Derek Burnett is a Contributing Writer at Bottom Line Personal, where he writes frequently on health and wellness. He is also a contributing editor with Reader’s Digest magazine.
If you’ve just learned that you have high blood pressure, you may feel a sudden sense of urgency and alarm, especially as you’ve come to understand the long-term health effects of hypertension. It’s completely normal to want to fix the problem as quickly as you can, which is why many people, after a hypertension diagnosis, find themselves looking around for tricks to lower blood pressure instantly.
Take a deep breath. Your doctor will help you come up with a plan to manage your blood pressure, which will likely include both lifestyle changes and medication. Over time, you should be able to get your blood pressure under control. Meanwhile, here are six easy tricks to get you started on your blood-pressure journey.
One of the easier dietary tricks to lower blood pressure is to make the switch from refined grains, such as white bread and white rice, to whole grains. A study by researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University found that, among the 3,100 participants (in their mid-50s, on average), those who ate the most whole grains had significantly lower systolic blood pressure (“the top number”) than those who ate the least. The same study found several other benefits to whole grains, including smaller waist size, lower blood sugar and lower triglycerides.
If you’ve developed a real taste for refined grains over a lifetime, switching might seem difficult. But for many people, after a brief adjustment period, whole grains become more appealing than refined grains. Cold turkey might not work, so try switching a little at a time. If you usually have two slices of toast in the morning, make one refined and the other whole-grain until you’re ready to give up the white bread completely.
No, a glass of water isn’t going to immediately lower your blood pressure. But staying hydrated has been repeatedly associated with better general health, including lowered risk of heart failure. And when you replace sugary drinks with water for staying hydrated, you lower your risk of obesity, which indeed is linked to hypertension.
You don’t need to purchase bottled water. Most tap water in the US is perfectly safe. Some people have gotten so out of the habit of drinking water that it no longer tastes good to them. If that applies to you, you’ll be unlikely to succeed if your goal is to immediately replace all other drinks with water. Instead, start out by substituting one such drink per day, then two, and so on until you come to look forward to how water tastes and how it makes you feel.
With aging, a vicious cycle often sets in. People find it harder to exercise, so they spend more time sitting. And the more time they spend sitting, the less they exercise. And the less they exercise, the harder exercise feels…so the more time they spend sitting. And so on. Meanwhile, people become obese, their blood pressure increases, and they lose muscle mass.
You don’t need to become an ultramarathoner to disrupt that cycle. You just need to move more than you’re moving now. That can be as simple as standing and folding laundry for a half-hour TV show instead of sitting to watch it. Or, instead of retreating to the easy chair after a meal, taking a five-minute stroll. If you live in a walkable community, choose to be a pedestrian for short trips instead of taking a car or public transportation. You can even cut a minute or two of sitting time by parking at the back of the lot so that you have to do some walking to get into the store. When you do those things, you begin to replace the vicious cycle with a virtuous one: The more you move, the easier movement becomes. Take advantage of that upward trend by gradually increasing these forms of light exercise to help you lower your blood pressure. Once it feels good to move, you can take up a more formal exercise program (If you have cardiovascular disease, talk to your doctor beforehand). But it begins with the simple decision to sit less.
Breathing exercises can lower your blood pressure both in the moment and in the long term, by calming the body’s stress response. Simple meditation, done for just a few minutes a day, can be very effective. You simply sit quietly and try to keep your focus on your breath. That’s harder than it sounds, but don’t give up and don’t get frustrated. You’ll reap benefits just by calmly directing and redirecting your consciousness onto your breathing.
You can also lower blood pressure when you’re stressed out by doing what’s called “box breathing”: In through your nose for the count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, repeat.
Alcoholic beverages can cause both short-term and long-term increases in blood pressure. If you have a serious drinking problem, you’ll need to get help and stop drinking altogether. But many casual drinkers, especially those who don’t carefully monitor their intake, may be unaware of just how much they’re drinking and how much damage that can do to their health, including their blood pressure. Experts used to recommend that people limit their intake to two drinks per day, but now the recommendation is one drink at the most. In fact, all drinking is now considered detrimental to your health. Because drinking is so clearly tied to hypertension, if you regularly consume two drinks per day, simply cutting back to one could give you an immediate jump-start on lowering your blood pressure.
Making even modest lifestyle changes to manage blood pressure can be difficult, especially if your new habits feel like a chore. One helpful tip is to picture yourself doing something that’s important to you at some point in the future. Maybe it’s your child’s graduation ceremony in six months, a trip to Europe in two years, or playing with great-grandchildren 20 years from now. Imagine it in great detail, revel in the thought of it, and then remind yourself that the steps you’re taking today will help get you to that event in healthy, vibrant condition. Whenever you’re wavering, call on that mental image to help you make the right choices.