So, you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure (aka hypertension); but you feel fine. Here is why it is important to take this diagnosis seriously. Before implementing anything discussed in this article, it is important to speak with your treating physician about your unique situation.
What is hypertension?
First of all, it is helpful to understand the diagnosis. Let’s use the plumbing in your home as an example. You have pipes in the walls that allow water to travel to your sink, toilet, and shower. If there is too little water pressure, then the sink will only have a trickle of water or it may not have any water flowing at all. On the other hand, if there’s too much pressure, the joints in the pipes can become strained and leak or even burst.
In the body, our arteries and veins are similar to the pipes in your home. The arteries travel away from the heart carrying the oxygen-rich blood to supply nutrients to our tissues. The veins travel away from the tissues with the oxygen-poor blood to return it to the heart (the pump) via the lungs (the oxygenator) so that it can pick up more fuel. In the case of high blood pressure, there is too much pressure on the blood vessel walls. In response, the blood vessels thicken so that they can support the pressure, which ultimately narrows the opening for the blood to flow and creates a cycle of increasing blood pressure. High blood pressure results from a combination of how much blood the heart is pumping and how narrow the arteries are through which the blood flows.
How do you know I have high blood pressure?
High blood pressure is generally diagnosed by your treating medical provider. It is diagnosed by taking your blood pressure, which consists of two numbers. The first number is the systolic pressure (the top number), and the second number is the diastolic pressure (the bottom number). The systolic pressure measures the resistance in the blood vessels when the heart is pumping blood. The diastolic pressure measures the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart is relaxing and refilling with blood.
What are the most dangerous things that can happen if I decide not to do anything about my high blood pressure?
Well, hypertension is called the “silent killer” for good reason. Having untreated or undertreated high blood pressure can lead to major health problems such as heart attacks, strokes, and arrhythmias – which can cause serious negative outcomes and even death.
Heart attacks (or myocardial infarctions) can occur as a reaction to high blood pressure. When the heart has to work extra hard to pump against the increased pressure in the arteries, it can require more oxygen to do its job than it has available to it – leading to a heart attack.
Strokes can also occur as a response to high blood pressure. In response to high blood pressure, the arteries become thickened and less flexible via a process called atherosclerosis. When this happens, the artery channels become narrow so less blood reaches tissues such as the brain, causing a stroke. Additionally, a small piece of the atherosclerotic plaque can break off and travel to the brain, causing a blockage of the smaller blood vessels leading to a stroke.
Arrhythmias occur when the heart physically changes its size and/or shape in response to high blood pressure. Because it needs more strength to push against the increased pressure, the heart can respond by thickening the muscle walls or by growing in size. These changes allow the heart to pump more blood out to the body. But, when the heart physically changes, it can sometimes alter the electrical impulses in the walls of the heart muscle that control the rate and the rhythm of the heartbeat. When this happens, the heart can sometimes stop beating regularly, which is called an arrhythmia. There are many different types of arrhythmias, but some can develop without warning and be fatal.
Sometimes a heart attack, stroke, or arrhythmia can occur without any warning signs or symptoms, which is why high blood pressure is called the silent killer. That is not to say that if you have a stroke or a heart attack that it is always fatal, but prevention is a much better strategy.
High blood pressure might be called the silent killer, but are there really no symptoms?
Well, not exactly. Many people with hypertension feel absolutely fine. Some symptoms that may be related to a diagnosis of hypertension include headaches, vision changes, nausea, vomiting, confusion, anxiety, chest pain, and more. If you know that you have high blood pressure and you develop any of these symptoms, it is important to contact your treating medical provider for advice about what to do.
How can I lower my blood pressure?
It is important to speak with your treating provider about your risk factors and treatment options, but some lifestyle changes to think about include:
If you carry more weight around, it means that there is simply more of you that needs oxygenated blood to keep living. Therefore, the heart has to pump more blood, and just the act of moving more volume around can increase your blood pressure.
Improving your Diet
Diet is an important part of living a healthy lifestyle. Eating higher amounts of trans and saturated fats can contribute to high blood pressure whereas eating more fruits and vegetables can improve high blood pressure.
If you don’t currently exercise much, starting an exercise program may help improve your blood pressure readings. When you don’t exercise regularly, your heart rate is higher at rest, which means that your heart must work harder, and this puts more pressure on your arteries.
Decreasing or Quitting Tobacco
Smoking has many negative effects on health. Blood pressure temporarily increases while actually smoking. Beyond these immediate effects, smoking also causes damage to the walls of the arteries, which can lead to narrower channels. Having smaller diameter arteries is one way that our blood pressure becomes elevated.
Decreasing Salt Intake
When we eat a lot of salt (or sodium), it causes our body to retain extra fluid. Again, extra fluid in the body is more volume that our heart has to pump around, which increases blood pressure.
Part of the stress response is to raise our blood pressure. This is a natural response that the body has developed to stress so that we could run away from the tiger chasing us. Our body hasn’t learned that modern stress is mostly in our minds and rarely someone chasing or planning to hurt us; however, the body still responds by raising blood pressure.
Many of us are familiar with the old proverb: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Be sure to continue to see your treating physician so that if you do develop high blood pressure, it can be caught early. In the meantime, consider which lifestyle modifications might be most easily implemented in your routine so that you can keep that hypertension away.