Heading off Hypertension
Friday, June 3, 2011
LifeTime WeightLoss in Inflammation, Metabolism, Tom Nikkola, high blood pressure, hypertension

Written by: Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management 

According to recent research, the occurrence of high blood pressure has been trending down a little, even with the growing rates of overweight and obesity. While this is a positive sign for a major health risk factor, it’s likely this is more a result of drug therapies than it is positive lifestyle choices. After all, Americans’ growing waistlines would suggest we’re not getting healthier. Drug therapies may provide a short-term solution, but all too often, their use has unwanted side effects. They also tend to address a symptom rather than the root cause of a metabolic disturbance.

Resorting only to medication to “fix” hypertension is like the following analogy. “John” has a habit of literally banging his head against the wall every day. He goes to the doctor complaining of severe headaches and gets a prescription for a strong painkiller. He doesn’t take responsibility for telling his doctor about his habit of head-banging, so there is little else his doctor can do for him. John will go home and continue banging his head against the wall. He might not feel it as much with his new painkillers, but he’s still doing just as much damage to his body as he was before.

There are several things you can do to help to reduce blood pressure without drug therapies. If you’re on blood pressure medication today, these steps are not replacements for the drug therapy you’re using. However, over time, with the right nutrition and lifestyle changes, you’ll hopefully be able to get off the medication.

Stop eating processed foods

Headlines surrounding whole grain consumption tend to be a bit misleading. For example, a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded “Daily consumption of three portions of whole-grain foods can significantly reduce cardiovascular disease risk in middle-aged people…” To the general public, it appears eating more whole grains will result in lower blood pressure. The truth is, the study compared two groups; one eating a processed carbohydrate-based diet, and another that replaced some of their processed carbohydrates with whole grains. What the study really found is that replacing processed carbohydrates with whole grains has a favorable effect on blood pressure.[i] Unfortunately, the way the conclusions are presented, people think they can lower their blood pressure by adding more whole grains to their diet.

There is another way to look at this issue. Based on the research, eating whole grains in place of processed grains results in lower blood pressure. Aside from the processed carbohydrates found in processed foods, many processed foods contain significant amounts of salt, which can have a short-term effect of raising blood pressure as well. Processed foods contain a lot of man-made ingredients, of which we know little about for their long-term effect on our bodies.

Eat fewer carbohydrates

Excess carbohydrate consumption has a number of effects on metabolism, one of which can be an increase in blood pressure.[ii] Studies comparing low-carbohydrate diets against low-fat (higher carbohydrate) diets show reducing carbohydrates has a positive effect on blood pressure. This was discussed in an earlier Flourish article, Comparing Low-Fat and Low-Carb.

Another study in the Annals of Internal Medicine reinforced the idea, following a group of women over a two-year period on either a low-fat or low-carb diet, showing those on the low-carb diet saw a more significant reduction in blood pressure (and other metabolic markers). Keep in mind, an individual does not need to avoid carbohydrates altogether to recognize a benefit. For many people, simply reducing them can be beneficial. Since each individual is different, it’s best to get guidance from a Registered Dietitian, especially if you have hypertension today.

Take a walk or go for a joy ride

I can remember as a very young child that my parents had matching bikes. I can’t remember the brand, but from what I remember, they were yellow and brown, and had kids’ seats on the back of each. I remember my brother and I riding with them in the summer. During the winter, they cross-country skied. They weren’t athletes. They weren’t getting out to burn as many calories as possible. They did these activities just because they enjoyed them.

I don’t always feel like going for a walk with my wife when she asks, but I’m always glad when I do. I forget about work. I relax. My level of stress is always reduced. Being active and exercising are sometimes two different things. You can have a tremendous effect on your levels of stress (and blood pressure) by finding something that gets you up off your seat and takes your mind off the craziness of life. Lower intensity activities have consistently been shown to help reduce stress levels. Take a walk or go for a bike ride. Once in a while, just do it because it feels good, not because you’re trying to break a record.

Sit in a sauna

One of the most underutilized, underappreciated spaces in our Life Time Fitness and Life Time Athletic clubs is the sauna. Regular use of a sauna has been shown to help reduce LDL (bad) and increase HDL (good) cholesterol.[iii] It also may help to reduce hypertension by improving the functioning of the blood vessels.[iv] As blood vessels relax, the pressure on them from the pumping of the heart is reduced. Aside from the direct health heart health benefits, you may simply find the time spent in the sauna to be relaxing. It can be another way to get away from the business of your day and find some quiet time. You may also find you can handle higher intensity workouts, as the ability to tolerate the heat of a sauna can have a positive effect of handling the stress of the workouts.

Lose weight

It goes without saying that if you’re carrying around extra weight, you’re putting unnecessary work on your heart. The ideas suggested here can help, but if you don’t lose weight it will be more difficult to get your blood pressure under control — especially if you want to do it without medication. As an evangelist for a healthy way of life, I get frustrated hearing people speak of being assured their health is okay as long as they’re on medication. I’ve heard people say their blood pressure is fine, their blood sugar is fine, that they’re healthy — all the while carrying around an extra 30-75 pounds of body fat. Being overweight is a serious health concern. Give your heart the chance to work like it’s supposed to by getting the extra weight off.


Hypertension is not something to take lightly. Think about how you feel when you have to work an extra long work week. Consider how tired and worn down you feel. That’s probably the best visual you can have of the extra daily work you force your heart to do for you. You can’t handle being overworked forever. At a certain point, you become exhausted. So might your heart if you don’t give it a break.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

Share thoughts and comments below.


[i] Tighe P, Duthie G, Vaughan N. Effect of increased consumption of whole-grain foods on blood pressure and other cardiovascular foods on blood pressure and other cardiovascular risk markers in healthy middle-aged persons: a randomized controlled trial. AJCN. 2011;92(4)733-740

[ii] Muzio F, Mondazzi L, Harris WS, Sommariva D, Branchi A. Effects of moderate variations in the macronutrient content of the diet on cardiovascular disease risk factors in obese patiens with the metabolic syndrome. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86(4):946-951

[iii] Pilch W, Szygula Z, Klimek AT, et al. Changes in lipid profile of blood serumin women taking sauna baths of various duration. Int J Occ Med Env Heal. 2010;23(2):167-174

[iv] Blum N, Blum A. Beneficial effects of sauna bathing for heart failure patients. Exp Clin Cardiol. 2007;12(1):29-32

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