Most people have heard about blood pressure. Many may be aware that having high blood pressure can increase the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. But what is blood pressure exactly? A certain amount of pressure is necessary to keep your blood pumping through your arteries. The pressure is created when your heart beats and pushes blood against the resistance of your arteries. However, blood pressure isn’t usually the same throughout the day, and it’s quite normal for it to fluctuate. Your blood pressure can also be affected by things like eating, smoking, anxiety and when you feel excited about something.
Blood pressure is represented by two different measurements:
Systolic pressure - which is the result of your heart muscle contracting to pump out blood to your arteries. This is the top (or first) of the two numbers that make up a blood pressure reading.
Diastolic pressure - or the pressure caused by your heart relaxing between beats, when it fills up with blood. This is the second of the two numbers in a blood pressure reading.
Both numbers are measurements of millimetres of mercury (or mmHg). And the way they are presented is as the systolic pressure over the diastolic. For example, 120/80mmHg (that is, your systolic blood pressure is 120mmHg and your diastolic is 80mmHg).
Know your numbers
These numbers can tell you and your doctor how low or high your blood pressure is. According to Blood Pressure UK, here’s what those numbers mean (i):
90/60 (90 over 60) or lower: your blood pressure is low.
90/60 - 120/80: your blood pressure is healthy.
120/80 - 140/90: your blood pressure is pre-high.
140/90 or higher: your blood pressure is high.
Ideally, adults should have a blood pressure of 120/80 or lower because at this level, the risk of heart attack and stroke are much lower. If yours is in this range, you should stick to a healthy lifestyle to maintain it.
However, most adults in the UK have blood pressure readings in the 120/80 - 140/90 range (ii). This doesn’t mean high blood pressure, but according to Blood Pressure UK if yours is within this range it’s a little higher than it should be, which means you should make healthy changes to your lifestyle to try and lower it.
In the meantime, if you have high blood pressure or hypertension (that is, blood pressure that’s 140/90 or higher), you may need to take prescription medicines as well as change your lifestyle to help get your blood pressure down to a healthy level. That’s because not only does high blood pressure increase your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, but experts believe it may make you more susceptible to developing kidney disease, peripheral arterial disease and heart failure. High blood pressure has also been linked to some forms of dementia. On the other hand, if your blood pressure is 90/60 or lower (hypotension), it isn’t usually a cause for concern because some people have blood pressure that’s naturally low. But if it does drop to a point where you feel faint or dizzy, or if your blood pressure suddenly drops much lower than normal, consult your GP.
Blood pressure monitoring - what you should know
According to the NHS, healthy adults aged 40 or older should have their blood pressure checked at least once every five years (iii). That’s because high blood pressure doesn’t usually display any symptoms, so unless you have it checked you may have high blood pressure without knowing it.
If you’re older, if you’ve previously had a high (or pre high) blood pressure reading or if you have diabetes, you may be advised to have a blood pressure test at least once a year. This is because diabetes can be linked to increased cardiovascular complications. The good news is that having your blood pressure checked is quick, easy and painless. You can have the test at your GP’s surgery or health clinic, or at one of many high-street pharmacies (some may offer free blood pressure testing, while others may charge a small fee). And if you want to keep a regular check on your blood pressure, you can also do it yourself at home by using your own blood pressure monitor.
How is the test performed?
Depending on the type of blood pressure monitor being used, a cuff is usually placed around your upper arm and inflated to restrict the blood flow. When the cuff is slowly deflated and the pressure released, a digital monitor measures the vibration of blood travelling through the arteries and converts the movement into a digital reading that comprises your blood pressure result.
If a health professional is taking your blood pressure the old-fashioned way using a stethoscope, they listen for sounds that correspond to systolic and diastolic pressures – a technique that requires a lot of training and practice. These days, however, GPs are advised to use digital blood pressure monitors.
White coat hypertension
The problem with having your blood pressure taken by a healthcare professional is that it can be higher than it should be, especially if you’re feeling a bit stressed or anxious about having the test. This is often referred to as white coat hypertension (or the white coat effect), and the only way to confirm whether or not you’re affected is to check your blood pressure yourself at home when you’re more relaxed, or to have 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure monitoring.
Using a home blood pressure monitor can be useful not just because you can tell whether or not your blood pressure is lower at home than it is when you have it taken by a healthcare professional, but also because it allows you to find out how your blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day.
For instance, health experts believe that blood pressure is usually lower at night while you’re asleep but starts to rise a few hours before you wake up. It may continue to rise during the day, then start to drop again in the late afternoon and evening.
If your GP takes your blood pressure and it’s higher than it should be, they may suggest that you have it checked again over a 24-hour period. This usually means you’ll be given a blood pressure kit to take home so that your blood pressure can be monitored throughout the day. Your GP may also decide you should have blood and urine tests to check for conditions such as kidney disease that are known to cause an increase in blood pressure.
Blood pressure facts and figures
According to the latest statistics, one in three adults in the UK has high blood pressure. Yet around a third of those with high blood pressure don’t realise they’re affected, thanks to the fact that high blood pressure usually has no obvious symptoms.
Here are some other UK-based facts and figures about blood pressure:
A slightly higher number of men have high blood pressure than women (31 percent of men compared with 26 percent of women) (iv)
About 66 percent of men and 78 percent of women who are aged 75 or older have high blood pressure (v).
Half of people with high blood pressure haven’t been diagnosed or are not receiving any treatment (iv).
The higher your blood pressure, the higher your risk of developing a related health problem. For instance, even 10mmHg reduction in systoic blood pressure reduces the risk of major cardiovascular events by 20 percent (iv).
Underlying health problems are thought to be responsible for about one in 20 high blood pressure cases (common causes include kidney disease, diabetes, Cushing’s syndrome and other hormonal conditions, lupus and other conditions that affect the body’s tissue and taking the oral contraceptive pill or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen) (vi)
The risk of developing high blood pressure increases with age, but other risk factors include the following:
Eating too much salt
Drinking too much alcohol
Not doing enough exercise
Drinking too much caffeine
Not eating enough fruit and vegetables
Having a relative with high blood pressure
Being of African or Caribbean descent
How to keep your blood pressure healthy
In most cases there’s no obvious cause for high blood pressure, claims the NHS. However, there are several factors that may increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, many of which can be controlled by having a healthy lifestyle. If your blood pressure is higher than ideal (between 120/80 and 140/90) and you have been advised to lower it – or if you want to keep your ideal blood pressure at its current level – here are some of the essential lifestyle changes you could consider making:
One of the most important changes you should make to your diet is to cut down on the amount of salt you use, as salt raises blood pressure (adults should aim for no more than 6g a day, which is the equivalent of approximately one teaspoon). Remember that most of the salt in your diet is found in foods such as bread, ready meals and breakfast cereal, so when you’re shopping check your food labels and go for low-salt options wherever possible.
Give up smoking
Smoking is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease. And while it may not directly affect your blood pressure, according to Blood Pressure UK smoking can cause your arteries to narrow. If you’re finding it difficult to quit, there are products you can buy that may help, such as nicotine gum, lozenges and patches.
Maintain a healthy weight
Losing weight if you need to can help reduce your blood pressure. For instance, if you’re overweight or living with obesity, losing even a small amount may help lower your blood pressure. Getting down to within a healthy weight range may also reduce your risk of developing a range of other health problems.
Do more exercise
Being physically active helps to strengthen your heart and can lower your blood pressure. Aim for a total of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week. Try swimming, walking, cycling, gardening, dancing or do some exercise classes. Not only will your blood pressure benefit, but doing more exercise can also help you lose weight.
Cut down on caffeine
According to the NHS, drinking more than four cups of coffee a day may increase your blood pressure (vii). So consider cutting down or switching to decaffeinated versions of coffee, tea and soft fizzy drinks.
Drink in moderation
Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure over time. So stick within the recommended maximum of no more than 14 units of alcohol a week for men and women, spread out over at least three days (a unit equals a small glass of wine, half a pint of normal strength lager, cider or beer, or a single pub measure of spirits). Cutting down on alcohol can also save calories, which is particularly useful if you need to lose weight.
Blood pressure remedies
Eating a healthy balanced diet – which includes a lower level of salt and saturated fat – is a significant part of any regime aimed at reducing blood pressure. However, there are several nutrients that appear to have a beneficial effect on blood pressure too, all of which are available in supplement form, including the following:
Fish Oils (omega-3 fatty acids)
The omega-3 fatty acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which are found primarily in oily fish, have been studied extensively for their effect on heart health.
Indeed the EU’s European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has officially backed DHA and EPA for their contribution to the maintenance of normal blood pressure. To achieve the beneficial effects of these fatty acids you should aim to take a minimum level of 500mg combined EPA/DHA daily (but don’t exceed 5g per day) (viii). You may also want to consider a supplement that provides both omega-3 fatty acids and CoQ10 (see below).
However, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan you can still benefit from an omega-3 supplement, thanks to the availability of products that contain the natural triglyceride (TG) form of omega-3, which is sourced from plant organisms called microalgae rather than fish oils.
If you’re not getting enough vitamin D, a recent study suggests it could trigger high blood pressure later in life. Partly funded by the British Heart Foundation, the study included more than 146,500 people from 35 different studies. Its findings show those with higher vitamin D levels had lower blood pressure and were less likely to develop high blood pressure than those with lower levels in their body (ix).
Scientists writing in the journal Cureus also suggest that vitamin D levels in the body modulate blood pressure indirectly, and that doctors should keep an eye on patients’ vitamin D levels to help reduce the incidence of hypertension (x).
The recommended form of vitamin D is vitamin D3 or cholocalciferol, as it’s the natural form of vitamin D that the body makes when it’s exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D3 supplements are available in tablet form, and now you can get them in veggie-friendly drops too.
However most vitamin D3 supplements are made from the fat of lamb’s wool, which means they’re unsuitable for vegans. The good news is that vegan vitamin D3 supplements sourced from lichen are now more widely avaiable.
Also known as ubiquinone, CoQ10 is an antioxidant compound made in the body, including in the heart. Many experts believe supplementing CoQ10 – levels of which decrease as you get older – may help to treat high blood pressure. In one study, just over 50 percent of volunteers were able to come off between one and three blood pressure medications around four months after starting to take CoQ10 supplements (xi).
A further analysis of 12 separate clinical studies on CoQ10 and heart health suggests taking the compound may reduce systolic blood pressure between 11-17mmHg and diastolic blood pressure between 8-10mmHg (xii).
It’s believed that many people in the UK don’t get enough of this essential mineral, which is found in large concentrations in the heart muscle. However, you need magnesium for a variety of body functions, including muscle relaxation and to block calcium from entering muscle and heart cells. Several studies also suggest that taking magnesium supplements on a regular basis may help treat high blood pressure (xiii), with a review of nine studies finding a relationship between dieteray magnesium intake and the risk of hypertension (xiv).
There is evidence to suggest taking garlic supplements may reduce blood pressure by around 5-10 percent more than placebo (xv), with a study review suggesting that garlic is an effective and safe approach for hypertension (xvi). However, when it comes to heart health, the case for garlic reducing cholesterol may be stronger (xvii).
Maintaining your blood pressure can be a balancing act. To discover more information on how to support your overall health, visit our health library for some helpful advice.
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/blood-pressure-test/
Available online: http://www.bloodpressureuk.org/mediacentre/Factsandfigures
Available online: https://patient.info/doctor/hypertension
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/high-blood-pressure-hypertension/causes/
Available online: https://efsa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1796/
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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.