Despite the lack of accompanying symptoms, more than 3 million Americans are diagnosed with high blood pressure, or hypertension, each year. In many cases, high blood pressure is considered a chronic condition, sometimes lasting a lifetime. Most people regulate their high blood pressure with medication. While medication is effective, making small changes in your lifestyle habits can further treat the condition and may even reduce the amount of medication needed. Even better, if you don’t have high blood pressure, but have a family history of it, making lifestyle changes now may help prevent high blood pressure from ever occurring!
Blood pressure refers to the force with which blood pushes against the walls of arteries in the heart. It is typically represented as two numbers. The top number is systolic blood pressure, which is the force when the heart beats while pumping; the bottom number is diastolic blood pressure, or the force when the heart is at rest between beats. An ideal blood pressure is 120/80 or lower. A systolic blood pressure of 140 or higher, or a diastolic blood pressure over 90, is considered high blood pressure.
High blood pressure is, for the most part, a symptomless condition, unfortunately referred to by some in the medical profession as “the silent killer.” The only time you may experience symptoms is during a hypertensive crisis, meaning a blood pressure of 180/110 or higher. Symptoms of hypertensive crisis include severe headache, severe anxiety, shortness of breath, and nosebleed. Hypertensive crisis is typically a precursor to a stroke or heart attack. A doctor can diagnose and treat high blood pressure long before it reaches this extreme. For this reason, annual visits with your primary care physician are crucial.
The heart is incredibly strong, but, just like any other muscle, it has a limit to how much force it can exert. Consistently high blood pressure pushes the heart to this limit. Consider the bicep—too many bicep curls can cause the muscle to fatigue, weaken, and ultimately give out or tear. Similarly, when the heart works extra hard day in and day out, it cannot sustain that level of exertion forever. It too can give out, resulting in a heart attack. Unlike the bicep, which can be put in a sling and left to heal for weeks or months, if the heart stops, so does the rest of the body. In short, high blood pressure left untreated greatly increases the risk of cardiac failure.
There are two stages of high blood pressure: primary and secondary. Primary high blood pressure is classified as a systolic ranging anywhere between 140 and 159 or a diastolic between 90 and 99. This is most common among middle-aged and elderly people, as it typically develops with age. Secondary high blood pressure is anything higher than 160 systolic or 100 diastolic. This is much more serious, but also much more acute, or sudden in onset. It is typically the result of a reaction to medication or another medical condition related to the heart, lungs, kidneys, or endocrine system–even pregnancy can cause acute high blood pressure. Once the cause is determined, both the high blood pressure and its underlying cause can be treated and managed effectively.
As with most conditions, high blood pressure is the result of an imbalance somewhere in the body; usually a dietary, nervous system, or hormonal imbalance.
If you consume excessive amounts of salt in your diet, your blood volume increases. Salt causes the body to retain water. This inhibits kidney function. Kidneys are designed to remove unnecessary fluid from the blood. Without allowing this fluid to be removed, the volume of blood increases, causing the heart to pump harder than usual.
Excessive stress, either mental or physical, can lead to an imbalance in the nervous system. If the body is consistently operating in the “fight or flight” mode (sympathetic nervous system), the heart rate and blood pressure are working too hard, and thus will be abnormally high.
Hormonal imbalances can constrict or harden the arteries. The heart then needs to work extra hard to pump the usual amount of blood through these small, inflexible arteries to nourish the rest of the body, so blood pressure increases.
Other Risk Factors
Excessive alcohol consumption
Excessive sodium (salt) and/or cholesterol consumption
Lack of physical exercise
Family history of high blood pressure
- Eat a healthful diet! Limit salt intake, cigarettes, alcohol, and red meats; instead opt for fresh, whole foods to maintain balance in the body and decrease the risk of developing or worsening high blood pressure.
- De-stress! Practice daily stress reduction methods, such as breathing techniques, journaling, or meditation.
- Get in shape! Build your muscular strength, endurance, and flexibility. This not only helps you maintain a healthy weight (important to maintaining a healthy blood pressure), but also strengthens the heart. A strong heart can pump blood to the rest of the body more efficiently, thus reducing blood pressure.
Ground the Feet
Press the bases of all ten toes and the heels into the floor, and equalize the weight distribution between the bases of toes and heels. Now, equalize the weight between the right foot and the left foot. Feel the earth supporting you. The feet are the bases for support of the entire body. Grounding the feet brings your attention back to your body. If stress or anxiety contributes to your high blood pressure, grounding the feet can minimize stress and anxiety and improve circulation in the lower extremities. Grounding the feet also activates the soleus, a calf muscle responsible for pumping blood back up to the heart!
Mobilize the Ribs
Place hands on either side of the ribcage with the fingers facing each other and the thumbs wrapping around the back body. Inhale; expand the ribs east and west toward the palm centers. Notice how the fingers move away from each other. Exhale; contract the ribs toward center. Notice how the fingers move toward each other. The breath is directly related to the nervous system. When you deepen and slow down your breath, you trigger a parasympathetic response in the nervous system to slow down the heart rate and decrease blood pressure.
Soften the Base of Skull
Find the suboccipital muscles on the base of the skull by placing fingertips on either side of spine where the head and neck meet. Release the muscle activation by lengthening the neck, making many chins and setting gaze at the horizon. Softening the base of the skull allows for better flow of cerebral spinal fluid between the brain and the spine, potentially opening up the pathway for better communication between the body and brain! This communication is key to a balanced nervous system (a nervous system that doesn’t constantly live in fight or flight mode) and therefore, low blood pressure.
Set aside time to practice structured rest. Whether you sit in a quiet place or attend a restorative yoga class, be as consistent as possible. Rest triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces stress, slows down the heart rate, and decreases blood pressure. With regular practice, the benefits of rest can extend long beyond the time you are actively resting, and your baseline blood pressure may lower. We recommend that you visit your doctor after the first six months of routine resting to see if your blood pressure has changed. You may even get to lower your dosage of high blood pressure prescription medication.
- Stand tall with feet hip width apart and hands in Eastern Prayer Mudra. Ground the feet by pushing the base of the toes and heels into the ground. Enliven the hands by pushing the bases of the fingers and heels of the hands together.
- Inhale; keeping hands sealed together, pull elbows wide and expand the ribs to the east and west. Exhale; strongly push base of fingers and heels of hands together and contract ribs toward centerline.
- Continue for 8 breath cycles.
- Place one block at tall height horizontal to the mat at the center top edge. Place a second block at medium height approximately two to three inches in front of the first block.
- Rest one bolster on the blocks sloping down toward the bottom of the mat. Place second bolster horizontally at the bottom third of the mat.
- Come to seated between the bolsters. Adjust so the sacrum is about 2 inches in front of the sloping bolster and recline onto it.
- Drape legs over bottom bolster so the bolster supports the back of the knees. Release arms down by sides or bring arms to Embrace Mudra–wrap each hand around opposite ribcage.
- Rest the eyes and breathe naturally. Stay here for about 5 minutes. If the mind wanders, simply label your inhale and exhale in your mind.
Side Lying Rest
- Place a folded blanket or a small pillow at the top edge of the mat.
- Come to a seated, cross-legged position in the center of the mat. Make your way to the fetal position (on either side), with your head comfortably rested on the blanket or pillow.
- Place a large bolster or pillow between your legs to support the knees and ankles. Hug a small bolster or pillow toward the chest.
- Rest your eyes and focus on your breath for at least five minutes. If your mind wanders, which is completely normal, bring your attention back to your breath by labeling your inhale and exhale.
Note: Pregnant women are recommended to rest on their left side.