One of the downsides of online consultations is not being able to do all the usual hand on observations.
Fortunately, automated home sphygmomanometers (‘sphygmo’ for short, the gizmo that measures systolic and diastolic blood pressure) are increasingly affordable and accurate. I’d suggest anyone with unstable blood pressure (BP), as well as anyone over 40 years, consider investing in one AND remember to use it regularly.
Thinking about buying a sphygmo? First read the Choice guidelines and reviews.
According to the Heart Foundation of Australia ‘normal’ blood pressure is 120 – 129/80 – 84 mmHg. BP under 90/60 mmHg (hypotension), though sometimes debilitating, is rarely medicated.
High blood pressure (hypertension) is a reading over 140 -145/90 – 99 mmHg. In this mildly hypertensive range, lifestyle changes can make a big impact to lower your BP. But when it is persistently over 160/100 mmHg, it may be harder to negotiate a delay in taking medication while trying other approaches.
Why healthy blood pressure is important
The harder the heart needs to pump the blood around the body, the higher our risk of heart attack or stroke. You can read more about this in a previous article.
Apart from the risk of a serious cardiovascular event, high blood pressure can make you feel generally unwell. Initial symptoms of hypertension often include headaches, being aware of an irregular heartbeat and fatigue
Times in your life to be especially vigilant
Hypertension can occur at any time but there are some life stages when we may be more vulnerable to developing it.
Birth: Congenital heart defects (when something is wrong with the structure of the heart or the vessels) occur in about 1 in 100 newborns. While many defects are detected close to birth, sometimes symptoms (including BP issues) don’t appear until later in life.
Men over 30: Young, otherwise healthy men are increasingly being diagnosed in their late 20s to 40s with ‘essential’ hypertension (meaning the cause isn’t always obvious). Men under 40 tend to see their doctor less frequently than women, and when they do it’s usually for an acute condition. This can mean younger men may be underdiagnosed, as they may have less opportunities for a routine blood pressure check. If your father developed hypertension a younger age it can increase your risk of developing it, so be especially vigilant.
Hormonal medication or pregnancy: Some contraceptives (including the pill, Implanon and the Mirena IUD) can cause hypertension, so your BP should be checked regularly when on these medications. There’s a 10+ percent risk of developing hypertension during pregnancy, which in extreme cases can be life threatening to both mother and child.
Peri – post menopause: As a woman’s body stops produces oestrogen some of the cardiovascular protection it provides is lost, increasing the risk of high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack. Even if you’ve had low to normal BP before menopause, this can sometimes change once periods stop, so make sure it’s checked regularly.
Living longer: While 55 mightn’t feel old, from around this time our blood vessels may start telling a different story. As we age, arteries become less elastic or more prone to blockage.
5 lifestyle tweaks for healthier blood pressure
Having worked with people with hypertension for almost 30 years, I’ve witnessed some spectacular reductions in BP from the following lifestyle adjustments.
Sleep: Getting 7 – 9 hours sleep every night really does make a difference. A single late night can cause a spike in BP throughout the day. While chronic insomnia (or simply not getting enough hours in bed) can have a long-term impact.
Alcohol: Like sleep, drinking alcohol can register an increase in BP throughout the following day. This rise can increase with the amount you drink but even a single glass can cause a spike. Getting out of the habit of drinking every day (‘red wine is good for your heart’ is a furphy) and stopping at no more than two standard drinks when you do imbibe, can make a notable difference.
Stress: A side effect of the unconscious surge in adrenaline and cortisol when we react to stress is an increase in BP. But it’s not just unexpected or traumatic events that cause this. Chronic stress can be compounded by insomnia, lack of exercise, challenging relationships or loneliness, and so much of what is common in the way we live. Meditation is one of the tools that has been proven to reduce blood pressure.
Exercise: Moving your body more and increasing both incidental and aerobic exercise can lower BP in a number of ways. It improves peripheral circulation (getting blood to parts further away from the heart such as fingers and toes), helps reduce excess weight, ground stress and encourage better sleep.
Smoking, vaping and other nicotine containing products: Unfortunately, it’s not just cigarettes that increases blood pressure. Nicotine narrows blood vessels and causes the heart to beat faster, driving up BP. Of all the methods my clients have tried to give up smoking, hypnotherapy has been the most effective. If you’re hooked on nicotine, give it a go.
A Mediterranean way of eating: There’s been a lot of research about this traditional way of eating lowering blood pressure and other cardiac events. The Mediterranean lifestyle includes eating lots of fresh vegetables, pulses, seafood, nuts and olive oil. Find out more about the diet and some tips to follow it.
Professionally prescribed herbs and supplements may also help reduce hypertension. Though in some cases, taking prescribed medication is the only way to keep BP in a safe range and can be a life saver. But this doesn’t exclude following the lifestyle guidelines and taking care of your general wellbeing.