Imagine an intricate collection of both big and small hoses running throughout every single part of your body, from the top of your head to the tips of your fingers and toes. These are the blood vessels and arteries.
The arteries and blood vessels are tasked with the job of guiding our precious life-giving blood to circulate throughout the body, supplying all our cells and organs with the oxygen and nutrients they need to function optimally.
The heart is the pump that influences the level of pressure exerted. As the heart contracts, the pressure in the vessels and arteries increases (this is “systolic pressure,” the top number – eg: 120/). As the heart relaxes, the pressure decreases (this is “diastolic pressure,” or the bottom number – eg: /80).
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But aside from the basic mechanisms that keep blood circulating through the body, there are also intricate neurological and physiological systems that collectively control blood pressure balance in your body. So interestingly, the actual causes of high blood pressure are largely unknown. However, we do know that there are many risk factors that contribute to the breakdown of these systems that regulate blood pressure levels. And the good news is, you can directly influence many of these systems through diet, lifestyle and behavioral changes.
What are the causes of high blood pressure?
It is an unfortunate fact that our body ages. And as it does, progressive changes occur in the structure and function of our cardiovascular system, which can lead to changes in blood pressure, causing it to rise. Although you can’t reverse the clock, you can make lifestyle changes and look after yourself the best you can to assist your body to regulate blood pressure more efficiently, and therefore, reduce your risk of hypertension.
It is true that your genetics can place you at higher risk for developing hypertension as it is one of the major causes of high blood pressure. However, don’t fall into the trap of being the victim. If you engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors, you can reduce much of the risk associated with genetic factors.
Lack of sleep
In recent years, increasing workloads, stress, and technologies all make quality sleep a difficult thing to achieve. But in terms of blood pressure regulation, you really need good quality sleep.
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In a study published in Artery Research, participants were required to complete two different sleep cycles. During the first cycle, they had a regular sleep-wake schedule. During the sleep-deprived cycle, they had less than 3 hours of quality sleep during a night shift schedule. The researchers discovered that after 7 days of sleep deprivation, blood pressure levels significantly increased (a rise of more than 3 mmHg) and so did heart rate (by more than 40 beats per minute).
Similar studies have also connected the lack of sleep to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night. If you aren’t getting that amount, evaluate ways you can improve your sleep quality.
Carrying around extra weight every day places extra pressure on your cardiovascular system. Quite simply because it has to pump extra hard to circulate blood to where it needs to go. Aside from this, researchers suggest that neurons and inflammation in the hypothalamus (a part of the brain that acts as one of our key physiological and hormonal controllers), alters the sympathetic and central nervous systems, which may then contribute to the development of hypertension in obesity.
If you’re overweight, focus on weight loss with an aim to achieve a healthy BMI and a waist circumference under 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women.
Due to its effects on various physiological systems of the body, the consumption of alcohol leads to acute blood pressure increases. And if you continue to consume more than the recommended amount of alcohol each day, your risk for hypertension increases.
The National Heart Foundation recommends a maximum of two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. One drink is equivalent to one 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. of wine, 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits or 1 oz. of 100-proof spirits.
Research has shown that the higher a person’s sodium intake the more likely they are to develop high blood pressure. Americans get 71% of their daily sodium from “added” salt intake, much of which comes from processed and restaurant-bought foods. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, though the ideal is no more than 1,500 mg. Read food labels and cut down on “added” salt in your diet. Sugar may also be a contributing factor.
In a study evaluating sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) intake in children, researchers found that SSB intake significantly increased systolic blood pressure levels. Researchers suggest that because fructose in sugar is metabolized in the liver, it produces more uric acid. This uric acid has effects on cells in the artery wall, on the smooth muscle cells in the heart, and on the production of inflammatory molecules, all of which could influence blood pressure levels.
TIP: The World Health Organization recommends no more than 5% of calories comes from added sugar. In a 2,000 calorie diet that equals no more than 100 grams per day, which is equivalent to just 5 teaspoons.
OVERALL DIET TIP: The best thing you can do in terms of diet is to eat natural whole foods. Studies show that fresh food diets such as the Mediterranean and DASH can help reduce blood pressure and improve heart health.
Regular exercise helps strengthen the cardiovascular system. Therefore, a lack of activity has the opposite effect – it can increase your risk of hypertension and heart disease.
The recommendation is 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 days of the week. And it doesn’t have to cost a penny in gym fees – just get outside and go for a brisk walk in the fresh air – it’s one of the best forms of exercise to improve cardiovascular health!
More than 40% of non-Hispanic African-Americans have high blood pressure, even in early age. And while the exact cause is unknown, research indicates that obesity and diabetes are contributing factors. Additionally, African-Americans appear to have a gene that makes them more salt sensitive.
TIP: If you are of African-American descent, the importance of limiting your intake of processed foods and following a fresh food diet is even more important. Also, make sure you engage in regular exercise and practice healthy lifestyle behaviors.
By way of the chemicals they contain, some medications can cause blood pressure increases.
These include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen; antidepressants; corticosteroids; estrogens including birth control pills; cough, cold and asthma medications; migraine medications; nasal decongestants; and steroids or performance-enhancing substances.
TIP: If you’re concerned about medications affecting your blood pressure levels, speak to your doctor about options.
In a small number of cases, other health conditions may contribute to the development of secondary hypertension. This includes medical conditions such as sleep apnea, certain heart defects, pregnancy-induced hypertension, kidney disease, and disorders.
While the causes of high blood pressure are not entirely clear, the most important thing to recognize is that high blood pressure is a serious condition because it can lead to heart attack and stroke. And because high blood pressure symptoms are often non-existent, those heart attacks and strokes often hit people out of the blue, which is why hypertension is called the silent killer!
Be sure to have your blood pressure measurements taken regularly by your physician or pharmacist. Because thankfully, with diet and lifestyle changes, along with the assistance of medications or natural alternatives, you can prevent hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Further reading on the causes of high blood pressure:
Written byJedha Dening Jedha is a qualified nutritionist (MNutr), researcher, author, freelance writer, and founder of type 2 diabetic nutrition site.
She has millions of words published in the health industry across various print and online publications. Having been in the field for over 15 years, she’s incredibly passionate about the latest research surrounding nutrition and health.
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