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Lowering Your Blood Pressure Naturally

by Dr. Sarah Cimperman


According to the National Institutes of Health, most people in the United States have high blood pressure at some point in their lives. Hypertension, the medical term for blood pressure that remains elevated over time, doesn’t have any symptoms, so people may not even know they have it. Left untreated, it can affect the ability to think, learn, and remember. It can also lead to blindness, kidney failure, heart failure, heart attack and stroke. The most common treatment is medication and 68 percent of US adults take blood pressure-lowering drugs. But other effective interventions exist. Changes in diet and lifestyle that address underlying factors can lower high blood pressure and improve overall health.

Salt

People with hyper-tension are advised to eat a low sodium diet, but stud-ies show that it doesn’t really make a differ-ence. The well-respected Cochrane Collabor-ation is an independent, not-for-profit organization that reviews research studies relating to health care and is inter-nationally recognized for its evidence-based standards. In 2004 Cochrane researchers reviewed 57 studies of people with normal blood pressure (120 mm Hg systolic over 80 mm Hg diastolic, or lower) and 58 studies of people with elevated blood pressure. All of the participants were randomly assigned to either a low sodium diet or a high sodium diet.

Individuals with normal blood pressure who ate a low sodium diet experienced only slightly lower blood pressure readings. Their systolic pressure only dropped one point (mm Hg) and diastolic pressure didn’t even drop half a point. In people with high blood pressure, low sodium diets made more of a difference but the results were still insignificant. Systolic pressure went down four points and diastolic dropped almost two points. Researchers noted that compared to Caucasians, black and Asian people received slightly more benefit from the low sodium diet (a reduction of up to 6 points systolic) but they still concluded that low sodium diets are not warranted.

Sugar

Instead of salt, people with high blood pressure should avoid sugar. Or more specifically, foods that contain easily digestible carbohydrates like sugar, flour, white rice, potatoes, juice and beer. The carbohydrates in these foods are quickly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, flooding the body with sugar. High blood sugar causes the body to retain water, which can increase pressure inside blood vessels. Studies have linked high blood sugar to high blood pressure and demonstrated that lowering blood sugar also lowers blood pressure.

High blood sugar also damages blood vessels. It causes excessive amounts of compounds called advanced glycosylation end products (AGEs) to be produced. AGEs can slowly accumulate in the body and bind together in a process called cross-linking. When cross-linked AGEs accumulate in tissues, they cause rigidity and interfere with normal structure and function. Collagen, a fundamental component of blood vessels, is particularly susceptible to cross-linking, which causes vessels to stiffen and blood pressure to rise. Once blood vessels lose their elasticity, they can no longer effectively regulate blood pressure.

Blood Pressure-Lowering Diet

Not all carbohydrates are bad. The complex kind can be good. Because they are bound to fiber, protein and fatty acids, they are digested and absorbed slowly, not all at once. So blood sugar levels rise gradually. Complex carbohydrates are found in whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds. These foods should make up 75% of meals, with the remaining 25% composed of protein like meat, seafood, eggs, tofu or tempeh. (All animal products should come from animals never exposed to pesticides, antibiotics or hormones.)

Eliminate easily digestible carbohydrates like processed foods, bread, pasta, pretzels, crackers, cookies, candy, cake, pastries, pancakes, waffles, white rice, potatoes, milk, beer, juice and sweetened beverages. If you want a sweet treat, choose dark chocolate. It is low in sugar and high in cocoa powder, which contains polyphenols that support healthy blood vessel function. Limit yourself to one or two ounces per day and look for chocolate that is 70 to 85 percent dark (the darker the better). Because alkalizing agents destroy the healthy compounds, avoid products with alkalinized or Dutch-process cocoa powder.

Lifestyle

Other essential lifestyle interventions include stopping smoking, avoiding alcohol, getting enough vitamin D, staying active and managing stress. Stress hormones can raise blood sugar levels and activate the sympathetic nervous system, our inherent "fight or flight" response to stress. This survival instinct prepares the body for action by increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Activities like meditation, yoga, tai chi and breathing exercises have the opposite effect. They reduce sympathetic stimulation, promote relaxation and lower blood pressure.

Exercise isn’t just a workout for muscles and bones, it’s a workout for the heart and blood vessels too. Exercise helps maintain healthy blood vessel function and it can lower high blood pressure. It also improves coordination, balance, flexibility, energy, sleep and mood. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, regular exercise can even add an extra year or two to your life. However, people with cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, should get permission and guidelines from their doctor before they begin a new exercise program.

Because low levels of vitamin D are associated with high blood pressure, it should be supplemented in people who have documented low levels. Vitamin D can accumulate in the body, so it’s important not to take too much. A blood test should always be done to determine whether levels are low and how much is needed. Other supplements can be helpful for hypertension, but some have dangerous interactions with prescription medications. Always get individualized recommendations from your doctor before taking a new supplement.

References available upon request. Dr. Sarah Cimperman is a naturopathic doctor in private practice in New York City. For more information, call 646-234-2918 or visit www.drsarahcimperman. com. Read her blogs online at adifferentkindofdoctor.blogspot.com and naturopathicgourmet.blogspot.com.


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