High blood pressure affects over 16 million people in the UK. In fact, it’s one of the biggest risk factors for premature death in England. High blood pressure also rarely displays any symptoms. This means the only way you’ll know if you have the condition is to have your blood pressure measured. Making the decision to take steps to lower your blood pressure can be a scary prospect. But we’re here to show you that it needn’t be. There are plenty of simple and effective ways to help lower your blood pressure without medication. There’s really no better time than now to take control of your health. So we’ll start straight away with a subject which has had some news coverage lately: stress.
Step 1: Reduce your stress levels to reduce your blood pressure
Stress can be an important contributor to high blood pressure. And even small amounts of stress can result in behaviours which contribute to ‘risk factors’, like eating unhealthily, drinking alcohol or smoking. A comprehensive study of 10,000 people in 2013 found 44% of us suffer from stress. And 28% of those people admitted they had felt stressed for more than a year. That means about 1 million people in the UK are suffering from long-term stress. Long-term stress not only affects blood pressure, but can also cause other conditions including anxiety and depression. Although you probably feel stressed sometimes, it can be difficult to admit that you are feeling this way. And it may feel even more difficult to solve the problem and de-stress. A useful exercise to start with is sitting down and taking the time to think about what is actually making you feel stressed. It could be finances, illness, work or perhaps strained relationships with friends or family. Once you’ve determined what’s causing your stress, you can pro-actively begin to conquer it.
Top tips to help you feel less stressed
Strengthen, build and maintain your relationships
- Arrange a day-trip or lunch with friends you haven’t seen for a while
- Visit a friend or family member and talk things through
- Make use of technology. If you have a smartphone or computer, Skype and Facetime are great for keeping in touch with friends or family who live far away
- Try to speak to somebody new this week
- Volunteer within your community (you can find volunteering opportunities near you here)
Speaking to someone about problems you’re experiencing can really help to ease your troubles. And gaining advice from someone with a different point of view can be invaluable. If you feel you have no-one close to you to talk to, there’s plenty of help out there. Here’s a handy list of phone numbers for organisations who can help.
Remember to laugh
- Read a funny book or listen to a funny radio show
- Watch a funny comedy film (perhaps try one of these – 7 of the best movies for grown-ups)
- When something angers or frustrates you, practice trying to laugh it off instead of letting it upset or annoy you
The saying ‘laughter is the best medicine’ is based in scientific truth. Laughter releases endorphins (the body’s ‘feel-good’ chemicals) and reduces levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline. This can make you feel more relaxed, helping to improve your mood.
Make time for yourself
- Spend at least 30 minutes per day doing a calming activity which you enjoy. Lots of people try crosswords, knitting or gardening
- Listen to music. Playing relaxing music can make you feel calmer, lowering your blood pressure and reducing cortisol levels
- Meditate. Meditation has been used for a long time to promote a sense of calm and benefit your emotional well-being. Try this handy beginner’s guide to get you started.
Get enough sleep
- Make sure to get plenty of good-quality sleep. Turn the TV off an hour before going to bed, dim the lights, and give yourself plenty of time to relax to ensure a good night’s sleep.
- Try using relaxing essential oils such as lavender. A few drops on your pillow can help you nod-off more quickly.
Step 2: Exercise more
Even if you already lead an active lifestyle, it can be easy to let exercise fall to the wayside in favour of other things. It isn’t always easy (or practical, or affordable) to visit a gym, swimming pool or health spa… That’s why we’ve put together some suggestions to help you increase your activity levels regardless of your circumstances. Exercise releases endorphins (the ‘feel-good’ chemicals), and also helps improve overall fitness and health. This puts less strain on your heart and helps to lower your blood pressure. Bear in mind that exercise will cause your blood pressure to rise for a short time, but it should drop down again once you have stopped exercising. The quicker your blood pressure returns to normal following a bout of exercise, the fitter you are likely to be. If you know you have high blood pressure, you should aim to focus on aerobic activity, which helps your heart and blood vessels. Aerobic exercise uses the large muscle groups in your body (including legs, shoulders and arms), and tends to involve rhythmic and repetitive movements.
Top tips to help you increase your activity levels and get more exercise
Aerobic exercises will benefit your blood pressure the most. But intensive, high-impact exercises may put too much strain on your heart and blood vessels. These types of high-impact exercises should be avoided if you know you have high blood pressure.
Take light to moderate exercise daily
- Spend 20-30 minutes per day doing light exercise like gardening, walking the dog, mowing the lawn, or taking a leisurely stroll. If you already do one of these activities, try increasing the time you spend on the activity.
- Find an exercise or activity you actually enjoy doing. This will make exercise seem less like hard work and more like fun. The NHS has a great tool you can access here which will help you to find a club or activity near you.
- You may feel you are quite unfit or are less mobile but want to start to exercise more and gradually increase your fitness levels. If so, the NHS have a good guide which shows you some exercises you can do at home with no equipment.
Don’t take shortcuts
- Where possible, always use stairs instead of lifts or escalators.
- If it’s a choice between a 5-minute drive or a 25-minute walk, take the walk.
- Take the long way round and avoid shortcuts. If you’re walking to work, to meet a friend, to the shops, try taking a slightly longer journey to keep you on your feet longer. You can use tools such as Google Maps to show you alternatives to your usual routes. There are also some good routes available here if you’re walking for leisure.
Know your limits
- Don’t push yourself too hard. The aim of these exercises is not to make you so out of breath you struggle to breathe or speak without panting. You can start with light, short activities and work your way up to longer, more difficult exercises in time. All activity helps, no matter how minor it may seem.
- Blood Pressure UK advise that you can start activities such as cycling, brisk walking, swimming, dancing, tennis and jogging even if you have high blood pressure already.
- You should consult your doctor before starting high-impact activities. These include weight lifting, squash, sprinting, and for the more adventurous, sky-diving and scuba-diving.
Moderate physical activity like brisk walking is safe for most people. But we suggest you talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program if you have any of the following health conditions:
- Diabetes, type 1 or 2
- Kidney or heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Cancer (or have recently completed treatment for cancer)
Step 3: Eating mindfully and reducing your salt intake can help lower your blood pressure
Your diet has a huge impact on your overall health and well-being. Your body may look perfectly healthy on the outside, but it’s what’s inside that counts when it comes to blood pressure. A diet rich in fresh fruit, vegetables and containing less than 6 grams of salt per day is key when it comes to combatting high blood pressure. Salt forces your body to retain water, which in turn raises your blood pressure. Salt can also have an adverse effect on blood pressure medicines causing them to not work as they should. Eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables will help to counteract the negative effects salt has on your body. They are rich in potassium, fibre, vitamins and minerals. These all play an important part in keeping your heart and body healthy, actively helping to lower blood pressure.
Top tips to improve your diet
Understand what’s in your food
- Many staple foods are deceptively high in salt/sodium. Frozen ready-meals, cornflakes, tinned vegetables, nuts, deli meats, pasta sauces and condiments like ketchup can all contain massive amounts of salt, ranging from 0.7g-2.5g per serving.
- Processed foods aren’t all necessarily bad for you. Some foods, like milk, need to be processed to make them safe for consumption. But processed foods also often have added salt, sugar and fat. Always check the labels on your food to check the salt content, with your 6g per day limit in mind.
- Be wary of buying foods labelled with barbecued, broth, marinated, pickled and smoked. These are often heavily processed and high in salt.
Seek alternatives to processed, salty foods
- Introduce more fresh fruit and vegetables into your diet. Most people are aware of the 5 a day campaign, but we may not realise what a portion of fruit or vegetables equates to. The NHS have a handy guide available here.
- Try to opt for low-salt alternatives to your favourite foods. For example, puffed rice tends to have a far lower salt content than cornflakes. Low sodium table salt is available from most supermarkets.
- Make as many meals as possible from scratch, using fresh ingredients. And instead of reaching for the salt whilst your cooking, try using garlic and fresh or dried herbs to flavour your meals.
Exercise portion control
- Always plate up your food in the kitchen and keep any leftovers away from the dining table. It seems obvious, but going back for a second round of roast potatoes or another slice of cake can add unnecessary fat, sugar and salt to your meal that you just don’t need.
- Try to avoid unnecessary snacking between meals. If you do need to eat between meals, opt for healthy and filling snacks like a fruit and vegetable crudités.
- Plan and prepare meals in advance. This will reduce the likelihood of you reaching the middle of the week and grabbing a ready-meal or takeaway when you realise you have no food in the house to make a healthy meal.
Fresh fruit and vegetables often have a reputation of being a bit boring when eaten on their own. Remember that you can make the meals you would normally eat healthier (and tastier) by incorporating fruit and vegetables into them. Easy ways to do this include adding grated or chopped vegetables into home-made sauces and soups, adding a handful of berries to porridge and having a side of grilled tomatoes or mushrooms to egg dishes.
Step 4: Limit your alcohol and caffeine intake
As with most things in life, moderation is the key when looking at the relationship between high blood pressure and alcohol/caffeine. Alcoholic drinks contain a lot of calories, which can lead to weight gain. And as we all know, carrying excess weight and body fat is a contributing factor to high blood pressure. Drinking too much alcohol over time will also raise your blood pressure. Keeping within the recommended limits of alcohol should help to keep your blood pressure down. But that doesn’t mean you should be habitually drinking the upper limit week on week! Caffeine tends to cause a short but powerful spike in your blood pressure. This sudden increase in blood pressure can cause problems, especially if you already suffer from high blood pressure. The amount of caffeine in your cup of tea actually depends on how long you brew it for. A cup of tea left to brew for 5 minutes contains almost double the amount of caffeine as a cup brewed for 1 minute. And caffeine isn’t only present in tea, coffee and fizzy drinks. You may be surprised to learn that there is also caffeine in foods such as ice cream, chocolate bars, marshmallows, and a whopping three times as much caffeine in a serving of chocolate-coated raisins (220mg) as in a cup of brewed coffee (72mg).
Top tips to limit your alcohol and caffeine intake
Try some delicious alternatives
- Green tea – green tea has less than half the caffeine of coffee. It also contains healthy antioxidants and theanine, which is an amino acid that has a calming effect on the nervous system. This can also help to reduce your stress levels.
- Smoothies – you can pack these full of your favourite fruits and vegetables, and they can give you just as much of a boost as caffeine-filled alternatives.
- Cocktails – these don’t have to be alcoholic to be tasty. Non-alcoholic cocktails (or ‘mocktails’) are just as fun to make as their alcoholic counterparts, and can be enjoyed by the whole family.
Change your routine
- Mornings – much of your relationship with caffeine is likely to be driven by routine. If the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning is make a cup of tea or coffee, try changing things up a bit. Have a cup of hot water with lemon to kick-start your metabolism and give you an energy boost.
- Evenings – if your Friday night usually involves a visit to a pub or restaurant, try something new instead of your usual drink. There are many low-alcohol or alcohol-free alternatives to our favourite tipples widely available in most establishments. Be adventurous and try something new!
We hope you’ve found our guide useful. Regular health checks can help you better understand your health risks before they become hard to manage. View our range of comprehensive health checks and packages here.