Hypertension is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. If you’ve been told you have high blood pressure, you may be wondering what you can do to lower it.
There isn’t one right way to lower blood pressure. Instead, there are a variety of different steps you can take in your daily life to improve your cardiovascular health.
Board-certified family medicine physician Dr. Cicily Stanton shares five actionable ways patients can lower their blood pressure and reduce their risk of future complications.
First, what exactly is high blood pressure?
Hypertension (high blood pressure) is when the force of your blood flowing through your blood vessels is too high. This excess force makes your heart work harder and puts strain on your arteries, causing damage over time. Hypertension doesn’t always show symptoms, which is why it’s sometimes called a ‘silent killer.’
Lowering your blood pressure takes some of the strain off your heart and arteries—which means you can avoid serious health problems down the road, like heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, and more.
Understanding Blood Pressure Readings
The blood pressure cuff you see at doctors’ offices measures how hard blood flows through your body. A blood pressure reading is made up of two parts:
- Your systolic reading (the top number) measures the pressure in your arteries while your heart beats. A normal systolic number is at or below 120 mm Hg.
- Your diastolic reading (the bottom number) measures the pressure in your arteries in between heartbeats. A normal diastolic number is at or below 80 mm Hg.
Hypertension (high blood pressure) is a reading of 140/90 mm Hg or higher, which means a systolic number of 140 or higher and a diastolic number of 90 or higher.
If your blood pressure is elevated but not quite hypertensive, it’s still important to take steps to care for your cardiovascular health.
Who’s at risk of high blood pressure?
Anyone can have high blood pressure, though the risk of developing hypertension increases as we get older. Some risk factors for hypertension include:
- Age. As we get older, our risk of developing hypertension increases. The risk for men gets greater after about age 55; for women, the risk increases after about age 65.
- Weight. Patients who are classified as clinically obese or overweight have a higher risk of having hypertension. It’s possible to have hypertension at lower weights, too.
- Family history. Hypertension can run in families—but you can reduce your personal risk by taking preventative measures (like exercising, eating well, and not smoking) when you’re younger.
- Smoking. Studies have found that smokers have higher blood pressures than non-smokers. Stopping, even if you’ve been a smoker for a long time, can help.
- Secondary hypertension. An underlying condition, such as diabetes, kidney disease, or thyroid problems, can cause hypertension. Treating these underlying conditions can help lower your blood pressure.
- Certain medications or supplements. Some medications (like certain antidepressants, over-the-counter decongestants, herbal supplements, and others) can raise blood pressure or interfere with blood pressure medications. Don’t stop taking any prescription medications without talking to your doctor first.
How to Lower Your Blood Pressure: 5 Proven Ways
1. Get in Your Daily Exercise
You probably hear it everywhere: exercise is a key part of good health. It’s the same for lowering your blood pressure—though you don’t need to spend all your time at the gym to see the benefits of being active.
Exercise strengthens the heart, making it easier to deliver blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. Studies show that just 30 minutes of aerobic activity a day can dramatically reduce blood pressure.
The best exercise is one that you enjoy and can stick with. If you’re not sure what to try, consider an activity like one these:
- Go for a 30-minute walk around the neighborhood (or split it into two 15-minute walks per day)
- Do yoga or stretch while following along with a guided video on YouTube
- Use the elliptical or stationary bike at the gym
- Join a group activity, like a dance class or hiking club
- Use hand weights or a resistance band to exercise while seated
- Make a custom workout plan with a personal trainer
If it’s difficult to walk or play a whole-body sport, some gyms and community centers offer seated exercise classes and water aerobics groups.
2. Be Mindful of Your Diet
The DASH eating plan is designed to promote good heart health for everyone. Developed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the DASH plan focuses on meeting nutritional goals rather than cutting out foods entirely.
Here are a few healthy eating tips from the DASH plan:
- Get your daily greens. Vegetables (especially dark, leafy greens) are packed with healthy nutrients that are great for the heart—and the rest of the body. Try including at least 1-2 servings of veggies at every meal.
- Have fruit for dessert. Added sugars (like what’s found in cakes, cookies, ice cream, and candy) are associated with increased blood pressure. While it’s okay to enjoy an occasional treat, try reaching for fresh fruit first. Apples, grapes, blueberries, and other fruits can satisfy your sweet tooth while being better for your heart health.
- Drink in moderation. The occasional glass of wine with dinner or beer after work is okay, but too much alcohol on a regular basis can lead to hypertension. The current recommendation is up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.
- Watch your sodium intake. Some patients are very sensitive to sodium, and eating too much can cause a rise in blood pressure. Always be sure to check sodium on labels and aim for about 2,300 mg per day.
Want some easy meal suggestions? Check out these DASH-friendly recipes from the Mayo Clinic.
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3. Make De-stressing a Priority
Stress and adrenaline activate our “fight or flight” response, which causes blood pressure to rise. Scientists are still studying how chronic stress affects blood pressure, but there is some evidence that long-term stress can lead to an increased risk of hypertension.
Reducing stress may sound like it’s easier said than done, but it is possible by prioritizing your mental well-being.
- See a mental health professional. A therapist or psychologist can help you find ways to manage your stress. Even if you don’t think you need a therapist, a mental health professional can help you manage daily troubles and anxieties. Your family doctor can refer you to a mental health provider if you don’t know where to start.
- Get enough sleep. Stress can make it harder to fall asleep—but getting enough sleep can reduce stress. Sticking to a regular sleep routine, meditating before bed, and having good “sleep hygiene” can help.
- Meditate. There’s some evidence that practices like meditation and yoga can help reduce blood pressure. If you need help getting started, try following along with a guided meditation podcast or YouTube video.
- Take breaks from work. Work is a significant source of stress for many. Don’t forget to take time off or vacations from work throughout the year to recharge, and schedule regular breaks throughout the day when you can.
Check out these resources from the CDC for more information on managing your mental health and stress levels.
4. Quit Smoking
Smoking has a huge impact on our bodies in lots of different ways. Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease and strokes because it causes plaque buildup in the arteries and damage to blood vessels. Smoking causes a temporary rise in blood pressure, though we’re still learning exactly how long-term smoking and hypertension are linked.
Stopping smoking can lead to immediate benefits, even if you’ve smoked all your life. Quitting can improve your heart health and reduce your chance of dying from cardiovascular disease.
There are lots of methods to quit. Talk to your physician if you need help.
5. Take Medication as Prescribed
Your doctor might recommend taking an antihypertensive medication if lifestyle changes aren’t enough to control your blood pressure. If you’re prescribed an antihypertensive, take your medication exactly as instructed.
Read about the different kinds of blood pressure medications from the American Heart Association. What antihypertensive is right for you will depend on a few factors, like your age, the cause of your high blood pressure, and if you take any other medications.
Final Tip: Talk to a Physician Today
Every patient is different—and that means there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to staying healthy. Your primary care doctor can help you find ways to integrate healthy habits into your daily life, whether that’s helping you manage medication or connecting you with a dietician.
About Cicily Stanton, MD
Dr. Cicily Stanton is a board-certified family medicine practitioner. In addition to helping patients manage their blood pressure, Dr. Stanton specializes in chronic care management, women’s health, and treating asthma/COPD. As a primary care provider, she aims to build strong relationships with each of her patients to fully address their complex health needs.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Always talk with your doctor before starting or stopping medications or treatments.