Want to learn about foods that increase blood pressure? Then you’ve come to the right place!
Here, Ana breaks down everything you need to know about what exactly, (high) blood pressure is, its causes, and the natural foods you can eat in order to prevent it!
High blood pressure (or, scientifically, “hypertension”) is one of the leading causes of chronic diseases, and it affects around one-third of all adults on the planet! Quite an astonishing number, right?
And what’s worse, there are no clear symptoms that let you know whether you fall into the affected third or not — at least often not until things have become very serious for your health, indeed!
Luckily, there are a number of natural, dietary ways that can help you reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure in the first place.
But to understand how this works, you first have to understand what blood pressure is and how high blood pressure develops!
What is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the force your blood exerts on the walls of your vessels as it flows, and it is vital for keeping your vascular system and your entire body functioning properly.
Why is that?
Well, blood pressure is what allows your blood to actually flow through your body. By pushing back against your blood as your heart pumps it out, your artery walls force your blood to flow down your arteries.
Without this pressure, your blood would just pool near your heart!
And, of course, your blood needs to flow to your body! It has to transport sufficient amounts of nutrients and (when needed) immune cells to keep all your cells fed and healthy.
Any kind of imbalance in your blood pressure can induce an imbalance in blood flow and, in turn, an imbalance in nutrient flow to your tissues and cells. And this can have numerous consequences for your overall health (which we will tackle in more detail in a moment!).
What is High Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and is comprised of two numbers:
- your systolic blood pressure — the pressure in your blood vessels while your heart is beating
- your diastolic blood pressure — the pressure on the walls of your blood vessels when your heart is resting
High blood pressure is defined by doctors and scientists as blood pressures higher than specific cut-off points (that the American Heart Association (AHA) sets) for your systolic and diastolic blood pressures.
The AHA and American College of Cardiology (ACC) recently updated their cut-off points. The new guidelines, published in March of 2018, are a bit stricter than the previous ones.
- ideal blood pressure (or a “normotensive state”) as systolic blood pressure under 120 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure under 80 mmHg,
- elevated blood pressure (or “being at risk for hypertension”) as systolic blood pressure between 120 and 129 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure under 80 mmHg
- stage 1 hypertension as having systolic blood pressure between 130 and 139 mmHg systolic and/or diastolic blood pressure between 80 and 89 mmHg
- stage 2 hypertension as systolic blood pressure over 140 mmHg and/or diastolic blood pressure over 90 mmHg
So, you have “high blood pressure” if your systolic blood pressure is higher than 130 mmHg or your diastolic blood pressure is higher than 80 mmHg.
And what is happening inside your body?
As your blood exerts high pressure on your blood vessel walls, it weakens their integrity and impairs their function. This, in turn, can then lead to a poorer function of your heart, kidneys, and other systems in your body.
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
There are a number of risk factors associated with the development of high blood pressure. The most well-researched of these are:
In obese individuals, excess fat accumulates around and inside the kidneys, which over-activates the two key regulators of blood pressure in the body: the renin–angiotensin–aldosterone system and the sympathetic nervous system.
Though it’s most famous for its role in helping you control your blood sugar, insulin is also important for helping you regulate your blood pressure.
Healthy levels of insulin signaling trigger something scientists call “vasorelaxation” by helping your artery cells release a chemical called nitric oxide.
Basically, nitric oxide causes blood vessels to get wider, allowing your blood to flow with less resistance and lowering your blood pressure.
High Alcohol Intake
Much like obesity, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol may disrupt your renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system and your sympathetic nervous system.
Additionally, high alcohol intake increases stress hormone (cortisol) levels and the levels of calcium inside your artery cells, causing them to release excess amounts of compounds that narrow your blood vessels.
High Salt Intake (in Salt-Sensitive Individuals)
High salt intake or having difficulty getting salt out of your body (through your urine) can increase blood pressure. This is mainly because salt keeps water trapped in your blood — and more blood flowing through your arteries puts more pressure on your artery walls.
As we age, many of our bodily functions inevitably slow down. This includes detoxification processes, which allows levels of inflammation and oxidative stress to creep up, damaging and narrowing arteries and driving up blood pressure.
Many large-scale observational studies have found a link between various types of chronic stress and high blood pressure. This includes work-related stress, relationship stress, economic stress and even stress related to racial discrimination.
Low Potassium Intake
Potassium is involved in many pathways that work together to keep your heart and arteries healthy, including those that control your blood pressure.
If you don’t have enough potassium in your diet, you may have problems regulating your renin–angiotensin–aldosterone system and getting your blood vessels to relax.
Worse still, low potassium can make your blood “sticky” and more likely to form a clot, putting you at really high risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Low Calcium Intake
Having too little calcium in your diet may also be a problem for your blood pressure.
Low serum calcium levels disturb the function of calcium-regulating hormones (such as parathyroid hormone and calcitriol), which can lead to a build-up of calcium in your artery cells, rather than in your bones.
Excessive calcium in your artery cells can trigger your arteries to contract, making them small and narrow and making it very difficult for blood to flow normally.
What are the Underlying Mechanisms of High Blood Pressure?
One of the possible underlying mechanisms which can cause high blood pressure is enhanced oxidative stress. The antioxidative defense of people with hypertension tends to be weaker than in healthy individuals, making their body less efficient in neutralizing very reactive oxidative species.
There is also evidence that points to the role of inflammation in hypertension. The exact direction of this relationship, however, is not fully clear. It may be that the rise in inflammatory mediators is one of the factors that increase blood pressure, but there is also data that suggests that inflammation may, instead, be a consequence of high blood pressure.
Did you know inflammation and your immune system play a big role in how you age? Check out how and why in: Effects of Aging on the Immune System
How Many People are Affected by High Blood Pressure?
As I mentioned above, a large number of people struggle with high blood pressure. The exact number, according to a 2016 report, is 1.39 billion people — an astonishing 31% of all living adults!
Worryingly, this percentage just keeps growing, and growing quickly at that. Researchers estimated that the hypertensive population grew a whopping 5.2% between 2000 and 2010, alone.
And the numbers look particularly bad for those in lower socioeconomic status. Around three times as many people with hypertension live in low/middle–income countries than in high-income countries.
These differences can be explained by the fact that awareness, treatment, and regular check-ups are far more readily available in high-income regions than low-income ones. This is a highly concerning trend for doctors and public health researchers alike.
Why is Lowering High Blood Pressure Important?
Optimal blood pressure is important for many reasons. Let’s look at the four biggest reasons you do not want to let your blood pressure get away from you!
1. High blood pressure can impair your cardiovascular health.
If your blood pressure rises, the excessive force your blood is putting on your arteries day after day harms their health. Your arteries, over time, become weaker and ever narrower.
These narrow, weak arteries are at high risk for being closed off by a blood clot, developing atherosclerosis (heart disease) or even forming an aneurysm (a ballooning bulge) that can rupture and cause internal bleeding.
In addition to the damage to your arteries, high blood pressure can harm your heart, directly, as well. High blood pressure can damage the arteries that supply blood to your heart muscle, a condition known as coronary heart disease. Damaged blood vessels in your heart can cause chest pain, irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias), and even a heart attack.
Finally, high blood pressure can simply wear out your heart. Having to pump blood harder and harder to keep it moving through your body, your heart muscles can begin to fade, potentially eventually leading to full-blown heart failure.
2. High blood pressure in pregnancy can lead to the development of preeclampsia.
Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and high urine protein levels (higher than ≥300 mg/day). This condition usually occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy in women who had normal blood pressure before they got pregnant.
It is very important to go to regular check-ups to monitor your health while you are pregnant and watch for symptoms of preeclampsia because, if it is not treated properly, preeclampsia can lead to serious, even fatal, complications for both mother and baby.
3. High blood pressure is bad for your brain health.
Your brain depends on the nutrients that come from your blood circulation, just like your heart.
High blood pressure can disturb the blood supply to the brain, leading to oxygen and nutrient deprivation (and, eventually, the death of your brain cells). It can also cause the brain’s blood vessels to become narrower, putting them at risk of rupturing or leaking.
4. High blood pressure increases the risk of impaired kidney function (nephropathy).
Your kidneys are responsible for filtering excess waste and fluids from your body, a process that fully depends on the health of your blood vessels.
High blood pressure can damage both the large and small blood vessels within the kidneys, impairing kidney function and potentially leading to kidney failure.
Other kidney-related diseases which might occur as a result of high blood pressure include kidney scarring and renal aneurysms.
Do you know what else can harm your heart, artery and brain health? High cholesterol! Read this next: 7 Best Foods for High Cholesterol: Basics of a Heart-Healthy Diet
What are the Early Symptoms of High Blood Pressure?
Unfortunately, there are no straightforward symptoms that clearly point to the fact that you have high blood pressure. This is why high blood pressure is sometimes called as the ‘‘silent killer’’. All those life-threatening symptoms I talked about above can be developing in your body, but you have no idea.
Headaches and nosebleeds are signs of high blood pressure; however, they tend not to appear until one reaches a full hypertensive crisis (180/120 mm Hg or higher) — certainly not a stage where you could say you “caught it early”.
Blood spots in the eyes, facial flushing and dizziness are symptoms commonly cited as potential signs of high blood pressure. But there is no strong evidence that they are actually linked.
25 Foods that Raise Blood Pressure that You Should Avoid
High salt (sodium) intake is one of the main causes of elevated blood pressure. Aiming to reduce the prevalence of hypertension, legislative bodies have come up with dietary guidelines that recommend consuming no more than 2,300 mg of sodium (or 6 g of salt) per day (that’s about one teaspoon worth).
The problem is that the majority of us are unaware of how much salt we are consuming.
Many pre-made products you buy at the store already have salt added without you even knowing it. This can make it very difficult to accurately monitor your salt daily intake.
To help you steer clear of the saltiest offenders, here is a list of products containing lots of hidden sodium:
- Sauces – such as soy or oyster sauce
- Bread – industrial as well as fresh-baked bread
- Packaged and Processed Meat – such as ham and sausages
- Chinese Food – depending on the type of dish, Chinese food can be loaded with salt and sugar at the same time because their Chinese cuisine includes many different seasonings and sauces
- Canned or Bottled Tomato Products
- Pre-Made Soups
- Fermented Vegetables – the addition of salt is a common step in the production of fermented foods (such as pickles and sauerkraut) which means that, although they contain high doses of healthy probiotics, they are loaded with salt
- Salad Dressings
- Instant Noodles
- Pretzels (and similar snacks)
- French Fries
- Nuts (industrially packed)
Instead of using high-sodium (and high-calorie) dressings and sauces, experiment with making your own! Mix some spices and herbs with olive oil, add just a few drops of balsamic vinegar or lemon!
Actually, that’s one of the best ways to reduce using salt, in general — replace as much salt as you can with spices, instead.
Finally, essentially all pre-made foods are loaded with additives, salt and/or sugar. Therefore, the healthiest alternative to all these foods would be to buy fresh or frozen whole foods. By whole foods, I’m thinking of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.
Whole foods are fantastic sources of fiber, minerals, and vitamins. That’s why they can offer dozens of health benefits, including helping you control your blood pressure!
As I mentioned above, insulin resistance may promote high blood pressure. Therefore, avoiding excessive sugar can help you reduce your risk of developing hypertension.
Additionally, keeping your sugar intake low can also help make sure you don’t gain excessive amounts of weight — another risk factor for high blood pressure.
Just like with salt, many products contain far more added sugar than you might expect!
Here’s the list of the top sugary products which you should cut down on to avoid developing high blood pressure:
- Candy, sweets
- Muesli/muesli bars
- Synthetic honey (honey with added sugar)
The healthiest alternative to processed sugar is the healthy sugars you find in fruits!
If you are craving something more complex than a perfectly ripe apple, though, Google a bit for inspiration. There are tons of really healthy, sugar-free cake, cookie, and smoothie recipes (I love this one, for example).
High intake of saturated fats and trans-fats makes you a good candidate for developing high blood pressure.
Along with making you more prone to obesity, excess fat consumption may increase your cholesterol levels which can then accumulate in your arteries, making them more narrow and raising your blood pressure.
In order to avoid saturated and trans-fats, you should try to minimize the following food items in your diet:
- Red meat
- Full-fat dairy products
- Coconut/palm oil and lard
- Butter and margarine
Replace red with poultry and fish and, if you want to have some dairy, consider opting for a low-fat option.
Experiment with vegetable oils, which are abundant in healthier monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil or sesame seed oil), to avoid butter and margarine.
Caffeinated and Alcoholic Beverages
Caffeine and alcohol can raise your blood pressure very quickly. If you are trying to lower your blood pressure, you should try to avoid:
- Caffeinated Coffee
- Alcohol (especially spirits)
- Soft Drinks (which are loaded with sugar as well as caffeine)
A good way to replace the empty sugar calories from soft drinks is to drink freshly-squeezed juice instead (check out this recipe).
When it comes to coffee, there are healthier substitutes, such as chicory root juice, matcha tea or yerba mate tea.
Although there are alcohol-free drinks (such as alcohol-free beer and wine), they taste quite different than their alcoholic counterparts. So, if you are an alcohol-lover, your best option will probably be to simply reduce (or eliminate) your intake. If you do decide to drink, be sure to drink in moderation.
11 Foods that Will Help You Maintain Ideal Blood Pressure
In addition to eating a generally healthy diet free of the blood-pressure-raising foods I talked about above, there are also some foods particularly rich in blood-pressure-lowering nutrients that you can add to your meals to help you control your blood pressure even better.
Clinical and observational trials suggest that in order to maintain optimal blood pressure, you can consume:
Various types of plant seeds are rich in minerals, vitamins, and bioactive phytochemicals and are great for your blood pressure; there are a lot of reported blood pressure benefits from flaxseed, in particular, so you may want to check them out, specifically.
2. Cocoa-rich Products
Foods rich in cocoa, such as dark chocolate and cocoa beverages, are abundant in flavanols. Flavanols are powerful natural antioxidants that have been confirmed by at least one meta-analysis to have blood-pressure-lowering effects.
This red vegetable is rich in inorganic nitrates. Nitrates can heal damage to your nitric oxide pathway and enhance nitric oxide production, making beets a recommended antihypertensive food.
According to one clinical trial, a healthy diet enriched with pistachios lowered blood pressure in patients with type 2 diabetes. Follow up studies have shown similar results.
5. Pomegranate Juice
A lot of data supports including this polyphenol-rich fruit juice in your diet every day to help maintain healthy blood pressure levels.
6. Whole Grains
Large observational studies confirm that consuming enough fiber-rich whole grains may favorably affect systolic blood pressure.
7. Hibiscus Tea
Hibiscus is abundant in organic acids, polyphenols, anthocyanins, polysaccharides. A cup or two of hibiscus tea per day could do great things for helping you maintain optimal blood pressure levels.
8. Potassium-rich Vegetables
I mentioned above that low potassium intake is one of the triggers for high blood pressure; leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, beet greens), broccoli, mushrooms or zucchini are abundant in potassium and can help make sure you don’t become deficient. Make sure to have one or more of these potassium-rich foods a few times a week.
In addition to being a great source of polyphenols, fiber, vitamins, and minerals — which makes them one heck of a powerful cardioprotective food — berries are also super delicious. That’s a double whammy for adding berries to your blood-pressure-healthy diet!
10. Algae/Fatty Fish
Omega 3 fats are well known for their health-promoting benefits, including helping maintain optimal blood pressure. Although most of the data we have so far come from studies done with fish oil, you can also get omega 3s from algae, salmon and other fatty fish.
Although garlic may not smell the best, it is definitely one of the best foods for your blood pressure! If you really can’t stand the smell (or taste), feel free to try garlic extract supplements instead.
Healthy Foods for High Blood Pressure Printable Shopping List
Take Home Message
Blood pressure is a vital component of your vascular system and it’s critical for keeping your entire body functioning normally. If your blood pressure becomes excessively high, it can cause damage to your health. And, unfortunately, it’s a “silent killer”, giving you a little warning that something is off before it is too late.
Therefore, your best option for protecting yourself from hypertension is to nourish your body with foods that lower your blood pressure and avoid food that raise your blood pressure. That’s how you’ll prevent your blood pressure from getting out of control in the first place!