High blood pressure – the medical term for which is ‘hypertension’ – is thought to affect up to one in five adults in the UK. A major risk factor for heart disease and the major risk factor for stroke, high blood pressure clearly represents an important public health problem. The conventional medical approach to hypertension revolves around prescription drugs which are generally viewed as life-long treatments. However, a recent report published in the American Journal of Hypertension has just challenged this concept. Researchers reviewing several studies found that individuals can often successfully withdraw from their blood pressure medication, as long as positive lifestyle changes such as weight loss and salt restriction are made. In fact, it is clear from the research that certain dietary and natural health approaches can often prove effective in controlling hypertension in the long term. This most recent research throws up exciting possibilities for individuals wishing to take a natural approach to blood pressure control.
About 90 p.c. of people with high blood pressure are described as having what is known as ‘essential’ hypertension. This term is used to describe high blood pressure that does not seem to be related to any specific underlying factor such as kidney disease or pregnancy. Doctors have a bewildering array of medications to choose from to treat high blood pressure which include diuretics, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers (e.g. nifedipine) and angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors (e.g. captopril). However fancy the name, and whatever their precise mode of action in the body, it is clear that a deficiency of one or more of these drugs is not the cause of high blood pressure. Plus, these medications very often have significant and undesirable side effects. The scientific literature clearly shows that blood pressure is intimately linked to lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise habits, and making healthy changes to these factors is often the key to controlling blood pressure without drugs.
One of the most important dietary factors in terms of its impact on blood pressure is salt. Excessive salt consumption is clearly linked with high blood pressure in Western societies. One study published in the Lancet in 1989 found that individuals consuming 3 or 6 g of salt each day had significantly lower blood pressure than those consuming 12 g of salt a day (average intake in the UK is about 10 g per day). Bearing in mind these findings, it is clear that individuals with high blood pressure might do well to avoid adding salt during cooking or at the table. Also, processed and packaged foods should be avoided, as these tend to be rich in salt.
Weight loss generally helps to reduce blood pressure. Rather than strict dieting, this is generally best achieved through a balanced, nutritious diet in conjunction with a sensible exercise regime. Exercise on its known is known to help reduce blood pressure. Regular aerobic exercise (e.g. jogging, fast walking, swimming, cycling, rowing, aerobics) for four weeks or more has been found to bring about significant reductions in blood pressure.
Apart from reducing salt, other dietary interventions have been found to be very effective in reducing blood pressure. In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 1999, the effect of three different diets on blood pressure was assessed. These diets were; a typical Western diet, a typical Western diet which was low in sugar and supplemented with fruits and vegetables, and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, nuts, fibre, and low in fat, cholesterol, sugar and meat. Individuals eating this last diet were found to experience dramatic drops in blood pressure, with some gaining benefit in as little as two weeks.
Several natural supplements have been used with some success in treating high blood pressure. One of the most commonly used and effective is the mineral magnesium. At a dose of 350 ” 500 mg per day, magnesium has been shown to reduce blood pressure significantly. Quite how magnesium helps to control blood pressure is not known for sure, although it is thought to help relax the muscle contained in the walls of the arteries. Theoretically, this effect should increase the size of the blood vessels and reduce blood pressure as it does this. Another useful natural treatment for hypertension is vitamin C. Studies show that individuals with the highest levels of vitamin C in the blood streams generally have the lowest blood pressures. Also, vitamin C supplementation (500 – 1000 mg per day) has been shown to reduce blood pressure in a significant number of individuals. One other natural remedy for hypertension is garlic (Allium sativum). At a dose of 600 – 900 mg per day, garlic has been shown to bring about very significant reductions in blood pressure in individuals suffering from hypertension.
Please note: no changes to blood pressure medication should be made without consultation with a doctor.