By JOSEPH STRONGOI, Contributing Columnist
Blood pressure is the pressure, or tension exerted on the walls of your blood vessels ---veins, arteries, and capillaries --- by the circulation of your blood. Blood pressure is one of the vital signs along with heart rate, body temperature, oxygen saturation, and respiratory rate.
Blood pressure can vary depending on certain fixed factors, such as age, race, ethnicity and gender, and depending on circumstantial situations, such as exercise, sleep, digestion, and emotional reactions.
Blood pressure can even fluctuate from minute to minute, and generally exhibits a circadian rhythm over a 24-hour period. Blood pressure generally tends to be highest in the afternoons and lowest at night.
What Is a Healthy Range for Your Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is measured with two numbers, and expressed in fraction form (although it isn’t actually a fraction), e.g. 120/80. The first number is your systolic blood pressure, and represents the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart contracts, or beats.
The second number refers to your diastolic blood pressure, which measures the pressure when your heart is at rest, between beats. The systolic number will always be the higher of the two numbers, as it measures the pressure when the blood is actually being pumped.
The CDC advises that you should keep your blood pressure as close to 120/80 as possible. Top numbers (systolic) over 120 put you at risk for hypertension, and any number at 140 or above means you officially have high blood pressure. Diastolic numbers over 80 put you at risk and numbers at 90 or above mean you have high blood pressure )gives the following guideline for Blood Pressure Levels:
How Do I Keep My Blood Pressure In Check?
According to the CDC, about 1 in 3 U.S. adults, or 70 million people, suffer from high blood pressure. Another 70 million have pre-hypertension. Only about half (52%) have their condition under control. The CDC estimates high blood pressure annual costs at around $46 billion, in health care services, medications, and missed days of work. Keeping your blood pressure in check is extremely important, because chronic high levels can lead to a plethora of conditions, including cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, stroke, heart attack, chronic heart failure, and kidney disease.
The standard ways to keep your blood pressure under control are the same intuitive measures that keep your body healthy in general. For example, keep your weight down: a 2009 study at the University of Pennsylvania found that with each point increase in BMI your risk for isolated diastolic hypertension increased by 6%.
Regular exercise is important, too: A 1996 study found that sticking to an exercise regimen can reduce diastolic blood pressure by up to 9 points in men.
And none of these measures would do much good without a healthy diet: a 2005 study by Dr. CA Nowson at Deakin University in Australia found that a diet of veggies, lean meats, fruit, low-fat dairy foods, and limited salt can lower diastolic BP by up to 7%. The CDC estimates that reducing the average amount of salt in your diet from 3,400 mg/day to 2,300 mg/day could reduce yearly cases of high BP by $11 million, and save $18 billion health care dollars annually.
But these measures don’t ‘count’ as unusual --- to lead a healthy, happy lifestyle, you should be doing them already.
The following are the top 5 outside-the-box ways to reduce your blood pressure, to be practiced in addition to weight control, a healthy diet, and regular exercise.
A 2005 experiment by Dr. KC Light et al., at the University of North Carolina studied the effects of partner hugging and warm contact on 59 premenopausal women.
The researchers found that frequent hugs between spouses/partners were associated with lower blood pressure.
The authors suggest the mechanism behind this phenomenon is oxytocin release in the brain, a neurotransmitter associated with love and physical affection. Hug your friends and family upon greeting them and when you say your good-byes to increase your oxytocin and decrease your blood pressure.
A 2012 literature review at the University of Rostock in Germany surveyed the wide-ranging and profound effects of human-animal interactions and animal assisted therapies, including benefits for interpersonal interactions, mood, heart rate, fear, anxiety, and stress, among other things.
Notable for our purposes here was the dramatic effect that the presence of a furry friend has on blood pressure.
The authors highlighted a 2011 study that showed that stroking ones’ own dog for just 3 minutes led to decreased heart rates and BP up to 55 minutes later.
Another study subjected patients to two stressors (an arithmetic task, and putting the hand into icewater for 2 minutes).
When these tasks were completed in the presence of pets, the patients exhibited significantly lower heart rate and blood pressure before the task, and less increase in reaction to the stressor and a faster recovery afterwards.
Researchers suggest that the calming effect of having pets is due to oxytocin, similar to the hugs in the study above. It would appear then, that having a pet is akin to being wrapped in a perpetual hug. I’m sure most cat and dog owners would agree.
Much has been made of the famed Mozart Effect on numerous functions in humans and experimental animals. There have even been theories indicating that playing Mozart’s music to plants increases their robustness and fertility.
Here to separate the myth from the reality, a 2009 study by Dr. HY Yang et al., found that playing Mozart to a group of 41 older adults made reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressure that were statistically and clinically significant. The authors suggested that the music reduced stress via a reduction in sympathetic arousal, which in turn lead to a decreased heart rate and a lower BP.
Different types of tea can have powerful effects on your blood pressure. A 2010 study by Dr. DL McKay et al., at Tufts University found that Hibiscus Tea lowered cholesterol and both systolic and diastolic blood pressure significantly.
A 2014 study at the Chengdu Medical College in China on green tea, and a 2015 study by Dr. D. Grassi at the University of L’Aquila in Italy on black tea found that these teas contain potent flavonoids which have vasodilator effects, in effect dilating your veins and consequently lowering BP.
A 2004 study at the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan found that daily consumption of oolong or green tea can lower risk of hypertension by 46%.
A 2014 study by Dr. Richard Weller et al., at the University of Edinburgh found that getting more sunshine can lower your blood pressure, even before Vitamin D production takes effect.
Specifically, UVA irradiation converts nitrates stored in the skin into nitric oxide, which dilates arterial veins, thus lowering your blood pressure and alleviating hypertension. The authors suggest that this mechanism might be behind latitudinal and seasonal variations in blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.