Blood pressure is one of the most important measures of heart health. Learn what it means when your numbers are high and what you can do to bring them down.
Because blood has to travel so far through the body, blood vessels come in various sizes. Your body’s circulatory system encompasses everything from the thick arteries and veins that branch off from the heart to the small capillaries that feed the tiniest, most distant parts of your body. Healthy blood vessels are flexible and strong, capable of containing the pulsing pressure of rushing blood, heartbeat after heartbeat, year after year, for a lifetime. We’d like to think that they’re durable too, but the reality is that vessels are relatively fragile.
What Is Hypertension?
Hypertension is another term for high blood pressure. As the heart contracts to pump blood through the arteries, the force of that rushing blood against the vessel walls is called systolic blood pressure. As the heart relaxes between beats, the blood presses less forcefully against the vessel walls, reflected in your diastolic blood pressure. When you go to the doctor, your blood pressure is given in two numbers: systolic pressure over diastolic pressure, measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg).
Physicians recommend that you maintain blood pressure at or below 120/80 mmHg, but high blood pressure is medically defined as any reading higher than 140/90 mmHg. Readings of 121 to 139 systolic or 81 to 89 diastolic are considered prehypertension, a warning that blood pressure may soon rise into the danger zone. The higher your blood pressure, the greater your risk of disease, including heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, and other blood-vessel disorders. That’s because when blood pressure is higher than normal, it pummels the delicate lining of blood vessels.
Left untreated, high blood pressure can cause structural damage and inflammation. In addition, high blood pressure can trigger a condition called atherosclerosis — the formation of plaque, a fatty substance that builds up on the inside of the vessels, making them narrower and less flexible, and choking the blood supply to every part of the body. Mind you, these narrow vessels must still carry the same amount of blood as they did when they were healthy, which only adds to the pressure the vessel walls must bear. So high blood pressure is a risk factor for even higher blood pressure.That’s why blood pressure problems never really go away — once you have damage from high blood pressure, you’ll have to fight to control it forever.
I Have High Blood Pressure — Now What?
If you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension, your doctor has probably already told you the basics. You can control your blood pressure by:
- Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
- Reducing your bad cholesterol (LDL) if it’s high. Read how to improve your HDL.
- Limiting the salt in your diet.
- Adding calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, and potassium to your diet.
A Word About Metabolic Syndrome
Hypertension is a major risk for heart disease, but it’s not the only one. Other important risk factors are high triglycerides, low HDL (“good cholesterol”), a large waist (35″ or more for women, 40″ or more for men), or fasting blood sugar higher than 110 mg/dL. Having any of these risk factors is bad enough, but having more than one amplifies the threat. Having three of them is the definition of metabolic syndrome — that’s a cluster of risk factors that, taken together, create a toxic environment in your blood vessels. It’s important to tackle each one of your heart-health problems to reduce your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
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