One in five people in the UK has high blood pressure. Yet nearly half of those affected are blissfully unaware of it. A potential killer if left unchecked, hypertension, as it’s also known, raises the risk of heart disease or having a stroke, while there is also a possible link to dementia.
GP Dr Mike Knapton, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, warns it’s essential to have your blood pressure checked: “It is a major risk factor for heart and circulatory disease. Half of all strokes and heart attacks are thought to be linked to high blood pressure, which is why it’s absolutely vital to keep your levels in check.
Around 15 million people in the UK are living with high blood pressure, of which 7 million people are undiagnosed. “It’s important for people to know their blood pressure, in the same way we know our height and weight, and then for people to know what to do in order to reduce it if they need to. Taking steps to maintain a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet, reducing salt intake, keeping active, not smoking, taking medication and learning how to relax, are all simple and effective ways to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level.”
Blood pressure is a measurement of the force of blood travelling through the arteries. A normal reading is less than 140/90 mm Hg; the first figure (systolic pressure) indicates the pressure within the arteries when the heart contracts while the second number (diastolic pressure) is the pressure when your heart is between beats.
If several readings are consistently higher than this level, you may have hypertension, which is usually caused by atherosclerosis – a build-up of cholesterol and healing cells on the inside of the artery walls.
Dr Petra Simic, GP for Bupa Health Clinics, explains, “As the arteries are narrowed, your normal volume of blood has to travel through at higher forces. Imagine watering your garden – if you were to put your finger partially over the hose pipe nozzle, you would reduce the diameter of the pipe and the water would come out at higher pressure.”
This turbulence damages the delicate cells on the inside of the blood vessels, leading the body to produce healing cells which narrow the vessels further. It’s a vicious cycle, but knowledge is king. Your GP will decide whether to prescribe medication and there are simple ways of keeping it in check.
The reason isn’t quite clear, but alcohol can raise blood pressure. Luckily, this effect is quickly reversible.
“Cut down the amount of alcohol you drink and stick to the recommended guidelines (no more than 14 units per week), and have several alcohol-free days a week,” advises Dr Simic. “Simply reducing it could mean that your blood pressure level will be back to normal in as a little as two weeks.”
Amongst a plethora of ill effects, smoking increases the risk of atherosclerosis and severely narrowed blood vessels.
“I know this is old news, but I can’t emphasize how important it is to stop smoking if you currently do,” says Dr Simic. “Every time you smoke your arteries could be getting narrower and narrower – this will make treating raised blood pressure harder.”
Frequent exercise strengthens your heart, for pumping blood around the body. “It’s best to do some form of exercise for at least 30 minutes at a time, ideally five times a week, recommends Dr Simic. “Think about increasing the speed of your usual walk or taking the stairs instead of lifts or escalators can help. We know that high intensity exercise can be really beneficial too. In short, any physical activity is better than none.”
Reducing salt can dramatically improve blood pressure in some people. Dietary salt raises the amount of sodium in the bloodstream, making it difficult for the kidneys to perform their filtering function.
“Interestingly, this is not the same for everyone but cutting back is worth trying if you have hypertension, says Dr Simic. “Salt is hidden in all sorts of foods – readymade curries and tinned foods are big culprits. I’d recommend eating as much home-cooked food as possible and read the label on your foods.”
In addition to packing a punch with vitamins, minerals and fibre, fruit and vegetables contain potassium, which counteracts the negative effects of sodium found in salt.
Dr David Eccleston, GP at The Oakley Partnership, explains, “A study has shown that two bananas a day can reduce blood pressure by up to 10 mm Hg. In order to get enough benefit to help lower blood pressure, adults should eat at least five different portions of fruit and vegetables per day.” That’s 80g per portion (about the size of a fist).
The role caffeine plays in blood pressure is still debated. Caffeine can raise blood pressure by as much as 10 mm Hg in people who rarely consume it, but there is little to no significant effect in habitual coffee drinkers, according to Dr Eccleston. “Although the effects of chronic caffeine ingestion on blood pressure aren’t clear, the possibility of a slight increase in blood pressure exists. To see if caffeine raises your blood pressure, check your pressure within 30 minutes of drinking a caffeinated beverage. If your blood pressure increases by 5 to 10 mm Hg, you may be sensitive to the blood pressure raising effects of caffeine.”
Chronic stress is a key contributor to high blood pressure. The scourge of modern day life, it’s hard to avoid but there are ways to keep it under control. “If you can’t eliminate all your stressors, you can at least cope with them in a healthier way,” advises Dr Eccleston. “Give yourself enough time to get things done. Learn to say ‘no’ and to live within manageable limits. Try to learn to accept things you can’t change. Talk to your boss about difficulties at work or to family members about problems at home. Avoid whatever triggers you can.”
Delve Into The Dark
Dark chocolate contains flavanols, naturally occurring chemicals that make blood vessels more elastic. In one study, 18 per cent of patients who ate it daily saw blood pressure decrease. “Have 25-50g daily and make sure it contains at least 70 per cent cocoa,” says Dr Eccleston, but adds, “chocolate with a high milk or cream content will not be as good for you, for obvious reasons!”