Although it causes no symptoms, high blood pressure boosts the risks of leading killers such as heart attack and stroke, as well as aneurysms, cognitive decline and kidney failure. Twenty-eight percent of Americans have high blood pressure and don't know it, according to the American Heart Association.
Here are ten simple ways (excerpted from Dallas-Fort Worth Star Telegram) to lower blood pressure.
1. Go for power walks
Hypertensive patients who went for fitness walks at a brisk pace lowered pressure by almost 8 mmhg over 6 mmhg. Exercise helps the heart use oxygen more efficiently, so it doesn't work as hard to pump blood.
2. Breathe deeply
Slow breathing and meditative practices such as qigong, yoga and tai chi decrease stress hormones, which elevate renin, a kidney enzyme that raises blood pressure. Try five minutes in the morning and at night.
3. Pick potassium-rich produce
Loading up on potassium-rich fruits and vegetables is an important part of any blood pressure-lowering program, says Linda Van Horn, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Aim for potassium levels of 2,000 to 4,000 milligrams a day, she says. Top sources of potassium-rich produce include sweet potatoes, tomatoes, orange juice, potatoes, bananas, kidney beans, peas, cantaloupe, honeydew melon and dried fruits such as prunes and raisins.
4. Read food labels for sodium
Certain groups of people -- the elderly, African-Americans and those with a family history of high blood pressure -- are more likely than others to have blood pressure that's particularly sodium-sensitive. But because there's no way to tell whether any one individual is sodium-sensitive, everyone should lower his sodium intake, says Eva Obarzanek, a research nutritionist at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How far? To 1,500 milligrams daily, about half the average American intake, she says. (Half a teaspoon of salt contains about 1,200 milligrams of sodium.)
Cutting sodium means more than going easy on the saltshaker, which contributes just 15 percent of the sodium in the typical American diet. Watch for sodium in processed foods, Obarzanek warns. That's where most of the sodium in your diet comes from, she says. Season foods with spices, herbs, lemon and salt-free seasoning blends.
5. Indulge in dark chocolate
Dark chocolate varieties contain flavanols that make blood vessels more elastic. In one study, 18 percent of patients who ate it every day saw their blood pressure decrease. Have 1/2 an ounce daily. (Make sure it contains at least 70 percent cocoa.)
6. Switch to decaf coffee
Scientists have long debated the effects of caffeine on blood pressure. Some studies have shown no effect, but one from Duke University Medical Center found that caffeine consumption of 500 milligrams -- roughly three 8-ounce cups of coffee -- increased blood pressure by 4 mmhg, and that effect lasted until bedtime. For reference, 8 ounces of drip coffee contain 100 to 125 milligrams; the same amount of tea, 50 milligrams; and an equal quantity of cola, about 40 milligrams.
Caffeine can raise blood pressure by tightening blood vessels and by magnifying the effects of stress, says Jim Lane, associate research professor at Duke and the study's lead author. "When you're under stress, your heart starts pumping a lot more blood, boosting blood pressure," he says. "And caffeine exaggerates that effect." If you drink a lot of joe, pour more decaf to protect your ticker.
7. Take up tea
Lowering high blood pressure is as easy as one, two, tea: Study participants who sipped 3 cups of a hibiscus tea daily lowered systolic blood pressure by seven points in six weeks on average, say researchers from Tufts University -- results on par with many prescription medications. Those who received a placebo drink improved their reading by only 1 point.
The phytochemicals in hibiscus are probably responsible for the large reduction in high blood pressure, say the study authors. Many herbal teas contain hibiscus; look for blends that list it near the top of the chart of ingredients -- this often indicates a higher concentration per serving.
8. Work (a little) less
Putting in more than 41 hours per week at the office raises your risk of hypertension by 15 percent, according to a University of California, Irvine, study of 24,205 California residents. Overtime makes it hard to exercise and eat healthy, says Haiou Yang, the lead researcher. It may be difficult to clock out super early in today's tough economic times, but try to leave at a decent hour -- so you can go to the gym or cook a healthy meal. Set an end-of-day message on your computer as a reminder to turn it off and go home.
9. Relax with music
Need to bring down your blood pressure a bit more than medication or lifestyle changes can do alone? The right tunes can help, according to researchers at the University of Florence in Italy. They asked 28 adults who were already taking hypertension pills to listen to soothing classical, Celtic or Indian music for 30 minutes daily while breathing slowly. After a week, the listeners had lowered their average systolic reading by 3.2 points; a month later, readings were down 4.4 points.
10. Jump for soy
A study from Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association found for the first time that replacing some of the refined carbohydrates in your diet with foods high in soy or milk protein, such as low-fat dairy, can bring down systolic blood pressure if you have hypertension or pre-hypertension.