Seventy-two million American adults have high blood pressure. Nearly two-thirds of them are getting treatment—but it's successful in less than half. Those statistics are especially troubling when you consider that blood pressure is a measure of how elastic—healthy—your arteries are. The numbers indicate the force buffeting blood vessel walls as your heart beats (systolic pressure, the higher number), then relaxes (diastolic pressure, the lower number). Normal readings are below 120/80 mmHg. High blood pressure starts at 140 mmHg systolic or 90 mmHg diastolic. At that point, your risk of stroke, heart attack, and kidney disease skyrockets.
Medications can successfully calm surging blood pressure, but they have drawbacks. “Many antihypertensive treatments cause side effects like dizziness or headache, fatigue, chest discomfort, cough, and sexual dysfunction,” says Jeffery A. Dusek, PhD, director of behavioral sciences research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Your best alternative is exercising 30 minutes or more most days of the week and following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) plan, says hypertension specialist and American Heart Association president-elect Daniel Jones, MD. The DASH diet restricts salt and favors potassium-rich vegetables and fruit and calcium-rich low-fat dairy (you can get a free copy of the plan at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash/). Exercise and follow these recommendations, and you can expect a drop of 8 to 10 mmHg systolic and 6 to 10 mmHg diastolic, says Jones, roughly equivalent to standard medication.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids How it works: May increase elasticity in blood vessel walls and reduce stickiness of blood platelets.
How to get it: Eat fatty fish, such as herring, salmon, mackerel, and sardines, twice weekly, plus walnuts, flaxseed, and canola oil. (Avoid fish high in mercury: king mackerel, shark, swordfish, tuna steak, and tilefish. Check with your doctor before taking fish oil supplements.)
Blood pressure improvement: 1 to 3 systollic; 2 diastolic
Meditation How it works: Manages stress. May trigger the releases of nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels.
How to get it: Visit learningmeditation.com for an introduction to a variety of simple methods.