If you have hypertension — high blood pressure — you may think that the only way to control it is to take a drug. But did you know that many classes of hypertension drugs have serious side effects?
For instance, beta blockers — such as Lopressor and Toprol-XL (metoprolol), Tenormin (atenolol) and Bystolic (nebivolol) — can slow the heart rate down too much, may cause depression, insomnia, or cold hands and feet, can worsen asthma symptoms, lead to impotence and increase risk of bronchospasm. ACE (angiotensin-converting enzymes) inhibitors, including Lotensin (benazepril), Vasotec (enalapril) and Prinvil/Zestril (lisinopril), may cause skin rashes, loss of taste or a chronic cough.
And calcium channel blockers — such as Norvasc (amlodipine), Cardizem (diltiazem) and Verelan (verapamil) — may lead to palpitations, swollen ankles, constipation, headaches and dizziness.
While medications may be needed in some cases, South Florida cardiologist Adam Splaver, MD, of Nano Health Associates suggests there are a range of effective treatment options available that can help you reduce hypertension naturally.
“Aerobic exercise, dynamic resistance exercise, isometric hand grip, transcendental meditation, stress reduction, as well as biofeedback devices such as RESPeRATE and Spire, are wonderful non-pharmacological modalities that can effectively lower your blood pressure,” he says.
“These modalities can offer great results in real life. And studies have shown they may reduce your systolic blood pressure [top number] by up to 15-20 mmHg,” adds Dr. Splaver.
Doctors are usually happy to support alternatives to drugs, but since hypertension is a serious medical condition, it’s best to get their advice on whether these options are safe to use alone or as an addition to medication.
Engaging in regular exercise, around 30 minutes most days of the week, is key to maintaining a healthy blood pressure, as well as improving your overall cardiovascular health.
Either aerobic exercise (speed walking, jogging, running, dancing, cycling, swimming), strength training (weight lifting and circuit training), or both can improve your cardiovascular well-being. Exercise strengthens the structure of arteries and positively influences the autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions that you don’t consciously think about, such as regulating blood pressure, breathing, heartbeat and digestion.
Just be aware that for uncontrolled, severe hypertension (a blood pressure reading equal to or above 180/110 mmHg), exercise may not be recommended due to the changes in blood pressure that occur during and after exercise.
“It’s always best to consult with your physician to ensure you are medically cleared to perform such exercise programs,” advises Dr. Splaver.
Change Your Diet
“At 80, my mother was released to hospice care with 10% heart function. Being too weak to go home, I brought her to my house,” says Meg Donahue, referring to her mother, Millie. “After doing research, we decided to try changing her diet to a whole foods, plant-based diet. Because my mother was so weak, at first we fed her tiny smoothies and blended soups.
“Over the next year, she gradually gained strength. And now, at the age of 86, her heart function and blood pressure are near normal. She swims 4 times a week, drives, and plays with her granddaughter daily,” adds Donahue. “It sounds like a miracle, but really the only miracle is we changed what she ate from foods that harm to foods that heal.”
Regular exercise, following a more healthy diet, and engaging in mediation and deep breathing can have health benefits beyond lowering blood pressure.
Indeed, studies have shown that whole food diets such as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet and the Mediterranean diet reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health.
Both diets are rich in natural, whole foods sources — fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans and low-fat dairy products. The diets minimize added salt and sugar and provide ample nutrients in the way of vitamins and minerals, particularly potassium.
Some studies have indicated that those who consume more potassium have significantly lower blood pressure. And it is well known that lowering the amount of sodium in your diet helps reduce blood pressure levels. Many processed foods have high amounts of salt in them, so try to avoid them as much as you can.
There are also indications that certain nuts, seeds, seaweed and even coconut water and dark chocolate can help bring down blood pressure. Coconut is high in electrolytes, including potassium. One study found that drinking coconut water led to a 71% drop in systolic blood pressure. Dark chocolate is thought to lower blood pressure because it is rich in substances known as flavanols, which promote nitric oxide production in the body. The chemical widens blood vessels, reducing blood pressure.
Relax and Breathe Deeper
“Despite being fairly young, physically active, vegan, and otherwise healthy, I was diagnosed with hypertension in 2013,” says Harley Sears, a hypnotist based in Kansas City, Mo., who has hypertension. “Because of my family history of high blood pressure, my doctor said there was little I could do to manage the condition and prescribed lisinopril. While I was reluctant, I immediately began the medication and my blood pressure returned to normal that evening.
“It didn’t take long to experience side effects from the drug and I developed an annoying cough that interfered with my work,” he noted. “Despite my doctor’s objections that it wouldn’t work, I began practicing daily meditation. Within 5 months, I was taken off the lisinopril and my blood pressure has stayed consistently normal for the past 4 years,” adds Sears.
Meditation is a relaxation technique that produces both muscle relaxation and mindful awareness that help people manage stress. Another important aspect that meditation influences is breathing.
Combining the effects of deep breathing, muscle relaxation and mindfulness influences the autonomic nervous system, slowing down heart rate and reducing blood pressure.
RESPeRATE is an FDA-approved device for blood pressure and stress reduction. A strap is placed around the chest, headphones are put on the ears, and then the strap and headphones connect to the device. RESPeRATE then creates a musical tone that mimics your inhalation and exhalation. As you listen to the tone, your breathing matches the pattern and the device slowly guides you toward slower, deeper breathing. For lowering blood pressure, you only need to use the device for about 15 minutes a day.
Spire is a small device you attach to your belt that feeds data on your activity and breathing rate into an app, to help you identify stress patterns and adjust your behaviors. The app lets you know when your breathing is faster than usual, encouraging you to calm down. This, in turn, can help lower your blood pressure.
“While all people will experience varying results with using non-pharmacological strategies, real life and scientific evidence both reinforce the idea that staying active, exercising, breathing and stress reduction techniques, as well as losing weight, can — and should — be part of anyone’s healthy lifestyle,” concludes Dr. Splaver.
Jedha Dening (MNutr) is a freelance health writer, copywriter, and research reporter with a passion for crafting compelling stories that make a difference.