Natural ways to lower your blood pressure

Prescription-free strategies for treating hypertension.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

Up to one-third of Americans — over 60 million people — have high blood pressure (hypertension). Only half have their blood pressure under control, according to recent national health and nutrition examination survey (NHANES) estimates.

What’s considered high blood pressure? The combination of two numbers: an upper or systolic pressure (when the heart contracts) of 140 or more, and the lower, or diastolic pressure (when the heart relaxes) of 90 or more. People with true hypertension are at higher risk of atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke and death.

However, warns hypertension specialist Howard Bliman, M.D., of Westlake Village, Calif., “It’s important that the blood pressure is taken accurately. Patients can get artificially high readings if they’re nervous at the doctor’s office, or if they’ve just rushed to get to the appointment on time. They need to rest and relax and be sitting with their back and neck supported when the pressure is taken.”

Though medications are typically used to treat diagnosed high blood pressure, the following strategies may help you prevent hypertension or pre-hypertension and may lower your blood pressure toward the ideal level of less than 120/80.

-- By Linda Reid for MSN Healthy Living

1 of 15 Blood pressure cuff (Jodi Jacobson/Getty Images)

Say goodbye to excess weight

Carrying extra pounds strains not only your leg muscles but also your heart muscle, and it promotes constriction and stiffness of your blood vessels. Weight gain causes blood pressure — as well as the risks of heart disease and stroke — to rise.

For example, according to the Framingham Heart Study, overweight and obesity led to up to 26 percent of high blood pressure cases in men and up to 23 percent of coronary heart disease. The Nurses’ Health Study showed that women who gained from 10 to 20 pounds by middle age had twice the hypertension risk, and women who gained more than 50 pounds had over five times the risk than their slimmer peers.

Losing weight can, by itself, significantly reduce your blood pressure and decrease the stiffness of your arteries. Middle-aged men in the Framingham study who lost 15 pounds or more saw a reduction in their risk of developing hypertension of over 25percent. Unfortunately, these benefits disappear if lost weight is regained. One way to keep those unwanted pounds from creeping back is to increase your physical activity — especially aerobic exercise.

2 of 15 Measuring body (Peter Dressel/Getty Images)

Bust a move

Turn off the TV, shut down the computer, and get back on your feet. Aerobic exercise, including brisk walking, dancing and swimming can help you lower your weight and your blood pressure.

Sports medicine specialist Eric Sletten, M.D., medical director for Sletten Wellness in Ventura, Calif., advises, “Do something active every day.”

Dr. Sletten suggests “at least 30 minutes of continuous aerobic activity, such as walking or bicycling daily, and an hour a day of cumulative activity. Take the stairs up and down, or park in the farthest parking space from the entrance when you go to the store so you get your exercise [by] walking in.”

According to the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure, regular aerobic physical activity most days of the week can lower your systolic (upper) blood pressure by up to nine points. Losing weight through a healthy diet and exercise may also help you avoid another hypertension risk factor, sleep apnea.

3 of 15 Older couple dancing (Nicolas McComber/Getty Images)

Have a good night

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is caused by blockage of the breathing passages behind the nose and mouth that can make it hard to breathe in enough oxygen when you’re asleep. Over 50 percent of people with OSA have hypertension, thought to be caused in part by overstimulation of nerves that increase heart rate and tighten up blood vessels. Symptoms of OSA include snoring, restless sleeping, breathing irregularity or pauses during sleep and feeling tired when you wake up. Many people with OSA are obese, but OSA also occurs in other populations, such as the elderly, whose upper airway muscles become too relaxed during sleep.

Some people also develop a temporary sleep apnea syndrome when they get allergies or a cold, reports Dr. Bliman, adding, “When I see patients with high blood pressure, I always ask them how they slept the night before. During cold or allergy seasons, their noses and sinuses stop up and get clogged.”

Though someone with ongoing or severe OSA needs to be evaluated by a doctor, people whose temporary and mild symptoms crop up during cold or allergy season can benefit, Dr. Bliman advises, by “steaming up the shower with hot water, then showering under warm water and breathing the steam. It helps keep sinuses open and make breathing easier, improving the quality of sleep.”

Dr. Bliman also suggests trying adhesive nasal strips to pull the nasal passages open.  Additional tips for better sleep include: Setting regular hours for going to bed and waking up; avoiding vigorous exercise, caffeine, or a heavy meal a few hours before bedtime; and trying to find time to wind down and relax. However, stay away from too much alcohol — it’s a sedative that can relax your muscles, making airway obstruction and disturbed sleep more likely.  

4 of 15 Man sleeping (Tim Kitchen/Getty Images)

Consume alcohol in moderation

People who have more than two drinks per day are twice as likely to have hypertension as non-drinkers. And what is considered to be one drink may be less alcohol than you think: just 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5-ounces of liquor. Heavy drinkers (more than nine servings of alcohol per week) are more likely to have coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke than mild or moderate drinkers.

The Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure recommends no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women to lower your systolic blood pressure by up to four points.

Interestingly, research studies have shown that people — even those with high blood pressure — who drink alcohol moderately (one drink a day for women and two a day for men), have less disease in the coronary and leg arteries, and fewer risks of heart attacks and strokes.

5 of 15 Fruity cocktails (Philippe Desnerck/Getty Images)

Say no to nicotine

Smoking cigarettes triggers increased activity of nerves that raise blood pressure and heart rate, making your arteries stiffer and less flexible for as long as 10 years after your last cigarette.

Studies have shown that long-time smokers without diagnosed high blood pressure have an average rise in their systolic blood pressure of 20 points with their first morning cigarette. Adding coffee to the mix raises the systolic blood pressure by six points.

Chronic smokers shouldn’t be comforted by data that shows they may have slightly lower blood pressure than non-smokers due to lower body weight and the blood vessel-relaxing effects of a metabolite of nicotine. These “benefits” are offset by the greater risks of death from heart and blood-vessel disease — more than double the risks of non-smokers and ex-smokers. Quitting smoking isn’t easy, but continuing to try improves your chances of success.

6 of 15 Ashtray (Marco Rosario Venturini Autieri/Getty Images)

Curb your caffeine?

Not necessarily. Caffeine can raise systolic blood pressure up to 10 points in people who don’t regularly drink coffee, as well as extend the rise in blood pressure caused by stress. When compared to people with normal blood pressure, people with high blood pressure — especially seniors — can see almost twice the rise in blood pressure with caffeine.

Surprisingly, regular caffeine users don’t show these effects: The Nurses’ Health Study found that even six cups of coffee or black tea a day didn’t increase hypertension risk. And, a recent study from France, presented at the European Society of Hypertension 2013 Scientific Sessions by Dr. Bruno Pannier, has found that drinking tea or coffee lowered both systolic and diastolic blood pressures for the more than 150,000 people reviewed.

However, Registered Dietician Ellen Bauersfeld of Northridge, Calif., warns, “There has been at least one study that showed that soft drinks elevated blood pressure. It’s unclear what in the soda caused the rise; was it the caffeine, or the other lifestyle factors that go along with soda consumption like obesity, sedentary lifestyle and fast food consumption.”

7 of 15 Cup of coffee (Kroeger/Gross/Getty Images)

Improve your diet, improve your blood pressure

Avoiding fast food and changing your diet is one of the best ways to naturally lower your blood pressure. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) trial demonstrated that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and legumes, and low in desserts and candy, reduced blood pressure by 2.8 points over 1.1 points.

Switching to low-fat dairy products and curbing saturated fats and total fat lowered blood pressure by 11.4/5.5 in people with high blood pressure. Fruits and vegetables (as well as some types of tea and cocoa) contain flavonoids, which significantly reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressures. “Eat a DASH-like diet,” suggests Bauersfeld.

“One of the simplest ways to start is to use the concept of a ‘healthy plate’ based on the USDA ChooseMyPlate model, in which half of your plate of food consists of fruits and or vegetables, minimizing processed food, and choosing foods that are as close to nature as possible.”

The DASH diet recommends four to five servings of fruit, four to five servings of vegetables, two to three servings of low-fat dairy, and no more than 25 percent of calories from fat every day. Other helpful dietary adjustments proven to lower blood pressure include: eating more fish and soy proteins and increasing fiber.

Adds Bauersfeld: “Eating out less frequently and using no added salt at home are also very helpful.”

8 of 15 Fish oil (Junos/Getty Images)

Assault salt

The DASH trial also found that reducing sodium, the active ingredient in sodium chloride, or table salt, reduced blood pressure an average of 8.9/4.5. For people with high blood pressure, systolic values dropped an average of 11.5 points.

“The average American male consumes about 4,200 milligrams (mg.) of sodium per day, [and the] average female about 3,300 mg. day,” reports Bauersfeld.

“The amount recommended for blood pressure control is between 2,300 mg to as low as 1,500 mg. This represents a very large reduction for most people, and it can take some time for your palate to adjust.” One teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 mg. of sodium.

Dr. Bliman reports that his patients often believe “they’re lowering their salt intake if they don’t ‘add salt’ from the salt shaker. But it’s not enough — salt is already in the food.”

Bauersfeld suggests, “Most of the sodium in our diet comes from restaurant/fast food meals and processed foods, so cooking at home more often is a great beginning. When preparing meals, again trying to fill up half your plate with fresh or frozen fruits/vegetables (with no added salt). Instead of seasoning with salt, try spices, no-salt-added seasonings, lemon, lime or vinegar.

If using canned products, look for no-salt-added or reduced-sodium versions, or rinse the food under cold water before serving. This works well with canned beans or tuna. If purchasing any processed food from a box, can or package, compare the milligrams of sodium and buy the product with the lowest amount.”

Common foods eaten at home that often have too much sodium include canned soups, rice and noodle mixes, ketchup and mustard, TV dinners and deli and smoked meats. If you do eat out, ask your server if you can order low-sodium meals or meals made without salt, avoid bacon bits and croutons and choose plain grilled chicken or fish and steamed vegetables with all sauces on the side.

9 of 15 Healthy home-cooked meal (Svariophoto/Getty Images)

Can supplements help?

Increasing potassium in your diet can offset some of the harmful effects of sodium and mildly lower blood pressure.

However, notes Dr. Bliman, “Potassium supplements may not be safe. It’s better to use natural sources rich in potassium like fruits and vegetables.”

Bauersfeld agrees, “Potassium supplements are not recommended and can be harmful to certain people with medical conditions. Always check with your doctor first before supplementation.”

People with high blood pressure are encouraged to take in at least 4,700 mg of potassium each day. Salt substitutes high in potassium should only be used with your doctor’s approval.

Bauersfeld’s recommendations are to eat more high-potassium foods, such as “cantaloupe, avocado, papaya, fish, dried apricots, tomatoes, yogurt, winter squash, beans, carrots, baked potatoes, raisins, cooked spinach and bananas. Focusing on a variety of five to nine servings per day of fruits and vegetables will help to improve the overall potassium intake of your diet.”

10 of 15 Bananas (Raymond Forbes/Getty Images)