Healthy habits for healthy blood pressure

Published in Medicinewise Living

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Eating healthily, losing weight, increasing physical activity and reducing your consumption of salt and alcohol can help reduce blood pressure.

Making positive lifestyle changes — such as eating healthily and increasing physical activity — can enable you to delay starting a blood pressure lowering medicine, or to reduce the number of medicines you need to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level. Better still, making healthy lifestyle changes can mean you don't need to start taking a blood pressure lowering medicine at all.

What is high blood pressure?

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when the force of blood circulating around the body is consistently higher than normal. This usually causes no symptoms but increases the risk of serious complications including heart attack, stroke and kidney disease. Reducing blood pressure reduces these risks.

Blood pressure is measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg) as two different numbers: the first number is a measure of the pressure in arteries when the heart contracts (systolic blood pressure) and the second is a measure of the pressure when the heart rests between beats (diastolic blood pressure). In Australia, people are diagnosed with high blood pressure if it is measured as 140/90 mmHg or higher.

What difference can lifestyle make?

Taking a single blood pressure lowering medicine can reduce systolic blood pressure by around 8 mmHg. But substantial reductions can also be achieved by eating healthily, losing weight, increasing physical activity and reducing your consumption of salt and alcohol. On average, people can lower their systolic blood pressure by:

  • 4–5 mmHg by reducing their salt intake
  • 4–9 mmHg by increasing their levels of physical activity
  • 8–14 mmHg by switching to a diet low in saturated and total fat and rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products
  • 2–4 mmHg by limiting alcohol consumption
  • 1 mmHg for every 1% reduction in body weight.

Combining two or more of these lifestyle changes can lower blood pressure even further. The impact on blood pressure is not completely cumulative, for example, reducing salt and alcohol intake may not add up to a reduction in blood pressure of 9 mmHg. However, the more lifestyle changes you make, the more likely you are to reduce your blood pressure.

Five lifestyle changes to lower blood pressure

Making lifestyle changes can help keep your blood pressure normal even when you're already taking a blood pressure lowering medicine.

Talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes that are suitable for you. You can also download or order a Managing my heart health at a glance card to help you record and check your progress with lifestyle changes over a 1-year period.

1. Reduce salt intake

People with high blood pressure should consume less than 4 grams of salt a day. The sodium in salt is what causes health problems and this is why food labels show the sodium content rather than salt content. Four grams of salt is equivalent to 1600 milligrams (mg) of sodium.

The best way to reduce salt in your diet is to eat less processed foods. You can also check the labels of processed foods and pick brands with the least amount of sodium, or choose foods that are labelled 'low salt' or 'no added salt'. Products with less than 120 mg of sodium per 100 grams are considered low in salt.

Beware of hidden salt

About three quarters of the salt Australians eat every day comes from processed foods rather than from salt added during cooking or at the table.

Sodium content can vary between different brands of the same food. For example, in 2010 an Australian study reported that the amount of sodium in different brands of white bread ranged from 250 mg per 100 grams to 600 mg per 100 grams. Similarly, the amount of sodium in hard cheeses ranged from 24 mg per 100 grams to 1740 mg per 100 grams.

2. Control weight    

Blood pressure increases as people put on weight, but losing even small amounts of weight can make a difference. Aim for a body mass index below 25, and a waist circumference of less than 94 centimetres (men) or 80 centimetres (women).

3. Eat healthily

Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables that includes low-fat dairy products, and small amounts of unprocessed meat and fish, can reduce the amount of kilojoules and hidden salt you eat. What's more, such a diet in itself can lower blood pressure by up to 14 mmHg.

4. Increase physical activity

At least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week can reduce blood pressure. The 30 minutes do not have to be in a single session; three periods of 10 minutes of physical activity, or two 15 minute periods, can do the job just as well.

5. Cut back on alcohol

Reducing the amount of alcohol you drink can reduce blood pressure, whether you do this by drinking fewer drinks or by switching to lower alcohol alternatives. Australian guidelines recommend no more than 2 standard drinks per day.

Quit smoking

While smoking doesn't directly affect blood pressure it does contribute to the hardening of arteries (known as atherosclerosis) which further increases your chance of complications like heart disease and stroke. Quitting smoking will reduce your overall cardiovascular risk.