If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, your first thought may be that you’ll need to start taking medication. But that’s usually not doctors’ first resort. “Before starting a medication your doctor is likely going to want you to [make] lifestyle changes,” says Rachel Bond, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital.
Even if your doctor does recommend that you take medication to lower your blood pressure, it doesn’t mean that you need to be on it for life, says Dr. Bond. A deciding factor? Committing to heart-healthy lifestyle tweaks that can help lower your blood pressure naturally. Here’s how to get started:
1. Cut back on sodium. “Lowering sodium is quite important in a diet that’s aiming toward lowering someone’s blood pressure, because we know that a high-sodium diet can actually increase blood pressure,” says Dr. Bloom. That means not only avoiding table salt, but also packaged, processed foods, like canned soup and chips. Here’s how to flavor your food without salt.
2. Eat more fruits and veggies. “We want to be getting more fruits and vegetables which are really rich in potassium, and potassium helps to balance out sodium levels,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN. Your doctor may recommend that you follow the heart-healthy DASH diet, which fills your plate with produce, nuts, grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein, and focuses on specific blood pressure-lowering nutrients.
3. Lose weight if you need to. “If you lose about five pounds you can have a five-point drop in your blood pressure reading. So if you’re somebody that’s even in that borderline range you can drop your numbers substantially,” says Dr. Bond. Losing weight can also lower your risk of developing other chronic conditions, like heart disease or diabetes.
4. Get moving. Cardio exercises, such as running or biking, are your “first line of defense” against high blood pressure, says Joan Pagano, an exercise physiologist in New York City. “[Physical activity improves] the quality of your blood vessels so that that blood can flow more freely through them,” says Pagano.
5. Try yoga or another stress reliever. “You also might want to do some meditative work, like gentle stretching, or yoga—something that will help with stress reduction,” says Pagano. Here are more ways your body benefits from doing yoga.
Your body reacts to stress by making the heart beat faster and constricting blood vessels to get more blood to the core of the body. This causes a temporary increase in blood pressure. Although more research is needed on the link between stress and hypertension, stress is also known to contribute to heart-unhealthy habits, like eating junk food, drinking excessively, or smoking.
6. Quit smoking. “Smoking is another risk factor that we think about, it puts you at an elevated risk of having elevated blood pressure,” says Dr. Bond. Smoking is the most preventable cause of heart disease and stroke. Quitting will not only improve your blood pressure, but your overall health.
7. Avoid drinking too much alcohol. “For sure with blood pressure we want to make sure that people are watching their alcohol intake and certainly avoid excess alcohol use,” says Dr. Bloom. Stick to no more than two drinks a day for men, and one for women.
“If after a few months we notice that despite the changes in the lifestyle our blood pressure remains high, we then start to talk about initiating medications,” says Dr. Bond.
With all that blood pressure knowledge is fresh in your mind, test your BP smarts with this blood pressure quiz!