Reviewed by Di Bush, PhD
Nearly one out of every three adults has high blood pressure. If you have diabetes, your chances of having high blood pressure are even greater. Today, an important goal in staying healthy is to keep your blood pressure in the normal range. According to the most recent health guidelines, blood pressure under 120/80 mmHg is a target goal for most people. A blood pressure level of 140/90 is considered high. The range in between, from 120/80-139/89, is in a category called “pre-hypertension”.
For people with diabetes, the goal is to be at or below 140/80. This has been changed from the older target of 130/80. If you reach and maintain this blood pressure goal, you can prevent or slow down several long-term diabetes problems, including heart disease and stroke. People who are overweight, insulin resistant and/or have pre-diabetes may also have high blood pressure.
A few lifestyle changes may be enough to lower your blood pressure, but you may also need high blood pressure medicines to help you manage it in the long run. Check out these eight lifestyle changes you can make to help get and keep your blood pressure where you want it. Don’t try to make all these changes at once. Choose one or two lifestyle changes that will be easiest for you to start with. Then, take it one step at a time and see if you can make them all happen.
Move more: Being physically active is one of the most important steps you can take to prevent or manage high blood pressure. It also helps reduce your risk of heart disease. Being active can help you lose weight and keep the pounds off. Start slowly. Just walk a few more minutes each day. Change your life in little ways to—literally—take more steps: take the stairs, not the elevator; park farther from the store entrance; walk to a bathroom that is one floor down at work. Talk with your healthcare provider about what activities are best for you.
Eat less sodium: The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that people who have high blood pressure or diabetes shouldn’t eat more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day. If you are 51 years old or more, or if you are black, you should also stick to the 1,500 mg limit (that’s just over half a teaspoon). However, even people who do not have high blood pressure should eat no more than 2,300 mg per day (just a little under one teaspoon of table salt). Processed and restaurant foods have the most sodium. To eat less sodium, take these steps:
- Before you buy anything in the supermarket, check the amount of sodium per serving on the Nutrition Facts label. Compare the amount to 1,500 mg. Think about how you will use the food. Is it a side dish or a main course? Can you buy a lower-sodium version or prepare the food from scratch with less sodium?
- Use more foods that are unprocessed and naturally low in sodium, such as fresh or frozen vegetables, fruits, grains and starchy vegetables.
- Limit your use of ready-to-eat and processed foods, such as canned soup, cold cuts and hot dogs, frozen entrees, salad dressings and packaged mixes. Buy lower-sodium versions of these products when they are available.
Shake less salt: Salt is made from sodium and chloride. Another way to eat less sodium is to use less salt. Use as little salt as you can in cooking and at the table. Don’t add salt to rice, pasta or hot cereals when you cook them. Cut back on instant or flavored rice, pasta and cereal mixes, which usually have added salt. To season your foods when you cook and at the table, use some of the many low-calorie, low-sodium flavor enhancers, such as herbs, spices, fresh ground pepper, lemon, lime, mustards and vinegars.
Drink and eat more dairy: You may have heard of the DASH diet. It is one of three diets studied by scientists at the National Institute of Health for their effects on high blood pressure. The DASH diet lowered blood pressure the most. It provided healthy amounts of grains, fruits and vegetables and, last but not least, three servings a day of low-fat dairy foods, which are high in calcium. Amazingly, the effect of the healthy eating plan on blood pressure made its impact in just two weeks. The effect on blood pressure for some people was nearly the same as taking one blood pressure medicine. Enjoy three 8-ounce glasses of milk or an equal serving of yogurt. Another high-calcium choice is one and half ounces of cheese or calcium-fortified juice. One serving of a high calcium food should contain at least 300 mg of calcium for a total of at least 1,000 mg a day. Women over 51 years old need 1,200 mg a day.
Shed a few pounds: Research shows that losing even 10 pounds can lower blood pressure. Weight loss has the best effect on blood pressure in people who are overweight and already have high blood pressure.
Eat more potassium: Because Americans don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables and dairy foods, they often don’t get enough potassium. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that adults should eat at least 4,700 mg of potassium per day. This amount can lower blood pressure, lessen the effects of too much sodium and salt and decrease the risk of heart disease, especially stroke. If you already have high blood pressure, or if you are black, you should aim for more than 4.700 mg of potassium.
Get enough potassium each day by eating 2 1/2 cups of vegetables, choosing high-potassium vegetables (broccoli, spinach, sweet potato or winter squash), eating two cups of fruit, choosing high-potassium fruits (oranges, cantaloupe, bananas and apricots) and eating three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy foods. (They are good sources of both potassium and calcium).
Try Sipping Only Moderate Amounts of Alcohol: A moderate amount of alcohol (that’s one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men on any given day) doesn’t seem to raise blood pressure. However, more than three drinks a day have been shown to raise blood pressure in men and women. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer (regular or light), 5 ounces of wine or 1 1/2 ounces of 80-proof distilled alcohol, such as whiskey, gin or rum.
Don’t smoke: Quit now! Smoking has been shown to injure blood vessel walls and speed up the process of hardening the arteries. Even though smoking doesn’t directly cause high blood pressure, it’s not healthy for anyone, especially people with high blood pressure. If you smoke, quit. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. You will reduce your risk of having a heart attack just one year after quitting.