What is high blood pressure?
High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when your blood pressure increases to unhealthy levels. Your blood pressure measurement takes into account how quickly blood is passing through your veins and the amount of resistance the blood meets while it’s pumping.
Narrow arteries increase resistance. The narrower your arteries are, the higher your blood pressure will be. Over the long term, increased pressure can cause health issues, including heart disease.
Hypertension is quite common. In fact, 75 million Americans are living with the condition. Hypertension may develop over the course of several years. During those years, you may not notice any symptoms. Even without symptoms, high blood pressure can cause damage to your arteries and blood vessels.
Early detection is important. Regular blood pressure readings can help you and your doctor notice any changes. If your blood pressure is elevated, your doctor may check your blood pressure over a few weeks to see if the number stays elevated or falls back to normal levels.
Treatment for hypertension includes both prescription medication and healthy lifestyle changes. If the condition isn’t treated, it could lead to health issues, including heart attack and stroke.
What are the symptoms of hypertension?
Hypertension is generally a silent condition. Many people will not experience any symptoms. It may take years or even decades for the condition to reach levels severe enough that symptoms become obvious. Even then, these symptoms may be attributed to other issues.
Symptoms of hypertension include:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- visual changes
- blood in the urine
These symptoms don’t occur in everyone with hypertension, but waiting for a symptom of this condition to appear could be fatal.
The best way to know if you have hypertension is to get regular blood pressure readings. Most doctors’ offices will take a blood pressure reading at every appointment.
If you only have a yearly physical, talk to your doctor about your risks for hypertension and other readings you may need to help watch your blood pressure.
For example, if you have a family history of heart disease or have risk factors for developing the condition, your many need to have your blood pressure checked twice a year. This will help you and your doctor stay on top of any possible issues before they become problematic.
What causes high blood pressure?
There are two types of hypertension. Each type has a different cause.
Primary hypertension is also called essential hypertension. This kind of hypertension develops over time with no identifiable cause.
Researchers are still unclear what mechanisms cause blood pressure to slowly increase. A combination of factors may play a role. These factors include:
Genes: Some people are genetically predisposed to hypertension. This may be from gene mutations or genetic abnormalities inherited from your parents.
Physical changes: If something in your body malfunctions, you may begin experiencing issues throughout your body. High blood pressure may be one of those issues.
For example, it’s thought that changes in your kidney function may upset the body’s natural balance of salts and fluid. This change may cause your body’s blood pressure to increase.
Environment: Over time, unhealthy lifestyle choices like lack of physical activity and poor diet can take their toll on your body. Lifestyle choices can lead to weight problems. Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for hypertension.
Secondary hypertension often occurs quickly and can become more severe than primary hypertension. Several conditions that may cause secondary hypertension include:
- kidney disease
- obstructive sleep apnea
- congenital heart defects
- problems with your thyroid
- side effects of medications
- use of illegal drugs
- alcohol abuse or chronic use
- adrenal gland problems
- certain endocrine tumors
Diagnosing high blood pressure
Diagnosing hypertension is as simple as taking a blood pressure reading. Most doctors’ offices check blood pressure as part of a routine visit. If you don’t receive a blood pressure reading at your next appointment, request one.
If your blood pressure is elevated, your doctor may request you have more readings over the course of a few days or weeks. A hypertension diagnosis is rarely given after just one reading. Your doctor needs to see evidence of a sustained problem. That’s because environmental conditions can contribute to increased blood pressure. Plus, blood pressure levels change throughout the day.
If your blood pressure remains high, your doctor will likely conduct more tests to rule out underlying conditions. These tests include:
- urine test
- cholesterol screening
- test of your heart’s electrical activity
These tests can help your doctor identify any secondary issues causing your elevated blood pressure.
During this time your doctor may begin treating your hypertension. Early treatment may reduce your risk of lasting damage.
How to understand high blood pressure readings
Two numbers create a blood pressure reading.
Systolic pressure: This is the first number. It indicates the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats and pumps out blood.
Diastolic pressure: This is the second number. It’s the reading of the pressure in your arteries between beats of your heart.
Four categories define blood pressure readings for adults:
- Healthy: A healthy blood pressure reading is 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
- Prehypertension: The systolic number is between 120 and 139 mm Hg, or the diastolic number is between 80 and 89 mm Hg. Doctors may not treat prehypertension with medication. Instead, your doctor may encourage lifestyle changes to help lower your numbers.
- Stage 1 hypertension: The systolic number is between 140 and 159 mm Hg, or the diastolic number is between 90 and 99 mm Hg.
- Stage 2 hypertension: This stage of hypertension is severe and dangerous. A systolic number over 160 mm Hg or a diastolic number over 100 mm Hg is a sign of an advanced stage of hypertension.
A blood pressure reading is taken with a pressure cuff. For an accurate reading, it’s important you have a cuff that fits. An ill-fitting cuff may deliver inaccurate readings. Blood pressure readings may be different for children and teenagers. Ask your child’s doctor for healthy ranges if you’re monitoring your child’s blood pressure.
Treatment options for high blood pressure
A number of factors help your doctor determine the best treatment option for you. These factors include which type of hypertension you have and what causes have been identified.
Primary hypertension treatment options
If your doctor diagnoses you with primary hypertension, lifestyle changes may help reduce your high blood pressure. If lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough, or if they stop being effective, your doctor may prescribe medication.
Secondary hypertension treatment options
When your doctor discovers the underlying issue causing your hypertension, treatment will focus on the other condition. For example, if a medicine you’ve started taking is causing increased blood pressure, your doctor will try other medicines that don’t have this side effect.
Sometimes, hypertension is persistent despite treatment for the underlying cause. In this case, your doctor may work with you to develop lifestyle changes and prescribe medications to help reduce your blood pressure.
Treatment plans for hypertension often evolve. What worked at first may stop working. Your doctor will continue to work with you to refine your treatment.
Medication for high blood pressure
Many people go through a trial-and-error phase with blood pressure medications. You may need to try different medicines until you find one that works for you.
Some of the medications used to treat hypertension include:
Beta-blockers: This type of medicine makes your heart beat slower and with less force. This reduces the amount of blood pumped through your arteries, which lowers blood pressure.
Diuretics: High sodium levels and excess fluid in your body can increase blood pressure. Diuretics, also called water pills, help your kidneys remove excess sodium from your body. As the sodium leaves, the amount of fluid in your blood decreases, which helps lower your blood pressure.
ACE inhibitors: Angiotensin is a chemical that causes blood vessels and artery walls to tighten and narrow. ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) inhibitors prevent the body from producing as much of this chemical. This helps blood vessels relax and reduces blood pressure.
Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs): While ACE inhibitors aim to stop the creation of angiotensin, ARBs block angiotensin from binding with receptors. Without the chemical, blood vessels won’t tighten. That helps relax vessels and lower blood pressure.
Calcium channel blockers: Excess calcium in the smooth muscles of your heart causes harder, stronger heartbeats. Reduce the calcium, and the force of the heartbeats will also decrease. That helps lower blood pressure and relaxes arteries and blood vessels.
Alpha-2 agonists: This type of medication slows the nerve impulses that cause blood vessels to tighten. This helps muscles relax, which reduces blood pressure.
Home remedies for high blood pressure
Healthy lifestyle changes can help you control the factors that cause hypertension.
The most common home remedies include:
Developing a healthy diet
A heart-healthy diet is vital for helping reduce high blood pressure. It’s also important for managing hypertension that is under control, and reducing the risk of complications. These complications include heart disease, stroke, and heart attack.
A heart-healthy diet emphasizes foods that include:
- whole grains
- lean proteins like fish
Increasing physical activity
Reaching a healthy weight should include being more physically active. In addition to helping you shed pounds, exercise can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure naturally, and strengthen your cardiovascular system.
Aim to get 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. That’s about 30 minutes five times per week.
Reaching a healthy weight
If you are overweight or obese, losing weight can help lower your blood pressure.
Exercise is a great way to manage stress. Other activities can also be helpful. These include:
- deep breathing
- muscle relaxation
These are all proven stress-reducing techniques. Getting adequate sleep can also help reduce stress levels.
Adopting a cleaner lifestyle
If you’re a smoker, try to quit. Tobacco damages and hardens blood vessel walls. If you regularly consume too much alcohol or have an alcohol dependency, seek help to reduce the amount you drink or stop altogether. Alcohol can raise blood pressure.
Dietary recommendations for people with high blood pressure
One of the easiest ways you can treat hypertension and prevent possible complications is through your diet. What you eat can go a long way in easing or eliminating hypertension.
The most common dietary recommendations for people with hypertension include:
Eat less meat, more plants
A plant-based diet is an easy way to reduce the amount of sodium and saturated and trans fat you take in from dairy foods and meat. Increase the number of fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, and grains you’re eating. Instead of red meat, opt for healthier lean proteins like fish and poultry.
Reduce dietary sodium
People with hypertension and those with an increased risk for heart disease should aim to keep their daily sodium intake around 1,500 milligrams. The best way to reduce sodium is to cook more often. Avoid eating restaurant food or prepackaged foods, which are often very high in sodium.
Cut back on sweets
Sugary foods and beverages contain empty calories but don’t have nutritional content. If you want something sweet, try eating fresh fruit or small amounts of dark chocolate that hasn’t been sweetened with sugar. Studies suggest eating dark chocolate may reduce blood pressure.
High blood pressure during pregnancy
Women with hypertension can deliver healthy babies despite having the condition. But it can be dangerous to both mother and baby if it’s not monitored and treated during the pregnancy.
Women with high blood pressure are more likely to develop complications. For example, pregnant women with hypertension may experience decreased kidney function. Babies born to mothers with hypertension may have a low birth weight or be born prematurely.
Some women may develop hypertension during their pregnancies. This condition is called gestational hypertension. It often reverses itself once the baby is born. Developing hypertension during pregnancy may increase your risk for developing hypertension later in life.
In some cases, pregnant women with hypertension may develop preeclampsia during their pregnancy. This condition increases blood pressure and causes kidney problems that result in increased protein levels in the urine.
As this condition worsens, the risks increase for the mother and baby. Preeclampsia can lead to eclampsia, which causes seizures. It’s the second leading cause of maternal death in the United States. Complications for the baby include low birth weight, early birth, and stillbirth.
There is no known way to prevent preeclampsia, and the only way to treat the condition is to deliver the baby. If you develop this condition during your pregnancy, your doctor will closely monitor you for complications.
What are the effects of high blood pressure on the body?
Because hypertension is often a silent condition, it can cause damage to your body for years before symptoms become obvious. If hypertension isn’t treated, you may face serious, even fatal, complications.
Complications of hypertension include:
Healthy arteries are flexible and strong. Blood flows freely and unobstructed through healthy arteries and vessels. Hypertension makes arteries tougher, tighter, and less elastic.
Dietary fats may deposit in your arteries and restrict blood flow. This damage can lead to increased blood pressure, and eventually heart attack, aneurysm, and stroke.
Hypertension makes your heart work too hard. The increased pressure in your blood vessels forces your heart’s muscles to pump more frequently and with more force than a healthy heart should have to.
This may cause an enlarged heart. An enlarged heart increases your risk for the following:
- heart failure
- sudden cardiac death
- heart attack
Your brain relies on a healthy supply of oxygen-rich blood to work properly. High blood pressure can reduce your brain’s supply of blood. This can lead to severe and even fatal complications like a transient ischemic attack or stroke. Uncontrolled hypertension may also affect your memory and ability to learn, recall, speak, and reason.
Treating hypertension often doesn’t erase or reverse the effects of uncontrolled hypertension. It does, however, lower and possibly eliminate the risks for future problems.
High blood pressure: Tips for prevention
If you have risk factors for hypertension, you can take steps now to prevent the condition:
Add healthy foods to your diet
Slowly work your way up to eating more servings of heart-healthy plants. Aim to eat more than seven servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Then aim to add one more serving per day for two weeks. After those two weeks, aim to add one more serving.
Adjust how you think of the average dinner plate
Instead of having meat and three sides, create a dish that uses meat as a condiment. In other words, instead of eating a steak with a side salad, eat a bigger salad and top it with a smaller portion of steak.
Try to incorporate fewer sugar-sweetened foods, including flavored yogurts, cereals, and sodas. Packaged foods hide unnecessary sugar, so be sure to read labels.
Set weight loss goals
Instead of an arbitrary goal to “lose weight,” write down a number you’d like to hit. Be realistic. Then decide on what you need to do to reach that goal. If exercising five nights a week is too hard to work into your schedule, aim for one more night than what you’re doing right now. When that fits comfortably into your schedule, add another night.
Monitor your blood pressure regularly
The best way to prevent complications and avoid problems is to catch hypertension early. You can come into your doctor’s office for a blood pressure reading, or your doctor may ask you to purchase a blood pressure cuff and take readings at home.
Keep a log of your blood pressure readings, and take it to your regular doctor appointments. This can help your doctor see any possible problems before the condition advances.