The Number 1 Risk Factor For Early Death Is High Blood Pressure
But you can definitely do something about it to get it down, so please read on!
The number one risk factor for dying early is having high blood pressure (1).
This is because it causes so many problems with your cardiovascular system – it wreaks total havoc over time by putting tremendous strain on your heart and all the blood vessels throughout your body. Problems resulting for high blood pressure include:
- Angina, heart attacks, and heart failure
- Kidney failure
What Is High Blood Pressure?
When you have your blood pressure measured – ask what it is, because it’s important you know how you’re doing with this.
Ideal and healthy BP is 120/80 and below, for all adults, regardless of age.
High blood pressure is 140/90 and above. The higher it is, the higher your risk of it debilitating or killing you early. Blunt I know, but that’s the reality for some people if nothing is done to bring it down.
Anything in between is considered ‘pre-hypertensive’, and if you don’t make changes you’ll end up with high blood pressure given time.
Is It Normal For Blood Pressure To Increase With Age?
With age BP tends to get higher and higher. A lot of people (doctors included) assume that this is a normal part of getting older – just like getting grey hair and wrinkles in your skin.
However – this doesn’t actually appear to be true…
In 1920s a study was done comparing the BP of native Kenyans with Americans and Europeans (2). Up until age 40 the BP of the Kenyans remained similar to that of the Americans and Europeans, averaging 125/80 – but after that things changed.
Westerners BP increased the older they got, but by the age of 65 the Kenyans BP have dropped to an average of 110/70!
As they got older native Kenyans BP actually got lower – was this due to their significantly different diet?
They were eating an unrefined plant-based diet. By contrast the Western diet was a lot different – refined ‘food’ was creeping in at an increasing pace, and obviously meat and dairy were already fully part of the diet.
Since then the Western diet has become more refined and even more meat and dairy are consumed.
What Effect Does Diet Have On Blood Pressure?
In the West the only group of people who are able to routinely achieve healthy blood pressure levels as they get older are vegetarians (3).
Even more interesting is that there is a stepwise reduction in blood pressure rates with the less animal-based food you eat.
A study looked at people who ate meat more than once per week (4) and compared their risk of having high blood pressure to people eating differently. The results might surprise you:
- Those eating meat a few times per month = 23% lower rates of high BP
- Those eating no meat, but eating fish = 38% lower rates of high BP
- Those eating no meat or fish = 55% lower rates of high BP
- Those eating no meat, fish, eggs or dairy = 75% lower rates of high BP
People eating a fully plant-based diet cut their risk of the number one killer by a whopping 75%!
However, vegans tend to be a lot slimmer than meat and dairy eaters so maybe body weight has something to do with it?
An interesting study was done to look at this (5).
Researchers took a group of people eating the standard American diet who were as slim as an average vegan – endurance runners clocking up an average of 48 miles per week. This meat and dairy eating group of runners were compared to sedentary meat eaters and sedentary vegans. The vegans were eating an unprocessed plant-based diet.
Unsurprisingly the runners had a better BP (average 112/72) than the sedentary meat eaters (average 132/79 – i.e. above normal and heading for high blood pressure).
But what about the coach potato vegans? Their average BP was 104/62. Lower than the super fit runners!!
What you chose to eat appears to have a powerful effect on your BP.
Easy Steps to Begin Lowering Your BP
Nitric Oxide (NO) is a biological messenger, and when it’s released by the cells lining your arteries it causes the blood vessels to relax and open up – making the flow of blood easier.
Without enough NO your arteries get stiff – which increases your blood pressure.
Lack of antioxidants is a big reason your NO levels would be low. The typical refined Western diet seriously lack antioxidants.
By eating plenty of antioxidant rich food (unprocessed plant-based food with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables) you’ll get what you need to have enough NO to keep you arteries relaxed, and your BP healthy.
In addition to needing plenty of antioxidants you also need the building blocks to make NO. Some foods are especially good at boosting levels of NO because they are rich in nitrates (and nitrates are converted to NO).
One food that contains a lot of nitrates is beetroot and the British Heart Foundation funded a study on its effects on high blood pressure (6). Half of the people in the study were given 125ml of beetroot juice daily for 4 weeks. The other half were give something that looked and tasted the same, but wasn’t beetroot.
The BP of the beetroot group went down and the benefits grew as time went on.
The conclusion of this study – “nitrate rich vegetables may prove to be both cost effective, affordable, and favourable for a public health approach to hypertension”.
There are other foods with even higher levels of nitrate than beetroot, including:
- Spring greens
Salt and Your Blood Pressure
For most of human evolution it’s likely that we ate a diet low in salt – at least relative to what we eat now. In addition to that most people don’t drink enough water for their body to be able to deal with the excess salt they may be eating, which compounds the problem.
For most people eating a typical Western diet, most of their salt comes from processed and pre-packaged ‘food’.
The food industry adds loads of dirt cheap refined sugar and salt to their products to make it taste ok, and to increase the shelf life. This gets people hooked on hyper sweet and hyper salty ‘food’, and dampens their taste buds so much that natural food can be perceived as tasteless.
If you eat processed ‘foods’, you’re likely to be eating too much salt. And you might be surprised by where your biggest source of salt is coming from, depending on your age (8):
- Teens = pizza
- 25 – 50 years = chicken!
- over 50 = bread (unless you make your own and control the salt content)
Maybe you’re surprised by the chicken?
Chicken is commonly injected with salt water to increase the weight (and how much they sell for) (9).
People eating at whole-food plant-based diet largely avoid this lot.
What Can You Do To Reduce Blood Pressure?
If you have high blood pressure you can see that there is a lot you can do without medication to help yourself and get your blood pressure down.
However, if you are already on medication DO NOT stop them! Making lifestyle changes will reduce your BP over time and it may be possible to reduce and even stop your pills at some point, but you’ll need to work with your doctor.
If you haven’t had a BP check within the last 12 months – get one! If it’s really, really high you may need pills to control it initially, to make you safer. But longer term you can help yourself and possibly come off them.
Getting a blood pressure check is easy to ignore and put off. It’s easy to assume you’re ok if you feel ok. And that’s the problem with high blood pressure because it often has no symptoms until it’s too late.
High blood pressure’s other name is ‘the silent killer’, because your first warning can be your last.
Take this really seriously. If you haven’t had a BP check in a while see a nurse at your surgery or pop into a pharmacist and get it checked. If it’s over 120/80 and you care about your health – it’s time to take action.
Although a lot of people are on blood pressure lowering drugs I would argue that high blood pressure is not a deficiency in blood pressure medications, it’s also not a natural part of getting older. It comes down to your choice of lifestyle and diet.
Research has shown that eating animal products is linked to higher blood pressure. It has also shown that an unprocessed plant-based diet results in significantly lower blood pressure. Basically the less animal-based food you eat, the better your BP is likely to be.
Eating unprocessed food with an abundance and variety of fruit and vegetables, along with wholegrains, seeds and nuts, and legumes could be your main ticket to lowering your blood pressure.
Other things that push your blood pressure up include too much alcohol, caffeine, smoking, and stress. Look at what you’re doing here, but if you really want to make a big impact on your blood pressure it’s your diet that needs your main focus – you’ll get you biggest win making changes here.
Any questions or comments? There’s a box below, I’d love to hear from you.
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(1) Bromfield S, Munter P. High blood pressure: the leading global burden of disease risk factor and the need for worldwide prevention programs. Curr Hypertens Rep 2013
(2) Donnison CP. Blood pressure in the African native. Lancet 1929
(3) Sacks FM, Kass EH. Low blood pressure in vegetarians: effects of specific food and nutrients. Am J Clin Nutr 1988
(4) Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets: what do we know of there effects on common chronic diseases? Am J Clin Nutr 2009
(5) Fontana L, Meyer TE, Klein S, Holloszy JO. Long-term low calorie low protein vegan diet and endurance exercise are associated with lower cardio-metabolic risk. Rejuvenation Res 2007
(6) Kapil V, Khambata RS, Robertson A, Caulfield MJ, Ahluwalia A. Dietary nitrate provides sustained blood pressure lowering in hypertensive patients. Hypertension 2015
(7) Lozano R, Naghavi M, Foreman K, et al. Global and regional mortality from 235 causes of death for 20 age groups on 1990 and 2010. Lancet 2012
(8) Drewnowski A, Rehm CD. Sodium intakes of US children and adults from foods and beverages by location and origin by specific food course. Nutrients 2013
(9) Swallow This. Joanna Blythman