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High blood pressure (hypertension) can impact your brain as well as your heart. But these tips can help you lower your blood pressure and protect your health.

Hypertension and Your Brain

Blood pressure and the heart-head connection

There’s a reason why any time you visit a doctor’s office or hospital, your blood pressure is taken, regardless of the issue that took you there. High blood pressure is rightly referred to as a “silent killer.” It often has no symptoms or warning signs, but can dramatically increase your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. The higher the number, the harder your heart will have to work to pump blood around your body, and the more likely the heart muscle will be damaged. Since all parts of your body rely on circulation, however, it is not just your heart that can have an impact on high blood pressure. If blood doesn’t flow easily, it can harm your arteries as well as your vital organs.

High blood pressure (or “hypertension”) has been shown to destroy the tiny blood vessels in the cognitive and memory-responsible parts of your brain, significantly raising the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. Diagnosing cardiovascular disease can also affect your disposition, and make you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. And just as blood pressure can affect your mood, so too can the reverse be true:

  • Stress can increase the body’s production of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which in turn raises blood pressure.
  • Self-medicating your mood with alcohol, nicotine, junk food, or recreational drugs can also elevate your blood pressure.
  • Even isolating yourself from family and friends—a common symptom of depression and anxiety—can push your blood pressure higher and damage your cardiovascular health.
  • High blood pressure and common mental health problems can often be attributed, at least in part, to the same unhealthy lifestyle factors, such as overwhelming, stress, poor diet, and a lack of exercise. Changing your lifestyle to address high blood pressure can help to improve your mental health—and vice versa.

As new recommendations published in 2017 reduced the threshold for what would be considered elevated blood pressure, rising numbers of us are at risk. In fact, almost half of US adults have high blood pressure. Though hypertension is very common, the good news is that rectification is also very easy. Simple changes in lifestyle can have a huge impact on your numbers in many cases, and help protect your heart and brain health.

Measuring blood pressure

Blood pressure is measured as millimeters of mercury (mm Hg)—a holdover from the traditional mercury gauges used by the medical industry—and has two components:

  1. The higher number, or systolic blood pressure, is measured as your heart pumps blood into your arteries.
  2. The lower number, or diastolic blood pressure, is measured as your heart relaxes between beats.

The systolic number is recorded first, with an ideal blood pressure reading being below 120/80 (expressed as “120 over 80”). The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology define high blood pressure, or hypertension, as 130/80 or above (a systolic reading of at least 130 mm Hg or a diastolic reading of at least 80 mm Hg, or both).

BP Chart

Monitoring your numbers

Your blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day, with lots of ups and downs. It will typically spike if you’re exercising or running late for a meeting, for example, and drop when you’re sleeping or relaxing with loved ones. Since blood pressure can vary so much, if you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension, you may want to monitor your blood pressure at home.

Choose a home blood pressure monitor that wraps around your upper arm. They tend to be more accurate than those that work on your wrist or finger.

Don’t drink caffeine or smoke for at least 30 minutes before measuring your blood pressure. Sit quietly in a chair for a few minutes before measuring, then make sure your arm is supported and your elbow is at about heart level as you run the test.

Small changes can make a big difference. According to a Harvard study, having hypertension can increase your risk of stroke by 220%. On the flip side, reducing your systolic blood pressure by 10 mm Hg can cut your risk of stroke by as much as 44%.

If you have low blood pressure…

Low blood pressure (known as “hypotension”) is a much less common problem than hypertension, but it can still significantly impact blood flow to the brain and increase your risk of shock, stroke, heart attack, and kidney failure.

There is no specific reading that determines when blood pressure is too low. Rather, doctors rely on the presence of symptoms such as dizziness, fainting, blurred vision, and unsteadiness when standing to diagnose hypotension.

If you experience such symptoms, your doctor will look for underlying causes such as medication side effects, nutritional deficiencies, or a heart issue. Aside from a low-sodium diet, many of the same lifestyle changes used to treat high blood pressure can also be effective for managing low blood pressure.

Causes of high blood pressure

There’s no single cause of high blood pressure, but rather many contributing factors. Some are out of your control, such as age, race, gender, and family history—blood pressure tends to increase over the age of 70, affects more women than men over the age of 55, and is more common in African Americans than Caucasians, perhaps due to a genetic sensitivity to salt.

Many other risk factors for hypertension are within your control. Being overweight, eating a poor diet high in salt, smoking, drinking excessively, and not getting enough physical exercise can all impact your blood pressure.

There are also specific substances that can raise your blood pressure, such as:

  • Caffeine, including coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks.
  • Prescription medications, including some of those used to treat ADHD, birth control pills, corticosteroids, atypical antipsychotics, MAOIs and SNRIs used to treat depression, and some cancer drugs.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil).
  • Cough and cold medications containing decongestant or NSAIDs.
  • Herbal supplements, such as ephedra and yohimbine.
  • Recreational drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine.
  • Licorice found in some candies and gum.

5 steps to lowering your blood pressure

The first line of treatment for high blood pressure is to make healthy lifestyle changes:

  1. Get active
  2. Eat a heart-healthy diet
  3. Lose weight
  4. Manage stress
  5. Quit smoking

It’s also important to take any antihypertensive medications your doctor recommends. There are many different types of medications available to control high blood pressure, so if one drug causes unpleasant side effects, your doctor can help you find a more suitable one.

Even if your doctor also prescribes you medication to help tackle hypertension, controlling your weight, quitting smoking, improving your diet, managing stress, and getting regular exercise are critical for keeping your heart in shape and managing your blood pressure over the long term.

Tips for making healthy lifestyle changes

If you suffer with high blood pressure, it’s easy to feel intimidated by the changes you need to make in order to improve your health. While some people may only need to work on one or two areas to reduce their blood pressure—getting more exercise or quitting smoking, for example—most of us find that we need to improve our habits in at least 3 or 4 areas. But even if you smoke, drink heavily, are overweight, stressed out, sedentary, and eat nothing but junk and processed food, that doesn’t mean you have to tackle everything all at once. Making lots of different lifestyle changes at the same time can be overwhelming. And when we feel overwhelmed, it’s easy to opt for doing nothing rather than doing something.

Start gradually and make one or two changes to begin with. Once those changes have become habit, you can tackle one or two more, and so on. For example, you may decide to start by giving up smoking—and adopting some relaxation techniques to help with the stress of quitting—then move on to losing weight or improving your diet.

Lose the all or nothing thinking. Doing something, no matter how small, is always better than doing nothing. If you’re eating healthy food during the week, for example, then resorting to takeouts at the weekends, your blood pressure and overall health will still be in better shape than if you were eating takeout every day.

Set specific goals. The more specific your goal, the easier it is to stick to. For example, instead of saying, “I’ll eat healthier and get more exercise,” try “I’ll add two servings of vegetables to my evening meal and walk for 30 minutes in my lunch hour.”

Make a plan. Be as specific in your plans as you are with your goals. If your goal is to exercise, when will you do it? If you can’t find a 30-minute window in your day, plan for two 15-minute sessions instead. If your goal is to lose weight, make a plan to cope with cravings or manage your day-to-day stress without turning to food.

Change is a process. Changing your habits and lifestyle tends to happen in stages rather than all at once. Be patient with yourself and focus on your long-term goals, even on days when you feel deflated.

Prepare for relapse and setbacks. Nobody gets it right all the time. We all cheat on our diets every now and then, skip a workout, or backslide into unhealthy habits from time to time. Don’t beat yourself up. Instead, turn the relapse into a rebound by learning from your mistake. Identify what derailed you from your lifestyle change and make a new plan.

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