All You Need To Know About High Blood Pressure
A guest Blog by medical herbalist, Joseph Nolan.
High blood pressure is rather an epidemic in the western world, affecting more than a quarter of adults in the UK. Rates rise steeply above the fifty-year mark, and men are somewhat more prone than women.
Generally, hypertension (the medical term for high blood pressure) causes no symptoms, but over the long haul it can damage the kidneys, liver, lungs, heart, and blood vessels. The ultimate results of untreated hypertension come under the heading “extremely undesirable” and include such catastrophes as stokes, heart attacks, aneurysms and dementia, as well as erectile dysfunction, kidney disease, and eye problems. Basically, all that is nasty and alarming.
So what exactly is blood pressure, why does it rise, and what can we do about it?
Blood pressure is like the water pressure in your pipes: not enough and the water can’t make it up to the top floor; too much and, over time, the pipes will be damaged, the fine structures in radiators and such will give out, and something might blow. In somewhat more technical terms, blood pressure is the force exerted by the blood on the blood vessel walls. When BP is measured, you typically get two numbers, say 120/70 for example. The higher number on the left, the systolic, is the force (measured in millimetres of mercury) exerted by the blood on the vasculature while the heart is pumping. The lower number, the diastolic, is taken when the heart is at rest. In the UK, a high reading is considered above 140/90, ideal is below 120/80, getting too low at about at 90/60. Readings are highly variable with time of day, activity level, stress level, stimulant and relaxant use, etc so, if a problem is suspected, BP is best assessed with a 24-hour monitor. It is the overall trend that is important, not a single reading.
There are several key regulating factors in blood pressure and, when they go awry, they are apt to cause problems. One factor is peripheral vascular resistance, or the relative diameter and flexibility of blood vessels in the extremities. If they are healthy, flexible and relaxed, then the arteries, arterioles and capillaries allow an optimal amount of blood through, and the pressure exerted on vessels by the blood is also optimal. But if you’ve smoked 40 a day for thirty years, narrowed your daily exercise routine to walking to and from the coffee machine, and your boss has just stalked off to HR with a face like a thunder cloud and your file under her arm, things are likely to be different. Smoking and other oxidative toxins contribute to the stiffening of arterial walls, so they are less able to adapt to change. Leave a garden hose out in the sun too long, it gets brittle and splits. And of course stress - that eminently useful Fight or Flight reaction - in part diverts blood from non-essential muscles and the digestive tract to the large fighting-or-flying muscles and vital organs. One of the ways the stress reaction accomplishes this is by narrowing peripheral blood vessels (ever noticed that stress gives you cold hands?) and, over years and decades, this fight-or-flight set up becomes the norm.
Blood vessels can also be narrowed by an accumulation of cholesterol and other kinds of deposits on their walls. Given time, these deposits can build up the point where the vessel is dammed by 70-90% or even blocked altogether, when stents and bypass operations are required. So with a stiffer, less adaptable vasculature and narrowed vessels, the pressure is going to be much higher that morning in the office than it would be lying on a beach on the Costa del Sol.
Feel the Force
Another factor is the heartbeat’s force. A weak heartbeat is not very efficient, and so a weak heart has to beat faster to keep the blood moving. Over time, the heart weakens further, and heart failure or perhaps a cardiac event will occur. A strong beat is more efficient and usually therefore slower. Olympic athletes often have resting pulses below 45 beats per minute, which is just under half a normal person’s resting pulse, because their hearts are so strong and efficient. A weak contraction fighting against high peripheral resistance is not a pretty picture. However, in the short term, a healthy heart can deal with considerable resistance.
Another very important key player in blood pressure maintenance are the kidneys. The kidneys filter waste products, the end products of normal cellular function, out of the blood for excretion in the urine. Along with the filtration of urea and other cellular wastes, the kidneys also remove some drugs, environmental chemicals (and some mushroom toxins - destroying the kidneys is one way that poisonous mushrooms can be fatal) and regulate blood mineral levels. They also, obviously, remove water. In a complex interplay of sensors and hormonal feedback, the kidneys regulate water and electrolyte balance in the blood, and also blood pressure. Pressure low, retain water; pressure high, eliminate water. The kidneys work largely by osmosis and use the movement of sodium and other minerals to fascinate the retention or excretion of water. Dietary intake of some minerals, most notably sodium, can play havoc with this regulatory process. To further compound the problem, excessive blood pressure can, over time, damage the fragile renal tissues where water exchange and filtration takes place. Messy.
All that said, there are a lot of things that a person can do to lower his or her blood pressure and mitigate damage to heart and vasculature. Supporting the circulatory system, optimising kidney function and looking after overall health, will go a long way towards helping you stay fighting fit.
Easy and effective lifestyle changes for healthy blood pressure:
- Relax. Long term stress is a big factor
- Eat more fruit and vegetables
- Eat less sugar and fewer processed foods
- Reduce dietary salt intake. Use vinegar, lemon, lime and other sour condiments to enhance flavours before reaching for the salt
- Reduce alcohol intake
- Get enough exercise
- Get enough sleep
- Stop smoking
A Heathy Heart Diet
Eating antioxidant foods maintains the flexibility of blood vessels, and there are foods which reduce cholesterol and other deposits on vessel walls. Herbs can help the heart function better, improve the vasculature, and chill you out.
Foods which support healthy cardiovascular function include garlic, olive oil, red wine (in moderation!), whole grains (especially buckwheat), brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, berries, turmeric and black pepper. Interestingly, moderate coffee and tea consumption (2-3 cups a day) has been found modestly preventative - or neutral in some studies - against the development of hypertension. A Swedish study of people who had previously had a heart attack found that their risk of further “events”, cardiovascular disease and death, were reduced enough to consider recommending coffee drinking as part of a post-heart attack health regime. The coffee findings are surprising considering that caffeine on its own, and most other stimulants, significantly raise blood pressure. It is fascinating to note that coffee and tea do not have a hypertensive effect on habitual consumers.
To augment a heart healthy diet, herbs that can support the cardiovascular system include hawthorn for vascular strength and an efficient heart; limeflower to relax and lower pressure; bilberry (wild blueberry) and turmeric to strengthen the vessel walls; red clover and garlic to slowly remove plaques and prevent further build up; and chilli and ginger to dilate vessels and improve circulation. There are many other plant remedies we use for people with cardiovascular problems and those listed below are easiest to find
A few useful supplements include:
- Coenzyme Q10 (usually known as CoQ10) improves heart muscle function
- D. Atkinson C&H Complex, a blend of herbs and nutrients to improve Circulation & Heart health
- Turmeric strengthens blood vessels
- Garlic reduces arterial plaque formation
- Rutin - or buckwheat extract - strengthens blood vessels
- Varicose vein products like Wonder Legs tone and strengthen veins in particular, and will work just as well on haemorrhoids and men’s testicular varices too.
D. Atkinson Hearty Tea has been formulated to support a healthy heart and circulation and is a gentle support for those with a tendency to high blood pressure, varicose veins and poor circulation. This traditional blend contains limeflower to lower blood pressure, relieve tension and reduce anxiety; hawthorn flowers to lower bp, support heart function and improve circulation; bitter orange peel to strengthen blood vessels, improve circulation (and it tastes lovely); olive leaf to lower blood pressure and improve circulation especially in the heart; yarrow to strengthen blood vessels and reduce varicose veins by improving circulation; and hibiscus flowers to lower bp and support the vasculature.
During September you can get 20% off D. Atkinson Hearty Tea in our shop.
Because there are usually no symptoms, a finding of high blood pressure can be easy to ignore and one can get away with ignoring it for a long time. Unfortunately, when the bill does come due it can be disastrously high. Taking steps early, with exercise and diet, stress management and sleep, herbs and supplements, can prevent the awful consequences of hypertension and help us live long and healthy lives. Lub-dub.