development.
In addition to vitamin C, hawthorn and garlic, try coenzyme Q10, which studies show is lacking in more than a third of people who have high blood pressure.
In addition to mineral or vitamin supplements, consider taking essential fatty acids (in the form of flaxseed oil and fish oils) and the amino acids taurine and arginine (along with a mixed amino acid complex). The fatty acids help improve circulation, taurine seems to normalize the increased nervous system activity associated with hypertension, while arginine may help widen blood vessels by increasing nitric acid (the drug Viagra works in a similar way).
If you believe stress is a significant component of your elevated blood pressure, consider adding the herb kava. This is a mild nonsedating tranquilizer that can be helpful while you are learning other stress reduction and relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, or tai chi.
Get supplement dosages and tips in our WholeHealth Chicago Supplement Recommendations for High Blood Pressure.
Drink alcohol only in moderation: Less than five drinks a week.
Salt does not increase blood pressure in everyone, but it does so in about 30% of the population. Since it is impossible to tell whether someone’s hypertension is salt sensitive, limiting sodium intake (to less than 2,500 mg a day) is always recommended for people with high blood pressure.
Maintain a healthy weight. The loss of even a few pounds by an overweight person can reduce blood pressure.
Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Such a diet helps control weight, is usually low in sodium, supplies good amounts of potassium and other nutrients–and can lower blood pressure.
Get regular aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking, running, swimming, or bicycling). Start with just five minutes a day, with the goal of eventually exercising 30 minutes a day. Aerobic activity not only promotes weight loss but also plays a more direct role in controlling hypertension, probably by improving the smooth muscle tone within the blood vessels.
Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong.
Avoid substances containing ephedra (Ma huang) or licorice, which can raise blood pressure. (The DGL form of licorice won’t raise blood pressure.)
When to Call a Doctor
- If you experience any of the symptoms of dangerously high blood pressure: headaches, dizziness, ringing in the ears, palpitations, nosebleeds, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, confusion or drowsiness.
- If you experience side effects from an antihypertensive medication. (Call your doctor right away–but don’t stop taking the medication without consulting the doctor.)
- If you are pregnant. Pregnancy-related hypertension can have harmful consequences for mother and child. Have frequent, regular checkups that include measuring your blood pressure.
- If mildly elevated blood pressure (between 140/90 and 160/100 mm Hg) does not improve after two months of treatment with supplements. All adults should have their blood pressure checked regularly, according to the following schedule:
- Every two years, for healthy adults with normal blood pressure.
- Every year, for people who are overweight or sedentary, have a family history of hypertension or whose blood pressure is close to being high (130 to 139 systolic or 85 to 89 diastolic).
- As often as the doctor recommends, for people with high blood pressure.
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: Important fact, right up front: Everything we recommend at WholeHealth Chicago, both lifestyle strategies and dietary supplements, can be safely combined with whatever conventional treatment you’re using to treat high blood pressure.
Second important fact: Supplements are usually effective only for mild cases of high blood pressure. And they may not be effective for your particular condition: It’s a real mistake to walk around for months with high blood pressure “waiting” for the supplements to work. Low doses of prescription medicines can often be extremely effective and virtually free of side effects. Don’t be rigid about a “supplements or nothing” philosophy for your high blood pressure because you can definitely endanger your health.
If your blood pressure does fall after you’ve taken supplements for a while, your hypertension medications will likely need downward adjustment. For this reason, you should review with your physician any supplements you take–especially if you’re on a complicated medicine regimen. It’s also important that you begin and stick with the recommended lifestyle changes, especially exercising.
How to Take the Supplements
If you have mild high blood pressure, or are already taking a blood pressure medicine and want to see if you can get your dose lowered, start with the calcium/magnesium, coenzyme Q10, fish oils, garlic and flaxseed oil. These have various benefits, ranging from widening the blood vessels to helping improve circulation. Continue everything for one month and see where your blood pressure has settled.
If it’s still unsatisfactory, add the arginine and taurine, and use them all for another month. Lastly, add the hawthorn (which widens blood vessels) and continue for yet another month.
If at this point your blood pressure hasn’t really changed appreciably, then resign yourself to the fact that you’ll need conventional medications. However, for good heart and blood vessel health, maintain your program of the coenzyme Q10, fish oil, and garlic, along with your daily multivitamin and antioxidant complex; you can drop the flaxseed oil, arginine, taurine and hawthorn.
It’s important to remember that your blood pressure medication needs will change over time, especially if you are making positive lifestyle changes. Don’t stop your good eating habits, stress reduction, or exercise program. Maybe some time in the future you can go off your medications. Keep checking with your doctor.
Of special note
Constant stress causes the body to release a lot of a stress hormone called adrenalin (epinephrine), which has a direct effect on raising your blood pressure. If you think anxiety and stress may be an important component in your high blood pressure, add kava (200 mg two or three times a day). The Healing Path for High Blood Pressure provides more extensive therapeutic information about this condition. Important:
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD