Your blood pressure is the medical name for the force of your blood being pumped around your body and the pressure it puts on your blood vessels and heart. If your blood pressure is too high it puts strain on your blood vessels and heart which can lead to an increased risk of a heart attack or stroke.
High blood pressure is an incredibly common condition affecting around one in four middle-aged people and around 50 per cent of the over 65s.
If your blood pressure is higher than it should be, even a slight drop will result in a reduction in risk of a heart attack or stroke. The encouraging thing is that controlling blood pressure is relatively easy to do with small changes in lifestyle on their own or when combined with certain medications.
High blood pressure often doesn’t have any symptoms and can be known as the “silent killer”. The best way to find out if you are at risk of high blood pressure is to get checked by a doctor or other healthcare professional.
A healthy blood pressure reading is around 120/ 80. The top figure is known as systolic pressure and measures the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart beats and pushes blood around the body and the bottom figure is known as diastolic pressure and measures the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart rests between each beat.
If you have a systolic reading of more than 140 or a diastolic over 90 you may have high blood pressure. However, our blood pressure changes all the time with things like physical activity and caffeine affecting it, so it’s always best to take a number of measurements, ideally in a fully rested state (first thing in the morning is best) before any diagnosis is made.
High blood pressure can affect anyone. However, whilst there are a number of factors out of your control there are a number of risk factors which you can influence to reduce your risk of high blood pressure or improve your health if you have already been diagnosed with high blood pressure.
Some of the factors you can’t control, and could mean you’re more at risk are:
- having a family history of high blood pressure
- you are of African or Caribbean descent
- you are over the age of 65
However, all of the following risk factors are largely within your control:
- being overweight
- eating a diet lacking in sufficient fruits and vegetables
- eating too much salt
- not being active enough
- drinking too much alcohol
- drinking too much caffeine
- not managing stress well
Improving your lifestyle to address these areas can reduce risk of developing high blood pressure or improve your health if you have already been diagnosed with high blood pressure.
Reducing Your Risk
If you’ve been diagnosed with raised high blood pressure, or if your’re looking to prevent high blood pressure the good news is, small and simple changes in your lifestyle can have a big impact.
Some practical changes could include:
- Cutting down on salt: excess dietary salt could contribute to high blood pressure. Even if you reduce the amount of salt you add to meals, it’s commonly hidden in processed foods such as pies, bread, cake, biscuits, stock cubes, tinned soups, crisps, breakfast cereals and fast food such as pizza and Chinese takeaway.The best way to avoid it is to cook dishes from scratch where possible and using other seasoning such as herbs and spices to flavour your food.
- Eating more fruit and vegetables: they contain lots of water and are high in a mineral called potassium, both of which can reduce blood pressure. Aim for at least five portions a day, with red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and sweet potatoes being highest in potassium.
- Doing regular aerobic exercise: if you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, firstly check it’s safe for you to exercise with your GP or practice nurse.The best type of exercise is aerobic based such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing, tennis or digging the garden. It’s especially important to check your blood pressure if you’re new to exercise and would rather do harder exercise such as squash, weightlifting or other sports that involve sprinting as they can rapidly raise your blood pressure during the activity itself. Aim for 150 minutes of exercise a week that raises your temperature and increases breathing rate slightly. This can be accumulated with shorter bouts, as long as each bout last a minimum of 10 minutes each.
- Maintaining a healthy weight: being overweight is strongly associated with increasing the risk of high blood pressure. Becoming regularly active and making small changes to your eating habits are the best ways to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. You can find lots more information for both of these on this site.
- Cut back on alcohol: heavy drinking can raise your blood pressure so aim to stay within the recommended limits of 2-3units per day for women (a maximum of 14 units per week) and 3-4 per day for a men (a maximum of 21 units per week). It’s always recommended to have at least two alcohol free days every week.
- Relaxation: relaxation techniques, including meditation and deep breathing, can help you to improve the way you handle pressure.
- Reduce your caffeine intake: excess caffeine can increase heart rate and tighten blood vessels, both of which can lead to increasing blood pressure. It’s recommended to drink no more than three caffeinated drinks a day. Switching to decaff or alternative non-caffeinated hot drinks such as herbal teas could also help.
- Drink enough water: being dehydrated can make it more difficult for the heart to pump blood around your body. Aim to drink enough water every day so that your urine is a clear pale colour.
- Quit smoking: smoking can lead to increased blood pressure. Whilst quitting can be hard, every year thousands of people are successful. Follow the link if you’d like to find out more information and support about quitting.