Release the pressure

Julie Penfold finds out some natural ways to maintain healthy blood pressure

It’s responsible for 60 per cent of strokes and half of all heart attacks, yet most people with high blood pressure have no idea they are at risk. That’s because high blood pressure has no symptoms so the only way to know your numbers is by having a blood pressure check.

High blood pressure is a level consistently at or above 140/90 and it’s something that affects one in three adults in the UK – that’s 16 million of us. However, by making some simple but highly effective lifestyle changes, you can take a huge step towards having well-controlled blood pressure.

Salt watch

We all need a little salt as it helps to keep our body fluids at the right concentration and it’s needed for muscle and nerve activity. Yet as a nation we’re eating too much. Even if you don’t usually add salt to your meals, you could still be consuming more than you realise. Around three quarters of the salt we eat is hidden in ready-prepared, processed or manufactured foods. Key high salt culprits include takeaway meals, cheese, processed meat such as ham and bacon, stock cubes, sauces and gravy granules, breakfast cereals and salted nuts and potato and corn snacks. Even sweet snacks such as flapjacks or biscuits can contain salt. The recommended salt amount is no more than 6g a day – that’s around one full teaspoon. However, the current average UK intake is closer to 8.1g. This may not sound like much but the everyday accumulative effect of consuming too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and an increased risk of stroke or heart disease.

“One of the most well-established dietary factors known to affect blood pressure is salt intake,” says nutritionist, Sarah West. “A large amount of salt in the diet disrupts the natural sodium balance in the body causing fluid retention which, in turn, increases the pressure exerted against blood vessel walls. Reducing the amount of salt in your diet is one of the quickest ways to naturally lower blood pressure.”

Reduce your salt intake by swapping processed foods for lower-salt varieties or make your own alternatives at home – they’re guaranteed to have less salt than shop-bought meals! When you start feeling peckish, try snacking on unsalted nuts, seeds, fresh fruit or carrot sticks as a tasty alternative. Try using less salt when cooking by using black pepper, herbs, spices, garlic and lemon or lime juice to season.

Eat well

When we eat too much salt, this can lead to a sodium (salt) and potassium imbalance which negatively affects our blood pressure.

Essential minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium function as electrolytes which help to balance the amount of water in your body and they also play an important role in controlling blood pressure. Potassium is important for muscle function as it helps to relax the walls of the blood vessels. It also balances out the negative effects of sodium.

Cutting down your intake of processed foods and saturated fat will make a big difference. Start by adding an additional portion of fruit and vegetables each day such as a sweet potato for lunch or an afternoon snack of strawberries. A diet that’s rich in fruit such as berries, vegetables including leafy greens such as spinach, beans, nuts and seeds, wholegrain bread, brown rice and omega-3-rich oily fish such as salmon or mackerel will really benefit both your heart and your all-round health. Some plant foods also contain omega-3 in smaller amounts such as rapeseed, soya, flax, linseed and walnuts. Omega-3 fish oil and vegetarian supplements are also available if you have concerns about getting enough through your diet.

Lifestyle tweaks

Keeping your weight under control can also help to maintain a healthy blood pressure level (120/80 or below is classed as ideal). Alcohol is loaded with empty calories so reducing your intake could have a beneficial effect on both your waistline and your blood pressure. Current guidelines state that men and women should not regularly drink more than 14 units a week.

Additionally, if you are a smoker, stop!

Sarah advises that caffeine can have a short but dramatic effect on blood pressure. “This effect is only temporary but the long-term effects on blood pressure are not well understood,” she says. “When you are having your blood pressure taken, avoid tea and coffee for several hours before to ensure you get an accurate reading.”

Move it

Stress can impact on all aspects of your health so it comes as no surprise that it can also affect your blood pressure. Regular exercise is an effective natural way to control blood pressure and relieve stress. Physical activity causes your blood pressure to rise for a short time initially but it quickly returns to normal once you’ve stopped being active.

Try to aim for 30 minutes of exercise five times a week and this doesn’t have to mean slogging it out in the gym every morning. Moderate exercise can be very beneficial too, says Shona Wilkinson, nutritionist at Superfood UK. “We have such stressful lives and getting outdoors for a brisk 30-minute walk can have a really positive impact,” says Shona. “Yoga and pilates are gentle exercises that are great relaxants too. It’s all about comfortable, manageable exercise and getting into a routine. If a 30-minute brisk walk seems a little daunting, you could break this down into three 10-minute walks across the day. Moderate exercise is very beneficial for your blood pressure and your general wellbeing.”

Cycling, swimming, jogging, dancing, tennis and even mowing the lawn are additional activities that are helpful for lowering blood pressure, says the Blood Pressure Association.

Supplement support

Shona recommends a magnesium supplement to help with addressing the electrolyte imbalance that can lead to high blood pressure. Magnesium is also known as nature’s tranquiliser and is a great relaxant. Aside from the oral supplement, magnesium flakes are also available which work transdermally and can be added to a bath to further aid relaxation.

Get checked!

Know Your Numbers week runs from 12 to 18 September and pressure stations will be popping up across the UK where you can have your blood pressure checked for free. Find your nearest location by using the Blood Pressure Association’s handy online pressure station finder:

www.bloodpressureuk.org/microsites/kyn/Home/Freebpchecks/Findfreecheck

Get your blood pressure checked this September: it could save your life.

For more information on blood pressure, visit www.bloodpressureuk.org

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