How To Lower Blood Pressure Naturally: DASH Diet Made Simple

Silent and often symptomless, high blood pressure (hypertension) can be a ticking time bomb for your heart health. If you’re concerned about your blood pressure, you’re not alone. In fact, hypertension affects 1 in 3 adults worldwide [1].

In a previous article, we explored how dietary tweaks can significantly lower cholesterol levels. This article dives deeper, focusing on the power of diet in managing hypertension. We’ll explore how simple adjustments to your eating habits can significantly reduce your blood pressure and keep your heart healthy.


Understanding Blood Pressure Readings

Your blood pressure reading has two important parts:

  • Systolic pressure: This is the top number. It represents the force exerted by your heart as it contracts and pumps blood throughout your body.
  • Diastolic pressure: This is the bottom number. It reflects the pressure in your arteries between heartbeats, when your heart relaxes.

Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg). So, your blood pressure reading might be expressed as 120/80 mmHg, for example.

When Blood Pressure Becomes a Concern

High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when one or both of your blood pressure readings are consistently above healthy levels.

For a long time, 140/90 mmHg was considered the high blood pressure threshold. However, in November 2017, the American Heart Association (AHA) updated their guidelines, lowering the threshold to 130/80 mmHg [2]. This change reflects growing evidence that even slightly elevated blood pressure can increase your risk of serious health problems like heart disease and stroke.

The Importance of Knowing Your Numbers

Regular blood pressure checks are vital for maintaining good heart health. They allow you to stay on top of your numbers and identify any potential problems early on. This early detection can make a big difference in managing your blood pressure and reducing your risk of future health complications.

The following table summarizes the blood pressure categories according to the American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines. This can serve as a quick reference, but remember, it’s crucial to discuss your individual blood pressure readings with your doctor for personalized advice.

Blood pressure readings chart English
Blood pressure readings chart

The Silent Threat: Why You Should Take High Blood Pressure Seriously

High blood pressure, often called hypertension (HBP), can lurk undetected for years. While it may not cause any immediate symptoms, leaving it uncontrolled can have serious consequences for your long-term health. Here’s how high blood pressure can silently damage your body [3]:

  • Heart Attack and Stroke: Imagine your arteries as vital highways for blood flow. Uncontrolled high blood pressure damages and weakens these “highways,” making them more prone to blockage or rupture. This can lead to a heart attack, where blood flow to the heart muscle is cut off, or a stroke, where blood supply to the brain is interrupted. Both are life-threatening emergencies.
  • Heart Failure: Think of your heart as a powerful pump. When your blood pressure rises, your heart has to work much harder to circulate blood throughout your body. Over time, this extra strain can weaken the heart muscle, leading to a condition called heart failure.
  • Kidney Disease: High blood pressure can damage the delicate filtering system within your kidneys. This can make it harder for them to remove waste products from your blood, potentially leading to kidney disease and even kidney failure.
  • Vision Problems: The tiny blood vessels in your eyes are also susceptible to damage from high blood pressure. This can lead to vision problems, including blindness in severe cases.
  • Sexual Dysfunction: High blood pressure can affect blood flow throughout your body, including the genitals. This can cause erectile dysfunction in men and decreased libido in women.
  • Other Problems: Uncontrolled high blood pressure also increases your risk of developing other health problems like peripheral artery disease (PAD), where blood flow to your legs is reduced, and angina, chest pain caused by narrowed arteries in the heart.

Short-Term Regulation Of Blood Pressure

When we discussed cholesterol, we saw that it can take several weeks to observe changes in cholesterol levels after making changes to diet and lifestyle. This is because the regulation of cholesterol homeostasis is a long-term process.

In contrast, the regulation of blood pressure is much more rapid. In the short term, our body has mechanisms to regulate blood pressure within minutes. The controller of this short-term regulation is our autonomic nervous system, which consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. These systems have direct effects on the heart, increasing or decreasing the strength and frequency of its beats, and on blood vessels. By constricting or dilating blood vessels, the autonomic nervous system can increase or decrease pressure because the blood has a larger or smaller space to circulate in.

Diet does not influence this short-term regulation. However, we do have a voluntary way to influence the autonomic control of blood pressure: meditation, deep breathing and various relaxation techniques. These techniques have been shown to promote parasympathetic stimulation and lower blood pressure by several points within a few minutes [4].

You can easily verify this yourself by measuring your blood pressure, then sitting down, relaxing, and taking 10 deep breaths. Measure your blood pressure again and you will see that it has decreased. This also shows that people who are always stressed, nervous, worried, or in a hurry are much more likely to have high blood pressure.


Longer-Term Regulation Of Blood Pressure

Diet plays a crucial role in long-term blood pressure regulation. The body itself has several very important mechanisms for long-term regulation of blood pressure. It does this primarily by acting on plasma volume.

If blood pressure needs to be raised, a simple way to do this is to increase blood volume. This is achieved by inducing thirst and reducing urine production. Two hormonal systems are very efficient at doing this:

  • The first is the antidiuretic hormone (ADH) vasopressin, which is released by the pituitary gland when blood pressure is low or when the blood is too concentrated. Vasopressin stimulates the reabsorption of water in the kidneys [5], which results in an antidiuretic effect.
  • The second is the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS). When blood pressure in the renal artery is low, the kidney releases renin. Renin circulates in the blood and activates angiotensinogen, released by the liver, to angiotensin I. Angiotensin I is then converted to angiotensin II through removal of two C-terminal residues by the enzyme angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) [7]. Angiotensin II causes thirst, constricts blood vessels, and stimulates the adrenal glands to release aldosterone. Aldosterone stimulates the reabsorption of sodium and water by the kidneys. All of these actions together have a powerful effect on increasing blood pressure [6].

Blood Pressure Medications

In some cases, medication may be necessary to manage high blood pressure. These medications work in different ways to target the underlying mechanisms we discussed earlier. Here’s a simplified explanation:

  • Beta-blockers: These medications help regulate the heart rate and force of contraction, which can lower blood pressure.
  • ACE inhibitors: These medications target the renin-angiotensin system, a hormonal pathway that helps regulate blood pressure. By inhibiting this system, ACE inhibitors can help relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure.
  • Calcium channel blockers: These medications stop calcium from entering the cells of the heart and arteries. Calcium causes the heart and arteries to squeeze more strongly. By blocking calcium, calcium channel blockers allow blood vessels to relax and open.
  • Diuretics: These medications help your body get rid of excess fluid through urination, which can lower blood pressure.

Learn more:


How to Lower Blood Pressure with Diet

1. Make Healthy Eating Enjoyable

We’ve seen how the body regulates blood pressure. The good news is, strategic dietary choices can significantly impact these regulatory mechanisms.

Let’s delve into specific dietary strategies that can help lower your blood pressure and keep your heart healthy.

Balance Electrolytes for Healthy Blood Pressure

Sodium and Potassium

Electrolytes, especially sodium and potassium, play a key role in blood pressure regulation by controlling fluid balance in your body [8].

  • Sodium: Too much sodium draws water out of cells, raising blood volume and pressure. Think of it like adding more water to a balloon; it stretches and tightens.
  • Potassium: Potassium acts like a pump, pushing water back into cells and promoting the removal of excess sodium through your kidneys. This helps lower blood pressure.

Both high sodium intake and low potassium intake can contribute to high blood pressure, especially for those genetically predisposed. The typical Western diet, high in sodium and low in potassium, creates a “terrible combination” for blood pressure. Focus on these key dietary strategies:

  • Limit sodium intake: Pay attention to labels and choose lower-sodium options. Consider using herbs and spices for flavor instead of salt.
  • Increase potassium intake: Fruits, vegetables, and legumes are all excellent sources of potassium. Aim to incorporate a variety of these foods into your diet.

Learn more:

Calcium and Magnesium

Calcium and magnesium are two other electrolytes that are important for regulating blood pressure due to osmotic balance [9].

Deficiencies in either of these minerals are associated with an increased risk of hypertension.

Therefore, it is important to ensure a good intake of calcium and magnesium, in addition to potassium.

Learn more:

Incorporate Arginine-Rich Foods for Lower Blood Pressure

Another important nutrient in blood pressure regulation is the amino acid arginine. Arginine is necessary for the production of nitric oxide, which is produced by the walls of the arteries to dilate blood vessels and lower blood pressure [10].

Nuts and seeds are excellent sources of arginine, along with polyunsaturated fatty acids which offer additional heart health benefits. Other good sources include legumes (beans, lentils) and seaweed [11].

While incorporating arginine-rich healthy foods into your diet is a smart strategy [12], it’s important to avoid L-arginine supplements. Studies have shown these can be harmful to heart health [13].

Learn more:

Prioritize Omega-3 Fatty Acids to Support Healthy Blood Pressure

The type of polyunsaturated fats you consume plays a role in blood pressure regulation. These fats are converted into a class of molecules called eicosanoids, which have opposing effects on blood vessels.

  • Prostacyclins: These eicosanoids, derived from polyunsaturated fats, act as vasodilators, relaxing blood vessels and lowering pressure.
  • Thromboxanes: Also eicosanoids, thromboxanes are vasoconstrictors that narrow blood vessels and can raise pressure.

The key lies in the balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your diet. Unfortunately, many diets tend to be too high in omega-6s and deficient in omega-3s. This imbalance can tip the scales in favor of thromboxane production, contributing to high blood pressure.

Therefore, incorporating more omega-3 fatty acids into your diet is a crucial strategy for promoting healthy blood pressure [14].

Learn more:

Limit Saturated and Trans Fats for Optimal Blood Pressure

An excessive intake of saturated and trans fats promotes hypercholesterolemia and endothelial dysfunction, leading to the formation of atherosclerotic plaque. This increases the risk of hypertension because the arteries become stiffer and less elastic, making them less able to dilate and lower blood pressure when it is too high.

Therefore, to support healthy blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health, it’s crucial to limit saturated fats and avoid trans fats in your diet [15] [16].

Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products and tropical oils. These include:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Cheese
  • Butter
  • Ice cream
  • Coconut oil
  • Palm oil
  • Fried foods
  • Meats, such as pork, beef, lamb, and poultry

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Manage Blood Sugar Spikes to Promote Healthy Arteries

To avoid endothelial dysfunction and atherosclerosis, it is also important to avoid excessive insulin spikes and, therefore, high-glycemic index foods such as refined carbohydrates and foods rich in added sugars. Insulin has a hypertensive effect for multiple reasons, not only because it stiffens the arteries, but also because it increases sodium reabsorption and promotes the production of some thromboxane, a vasoconstrictor and a potent hypertensive agent.

Keeping your blood sugar levels stable is crucial for maintaining healthy arteries and blood pressure [15] [16]. Here’s how:

  • Limit Sugary Foods / Drinks and Refined Carbs: These foods cause blood sugar spikes, which over time can damage blood vessels and contribute to high blood pressure. Examples of sugary foods and drinks to limit include:
    • Sugary sodas, juices, and sports drinks
    • Pastries, cakes, cookies, and doughnuts
    • White bread, white rice, and white pasta pasta
    • Candy and sugary breakfast cereals
  • Focus on Whole Grains, Fruits, and Vegetables: These foods provide sustained energy without causing blood sugar spikes.

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The DASH Diet

In the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has developed a dietary model that effectively summarizes all of the factors we have discussed so far. It is called the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.

The DASH diet emphasizes controlling saturated fat and glycemic load, using moderate amounts of lean protein, eating plenty of whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and limiting salt and salty foods.

The DASH diet is based on the following foods: fruits, vegetables, low fat milk, whole grains, fish, poultry, legumes, and nuts. It recommends reducing sodium, foods and beverages with added sugars, and red meat. The diet is heart-friendly as it limits saturated and trans fat, while increasing the intake of potassium, magnesium, calcium, protein, and fiber, nutrients believed to help control blood pressure [16] [17].

More than just a blood pressure management plan, the DASH diet is actually a well-balanced approach to healthy eating that can benefit everyone.

Learn more:


Other Important Lifestyle Factors

Having an healthy and active live

While dietary choices are essential for blood pressure control, a healthy lifestyle goes beyond what’s on your plate. This chapter explores other crucial habits that can significantly impact your blood pressure, helping you achieve optimal heart health.

Pay Attention to Overweight

The first factor to keep under control is overweight. Excess fat increases blood pressure because the heart has to pump blood through all the extra blood vessels that form with excess fat. Therefore, if you are overweight, controlling your weight is the first and most important goal for controlling blood pressure, even before considering salt or Omega-3s. The single most important thing you can do to control high blood pressure is to bring your weight under control [18].

Exercise Regularly

The second element is exercise. Regardless of its effect on weight, aerobic exercise, which is simply walking at a brisk pace, has a marked antihypertensive effect. Therefore, if you are sedentary, choosing a more active lifestyle is another absolutely priority goal for controlling blood pressure [19].

Limit Alcohol and Avoid Smoking

A word of caution also about two unhealthy behaviors: excessive alcohol consumption and smoking. Both of these behaviors, along with all the other problems they create, also raise blood pressure. Therefore, quitting smoking and avoiding alcohol abuse are certainly two other key measures in controlling high blood pressure [20] [21].

Limit Certain Hypertensive Foods

Finally, there are some foods that have a direct hypertensive effect and should therefore be consumed in moderation by people with high blood pressure. These include licorice and and energy drinks [22][23][24].


Key Takeaways

Maintaining healthy blood pressure is an investment in your well-being. Here are eight key strategies you can implement to keep your numbers in check:

  1. De-Stress Daily: Chronic stress can raise your blood pressure. Make relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation a daily habit to keep your cool and your heart healthy.
  2. Move Your Body: Regular physical activity is a natural blood pressure regulator. Find an activity you enjoy, whether it’s a brisk walk, dancing, or swimming, and get your heart pumping for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
  3. Manage Weight: If you’re overweight, shedding extra pounds can significantly improve your blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about healthy weight loss strategies.
  4. Ditch the Cigarettes and Alcohol: Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can harm your arteries and raise blood pressure. Quitting these habits is one of the best things you can do for your overall health.
  5. Outsmart Salt: Be mindful of your sodium intake. Limit processed foods and hidden sources of salt, and focus on adding flavor with herbs and spices. Read food labels carefully!
  6. Fuel Up with Powerhouse Foods: Increase your consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. These provide essential nutrients like potassium, calcium, magnesium, and arginine, all of which play a vital role in blood pressure regulation.
  7. Embrace Healthy Fats: Choose unsaturated fats found in fish, olive oil, and nuts over saturated fats. They’ll not only support your heart health but may also have a positive impact on your blood pressure.
  8. Be Mindful of Blood Pressure Boosters: Certain substances like licorice and energy drinks consumption can raise blood pressure. Be moderate in your intake and consult your doctor if you have any concerns.

Remember, consistency is key! By incorporating these actionable steps into your daily life, you can make a significant difference in maintaining healthy blood pressure and overall well-being.


References

[1] First WHO report details devastating impact of hypertension and ways to stop it

[2] Understanding Blood Pressure Readings | American Heart Association

[3] Health Threats from High Blood Pressure | American Heart Association

[4] Current Perspectives on the Use of Meditation to Reduce Blood Pressure (nih.gov)

[5] Vasopressin – Wikipedia

[6] Renin–angiotensin system – Wikipedia

[7] Angiotensin – Wikipedia

[8] Reducing sodium and increasing potassium may lower risk of cardiovascular disease | News | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

[9] Key minerals to help control blood pressure – Harvard Health

[10] Arginine – Wikipedia

[11] High-arginine foods: Sources, benefits, and risks (medicalnewstoday.com)

[12] Nuts for the Heart | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

[13] 3 supplements that may harm your heart – Harvard Health

[14] Consuming about 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids a day may lower blood pressure | American Heart Association

[15] Managing Blood Pressure with a Heart-Healthy Diet | American Heart Association

[15] WHO EMRO | Diet, nutrition and hypertension | World Health Day 2013 | World Health Days

[16] Diet Review: DASH | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

[17] Your Guide To Lowering Your Blood Pressure With DASH (nih.gov)

[18] Managing Weight to Control High Blood Pressure | American Heart Association

[19] Getting Active to Control High Blood Pressure | American Heart Association

[20] Limiting Alcohol to Manage High Blood Pressure | American Heart Association

[21] Smoking, High Blood Pressure and Your Health | American Heart Association

[22] Black licorice is a candy that should inspire caution | American Heart Association

[23] Can eating too much black liquorice be bad for you? – NHS (www.nhs.uk)

[24] Energy drinks may provide jolt to heart, blood pressure | American Heart Association

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