High Blood Pressure, Explained in Just 2 Minutes

What causes those numbers to go up and down?

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High blood pressure, or hypertension, is much more than a number. For many people, their blood pressure isn’t something they think about until their doctor says it’s a problem.

Here’s the best way to think about high blood pressure. Imagine back to when you were 7 or 8 years old and playing with the garden hose in the backyard. When you bent that hose into a sharp kink, you laughed as the water pressure built up behind the knot. (Most likely, you did this secretly to confuse the person who was actually using the hose, only to loosen the kink and watch their face as water came shooting out again.)

Now imagine your blood vessels as that hose. Instead of hosting cold water to water your plants, your blood vessels are transporting oxygen-rich blood. The blood moves through the vessels thanks to contractions from your heart. The blood helps bring oxygen to tissues and organs throughout your body, which helps the body maintain all its essential functions.

But just like the kinks in the hose, your blood vessels can get blocked. One way this can happen is from something called plaque, which is usually the result of a diet high in saturated fat. High intakes of this type of dietary fat may increase levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, a waxy substance that can stick to the walls of your arteries. (Learn more about what high cholesterol does to your body here.)

When the sticky cholesterol accumulates on artery walls, it can harden into plaque. Not only does the plaque buildup narrow the vessel and partially obstruct the flow of blood (like that kink in the hose), but it can harden the blood vessel and make it less flexible—making it less able to dilate and constrict when necessary, such as during exercise.

The stiffened, narrow blood vessel caused by plaque buildup is like squeezing the water hose: Pressure builds up behind the blockage. This pressure inhibits the blood flow throughout the body, and it pushes on the walls of the artery, which can cause tiny tears and damage to the blood vessel.

Over time, this high blood pressure also strains the heart, which is working extra hard to keep blood flowing throughout the body despite the block. That’s why high blood pressure can increase your risk of developing heart disease, heart failure, heart attack, or stroke.

To keep your heart and noggin in top-top shape, try to keep your blood pressure in a healthy range, which is less than 120 over less than 80. This reduces your risk of cardiovascular diseases and ensures the rest of your body gets the oxygen it needs. Learn more about what your blood pressure numbers mean here, and find out tips to lower BP naturally here.