It never ceases to amaze me how often doctors use needlessly complex and unintelligible language, when plain English would do just as well. A good example of such medicalese is the term ‘essential hypertension’. Hypertension is just doctors’ parlance for high blood pressure. However, the word ‘essential’ in this context it refers to high blood pressure that has no known underlying cause (about 90 per cent of cases). I accept that it can sometimes be difficult to find out what is at the root of a health issue. Quite why that makes it ‘essential’ is beyond me. In fact, there is good reason to believe it is nothing of the sort.
High blood pressure is thought to affect up to one in five adults in the UK. While usually symptomless, high blood pressure ups our chances of developing circulatory problems such as heart disease and stroke. For this reason, doctors usually treat the condition aggressively, and have a bewildering array of drugs at their disposal with which to do this. Prescription drugs which are generally viewed as life-long treatments, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Not so long ago, a report published in the American Journal of Hypertension 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. Actually, there’s a stack of research that suggests there is huge potential for controlling blood pressure naturally.
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. 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 (known as the DASH diet) were found to experience dramatic drops in blood pressure, with some gaining benefit in as little as two weeks.
The benefits of the DASH diet were impressive, but had neglected to dietary element which has long been fingered as a factor in high blood pressure – salt. In a follow-up study, researchers examined what the effect of salt restriction was, both on its own, and also in conjunction with the DASH diet. Both salt restriction and the DASH diet brought blood pressure down. However, those who ate a DASH diet and had the lowest salt intake saw the greatest falls in blood pressure. 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.
There is good evidence that while the sodium in salt can cause blood pressure to rise, another mineral – potassium – has quite the reverse effect. Some doctors and scientists are beginning to see a high-potassium diet as a useful strategy in blood pressure control. Fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruit, beans and pulses are all rich in potassium, though one of the most convenient sources is the banana.
Not surprisingly, exercise is believed 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.
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.