Blood Pressure

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Blood pressure is one health factor that you cannot generally “feel,” although in some cases there may be certain symptoms, especially if your BP is too low. However, in most cases, the only way to know where you stand is to take a reading with a sphygmomanometer and look at the numbers. Balance is the name of the game. You don’t want your blood pressure to be too high or too low. Join me in a discussion of this critical health indicator that is very influential to our overall wellness.

What is Blood Pressure?

The term blood pressure refers to the pressure exerted by blood onto the arterial walls as it circulates through the body. This level of pressure is determined by two factors: the amount of blood that your heart is pumping, and the amount of resistance experienced as the blood attempts to flow through your arteries. The more blood the heart pumps and the narrower your arteries, the higher your blood pressure.

Having blood pressure that is higher than normal is called hypertension (high blood pressure). Conversely, low blood pressure is referred to as hypotension. Hypertension is a much more common problem than hypotension. In fact, hypertension is one of the most common medical conditions in the United States, with statistics telling us that almost 90% of all individuals over the age of 55 will develop higher than normal blood pressure at some point in their lives. As we shall see, this is due largely to the Standard American Diet (SAD) and other lifestyle factors that are, unfortunately, all too common in this country. Hypertension gets most of the press, but her sister hypotension can also cause or indicate the presence of serious medical issues. Low readings within the normal range are preferred, but readings below normal are cause for concern as well.

What is Considered “Normal” Blood Pressure?

First let’s talk about what the numbers mean. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), and each reading is composed of two numbers. Written as a fraction, the first or top number is called the systolic pressure, and it correlates to the amount of pressure in your arteries when your heart pumps or beats. The second or lower number is known as the diastolic pressure, and it measures the amount of pressure in your arteries in between heart beats.

For many years, normal blood pressure was considered 120/80 mm Hg or below. However, in recent years, that number has been downgraded a bit to 115/75 mm Hg. This is the ideal blood pressure, considered to be the best goal to shoot for when it comes to BP. However, the numbers can be misleading because every individual is different, and what is “normal” for me may not be “normal” the next person. However, even these variations are only within a small range for healthy individuals. Many researchers and health care professionals feel that one of the greatest values of BP readings is their consistency, or lack thereof in some cases. In other words, if your BP is always about 122/78 every time you get it taken, and it suddenly rises or drops 10 or 15 points, that may be an indicator that something is going on health wise with you. Of course, the greater the change, the more you should be concerned. And if the change is consistent, rather than just a one time blip on the screen, it is usually more significant.

Since hypertension is so much more common, the numbers have been analyzed more thoroughly, and certain readings label you as having high blood pressure of various degrees:

  • Prehypertension is considered a systolic reading of 120-139 or a diastolic pressure of 80-89. Unless steps are taken to address the issue, most prehypertension will graduate into higher stages of hypertension—but it doesn’t have to. Early intervention, preferably lifestyle changes that avoid medication unless absolutely necessary, can and do reverse prehypertension.
  • Stage 1 hypertension:  This is associated with readings of 140-159 systolic over 90-99 diastolic. This is definite hypertension.
  • Stage 2 hypertension:  This is severely high blood pressure, and it allows readings of 160 or greater systolic over 100 or greater diastolic. This is the most dangerous type of hypertension, and it can cause serious and even life threatening complications.

The numbers for hypotension are not as well classified. While 115/75 is considered ideal, anything lower than that is hypotension. Again, normal readings vary from person to person, but in general a person is considered definitely hypotensive if either the systolic or diastolic number is lower than normal. In other words, you could be diagnosed with hypotension if your systolic is normal and your diastolic is too low, or vice-versa. With low blood pressure, one of the most important factors is a sudden and drastic drop in blood pressure, which can indicate a serious medical emergency.

What Are the Causes of Hypertension?

There are two main types of hypertension: primary and secondary. Secondary hypertension, which statistically only accounts for 5-10% of hypertension cases, is the result of another condition or factor that causes high blood pressure. Examples include heart disease or abnormalities, kidney disease, or tumors of adrenal gland. Certain medications also can potentially cause hypertension. Some common culprits include birth control pills, decongestants, and even acetaminophen. Stimulants such as amphetamines, diet pills, and cocaine can also result in hypertension. Primary or essential hypertension is the label put on the vast majority of hypertension cases. According to the American Heart Association, there is no identifiable cause for primary hypertension. I believe it is more realistic to point to overall poor diet and lifestyle as the villain behind most primary hypertension. The cause  could be split evenly between “couch-potato-it is” and “fast-food-it is.” To say there is no discernable cause is absurd.

Risk factors for hypertension include:

  • Race:  African-Americans have a much higher incidence of hypertension than do people of other races. They also experience more health complications from hypertension.
  • Gender:  Overall it is more common for men to have high blood pressure, but women begin to catch up after menopause when their incidence increases.
  • Age:  Older folks in general have a higher rate of hypertension than younger folks. For most of us, our unhealthy habits begin to catch up with us after middle-age, and hypertension is one of the common consequences.
  • Family history:  While not officially a genetically inherited disease, hypertension does tend to run in families.
  • Dietary and lifestyle choices:  A huge factor in the American epidemic of high blood pressure.
    • Obesity makes the heart pump harder, and increases the volume of blood in the body too.
    • Sedentary lifestyle:  Lack of exercise contributes to obesity, and causes the heart rate to increase, especially under exertion, and that leads to higher blood pressure. The heart is a muscle. If it is not exercised, it gets lazy and must strain to do it’s job.
    • Smoking:  It’s a no-brainer. Stay away from it.
    • Too much sodium:  A high-salt diet increases blood pressure.
    • Too little potassium:  Potassium levels must be maintained to control sodium and allow for normal bodily functions. Insufficient potassium leads to hypertension.
    • Excessive stress:  Both physical and mental stress have proven to contribute to high blood pressure. The situation gets even worse if a person abuses drugs or alcohol in an attempt to deal with stress.

What Are the Consequences of Hypertension?

High blood pressure is sometimes called “The Silent Killer.” That should give you a pretty fair idea of the potential health effects of hypertension. All of them are potentially fatal.The most common ones include:

  • Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries): one of the most common contributors to heart disease
  • Kidney damage
  • Heart attacks
  • Stroke (brain attack)
  • Aneurysm (an enlarged or ruptured blood vessel)

How Can Hypertension be Treated or Prevented?

Hypertension drugs are among the most prescribed medications of any type in this country. Needless to say, Big Pharma makes a fortune off these products. There are times when medication is needed, but if it is possible to lower your blood pressure through more natural means, I definitely recommend it. The largest factor by far at preventing hypertension and lowering existing conditions is lifestyle changes, as we have discussed above. Your chances of ever getting hypertension are greatly reduced by choosing to live and eat with a focus on wellness. We reap what we sow. That’s really the bottom line. It’s not rocket science folks. Eat whole, natural foods, get plenty of exercise, and learn how to deal with stress constructively.

What Causes Hypotension?

Low blood pressure is not nearly as common an issue, but it can result in significant health problems when it does occur. Several factors are common contributors to hypotension:

  • Low blood sugar
  • Glandular disorders:  Examples include an under active or over active thyroid, adrenal gland problems, and diabetes.
  • Certain medications:  Common ones include those for Parkinson’s disease, some antidepressants, Viagra, diuretics, narcotics, and alcohol. Even drugs for treating hypertension can go overboard and cause your blood pressure to dip too low.
  • Pregnancy:  The circulatory system of a pregnant woman is increased in a relatively short period of time, which reduces the amount of blood in the system, and thus the blood pressure. This usually stabilizes by third trimester.
  • Heart dysfunction:  Heart attacks, valve problems, and lower than normal heart rate (bradychardia) can all contribute to low blood pressure.
  • Dehydration:  Diarrhea, vomiting, and fever can all result in a reduction in the fluid levels in the body. This causes less blood to be available, and thus can produce hypotension.
  • Shock:  Trauma from excessive blood loss or a serious injury can result in a sudden and dangerous drop in blood pressure. In some cases, it can be fatal.
  • Severe allergic reactions:  If a person experiences anaphylaxis, a dangerous reaction to a bee or wasp sting or a food allergen, blood pressure can drop dangerously low.

What Are the Consequences of Hypotension?

They can range from relatively minor to life threatening. Less serious cases can produce dizziness and lightheadedness. The most dangerous type of hypotension is the kind that occurs suddenly and results in blood pressure dropping to dangerously low levels. This can be caused by shock, or be the cause of shock. Either way, it’s a very critical situation.

How Can Hypotension be Treated of Prevented?

The best way to avoid hypotension is to deal with the underlying condition that’s causing it. For example, if you have low blood sugar, try eating small meals six times per day. Never go without good, wholesome food long enough to let your blood sugar drop too low. Dealing with hypotension is much different than hypertension. Many causes of hypotension are beyond your control, unlike hypertension which can be managed more aggressively. Usually if you deal with your diabetes, glandular problems, or whatever is causing hypotension, it is also indirectly the best way to treat hypotension.

Blood pressure is just a factor that tells us how we’re doing in our overall quest for wellness. Usually, but not always, if we behave ourselves and treat our bodies the way they were designed to be treated, blood pressure, especially hypertension, will not be a problem. The answer to good health is not medication or other treatments. The real key to a wholesome life is a preventative lifestyle that yields the fruit of wellness.

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