Treating High Blood Pressure

Fortunately for many people, high blood pressure is preventable. Even those who already have high blood pressure or are at increased risk may be able to reduce the number and doses of medications needed to control it and minimize other health complications by the following lifestyle modifications.

  • Lose weight—If you are overweight, losing weight is the most effective non-drug method for lowering blood pressure. A weight loss of as little as 10 pounds can significantly reduce blood pressure in many overweight people with high blood pressure. In some people, weight loss alone is sufficient to avoid the need for blood pressure medication.
  • Exercise—When compared with more active and fit peers, sedentary individuals with normal blood pressure have a 20 to 50 percent increased risk for development of high blood pressure. Regular aerobic exercise such as walking or biking for 30 to 45 minutes most days of the week is a very effective means of lowering blood pressure.
  • Limit alcohol—Excessive alcohol intake is a risk factor for high blood pressure and stroke. It also can interfere with the effects of blood pressure medications. Men who drink should limit their intake to no more than 2 drinks a day; women should have no more than 1 drink daily.

Do not smoke—Smoking a cigarette temporarily increases blood pressure for up to 30 minutes. Smoking is also a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Everyone, especially people with high blood pressure, needs to quit smoking or never start.

  • Limit or avoid high-sodium foods—A high intake of sodium in the diet increases blood pressure in some people. The average American consumes about 4,000 milligrams or more of sodium a day. People with high blood pressure should limit their sodium intake to less than 2,400 milligrams a day, and many experts recommend the same limit for everyone.
  • Follow a balanced nutrition program—A low-fat, highfruit and vegetable diet can lower blood pressure impressively, all by itself. A large percentage of people with high blood pressure may be able to decrease their need for blood pressure medication if they follow the recommendations of the Food Guide Pyramid.

A diet following this plan promotes weight loss and is high in minerals such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium, which have been associated with lower blood pressure.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recently sponsored a study testing the effects of different diets on blood pressure, called the “DASH” (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) study.

Participants in the study ate one of three diets: an average American diet, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, or a “combination” diet that emphasized fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products and was low in fat and saturated fat. Sodium consumption was the same in all three diets.

Participants were asked to limit obviously salty food, to rinse canned vegetables, and to not add extra salt to food. Both the fruit-and-vegetable diet and the “combination” diet lowered blood pressure. However, the combination diet was the most effective.

Within that group, people with above-normal blood pressure (more than 129/80 mm Hg) and those with high blood pressure (more than 140/90 mm Hg) experienced reductions of their blood pressure similar to those achieved with some blood pressure medications.

Researchers believe that people following the combination diet fared better because of the low saturated fat and high fruit and vegetable mixture that provided adequate potassium, magnesium, and calcium. For people with normal blood pressure, the combination diet may help to avoid blood pressure problems.

If blood pressure is only slightly increased, following this diet may actually eliminate the need for medication. For people with severe high blood pressure, the diet may allow reduction in blood pressure medication.

When lifestyle changes alone are not effective for lowering high blood pressure, medications may be required. Medications vary in the way they control blood pressure.

Some types help the kidneys to eliminate sodium and water, some make the heart beat more slowly and less forcefully, and others enable the blood vessels to relax and decrease the resistance to blood flow. Your physician will determine which drug or combination of drugs is best suited for you.