America's blood pressure is way too high, and not just because Congress infuriates us. Fact is, it’s been rising for decades. Today, nearly a third of American adults have BPs of 140/90 or higher, including one in four men between the ages of 35 and 44, according to the American Heart Association. What's more, we mistake the early stages of hypertension for completely normal blood pressure. In the past few years, 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) went from being classified as healthy to "prehypertensive" by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Obesity, smoking, excessive drinking, and bad food choices can all make your arteries burst at the seams. Worse, you may never know what hit you. "Many men don't pay attention to their blood pressure until they're older," says nephrologist George Bakris, M.D., president of the American Society of Hypertension. "But you don't experience symptoms until it's very high." (Heart disease is the number-one killer of men. What's your risk? Take this quiz to find out.)
But there's good news amid the gloom: Keeping your blood pressure out of the danger zone doesn't have to be just about restraint. Below are 7 simple ways to bring your BP out of the danger zone.
Your heart and the 60,000 miles of veins, arteries, and capillaries in your body have enough work to do when you're lean. Don't make matters worse by adding a beer belly, which requires more blood supply, putting additional strain on the heart and raising overall blood pressure. "It's infrequent that people are rail thin yet have high blood pressure," says Eric Topol, M.D., chief academic officer of Scripps Health.
"By bringing your weight into line with what it should be, you can produce a 10- to 29-point drop in blood pressure," adds John Elefteriades, M.D., chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Yale. For men with borderline-high blood pressure, that alone is enough of a drop to eliminate the need for pharmaceutical intervention, he says.
One strategy: Eat more red meat. In a recent Australian study, people with high blood pressure who replaced 8 percent of their daily calories from bread, cereal, potatoes, or pasta with lean red meat experienced a four-point drop in their systolic blood pressure in just 8 weeks. Arginine, an amino acid in red meat, may help dilate blood vessels, lowering blood pressure. Plus, limiting starches lowers blood sugar and makes your body more efficient at burning fat.
And don't freak out about fat. Healthy fats—such as the monounsaturated fats found in, say, a ribeye—are key to lowering blood pressure. What's more, a study in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that men who replaced their regular cooking oil with sesame oil for 45 days experienced decreases in their blood pressure and blood sugar. Sesame oil, which can be found in salad dressings as well, contains compounds that stop your liver from making cholesterol.
"You can achieve up to a 10-point drop in blood pressure from regular aerobic exercise," says Dr. Elefteriades. A solid workout raises your blood pressure, which gives your body practice in bringing it back down. Well-trained blood vessels expand and contract easily, which helps control blood pressure, even during times of heightened or prolonged stress.
And you don’t need to join a gym. According to a study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, people performing handgrip exercises for 8 weeks lowered their systolic blood pressure by 15 points and their diastolic pressure by five. All it takes is 2 minutes of squeezing, four times a day.
The white stuff causes your body to retain water, which increases blood volume and, consequently, blood pressure. The results can be deadly: The more sodium you eat, the shorter your life, according to researchers at the University of Helsinki. They reviewed more than a dozen studies and found that people who reduced their sodium intake by 30 percent lived an average of 7 years longer than those whose sodium intake remained high. (The national average is over 4,000 milligrams a day—1,600 mg more than is recommended.)
But don’t skip the salt shaker altogether. You need some sodium in your diet to survive. (One recent study revealed that too little of the mineral can actually increase your risk of death by 37 percent.) Instead, focus on eliminating supersources of salt, such as processed foods. One frozen dinner can contain as much as 2,000 mg sodium, a cup of cottage cheese packs 918 mg, and a single slice of deli ham packs 240 mg. And make sure you avoid the 25 Saltiest Foods in America!
You can also mix up a DIY salt substitute. Australian scientists determined that diluting regular salt with potassium salt and Epsom salt lowers arterial blood pressure by six points. Pour 65 percent table salt, 25 percent Morton Salt Substitute (potassium chloride), and 10 percent Epsom salt into a small bowl, mix well, and funnel into a saltshaker. You won't taste the difference.
Blood pressure goes up in response to tension, when your body's fight-or-flight response causes adrenaline surges. But chronic stress, like the kind you experience every day at the office, can permanently increase your blood-pressure set point.
A simple solution: Clean the house. Researchers reporting in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise equipped 28 people with BP monitors and asked each person to do housework to burn 150 calories a day. After 2 days, their BP levels fell an average of 13 points. Daily chores lower BP, and not only because of the exercise. Having a clean house may reduce psychological stress, according to the study authors.
Also, a study by researchers at the University of South Florida revealed that people who received three 10-minute massages a week experienced an 18-point drop in their systolic blood pressure and an eight-point drop in their diastolic BP.
In a 2008 Italian study, people with high blood pressure who ate 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate each day for 15 days lowered their systolic BP (the upper number) by 4.5 points and their diastolic (the lower number) by 4.2 points. But you need to eat the right type of chocolate. Darker chocolate contains more antioxidants and less of the sugar that may counteract chocolate's beneficial effects, according to research from Yale. Choose dark chocolate with at least 65 percent cacao.
Listening to 30 minutes of "rhythmically homogeneous" music (that is, anything with a steady beat), combined with breathing exercises, can lower your systolic blood pressure by more than 4 points after 3 months, according to a 2008 Italian study. Breathing in and out with an inhale/exhale ratio of 1 to 2 while listening to slow, steady music relaxes your vessels, says Randall Zusman, M.D., director of the hypertension division at the Massachusetts General Hospital heart center.
The key is to cue up the right type of music, says Michael Miller, M.D., who coauthored a different music study that found when people relaxed and breathed steadily while listening to music they found pleasurable—whether it was Mozart or Maroon 5—the linings of their blood vessels dilated by 26 percent. Those who listened to music that made them anxious experienced a 6 percent narrowing of their blood vessels. It's your emotional connection with the music that may be key to a lower BP, Dr. Miller says. You'll be sure to find something you like on our list of the 100 Best Workout Songs.
Whether you're ROFLing or just LOLing, you're doing your arteries good. Laughing at a funny movie causes blood vessels to dilate by 22 percent, according to a 2006 study from the University of Maryland. The physical act of laughing causes the tissue forming the inner lining of your blood vessels to expand, allowing for an increase in bloodflow and reducing blood pressure, says Dr. Miller. "The magnitude of change is similar to the benefit you might see with aerobic activity, but without the aches and pains," he says.
You should be laughing at least 15 minutes a day to benefit from this link. And tepid, forced chuckles won't do it—to maximize the blood-pressure effect, you should be doing full, real belly laughs. So if Internet humor isn't doing it for you, crack open your high school yearbook. That's usually good for a laugh.
Of course, some people can do everything right and still have high blood pressure. If that’s you, blame your DNA—and see a doctor. If your numbers are more than 20 to 30 points out of range or your blood pressure doesn't budge with exercise and diet changes, you may need a pharmaceutical solution, says Dr. Elefteriades. The good news: Today’s blood pressure meds work quickly and well.
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Additional research and writing by Steven Stiefel