High blood pressure is a condition in which the force of the blood against the artery walls is too high. This can increase the workload of the heart and blood vessels and damage the tissue in the arteries, resulting in a buildup of plaque and becoming a significant risk factor for heart disease. (1)
High blood pressure often has no symptoms, but if untreated, it can eventually cause heart conditions and may lead to a stroke or heart attack. In this article, we will discuss the causes of high blood pressure, some of the potential symptoms of high blood pressure, and what you can do to reduce blood pressure.
What Is High Blood Pressure?
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a condition in which the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries is consistently too high.
The body relies on the circulatory system to deliver oxygenated blood to all its organs and tissues. The circulatory system is comprised of:
- The heart, a muscular organ that pumps blood throughout the body
- Blood vessels, including arteries, veins and capillaries.
- Blood, composed of red and white blood cells, plasma and platelets. (2)
When your heart beats, it creates pressure that moves blood through the blood vessels to distribute it to tissues and organs. This pressure, referred to as blood pressure, is the result of two forces:
- Systolic pressure, which occurs as blood pumps out of the heart and into the blood vessels
- Diastolic pressure, which is created as the heart rests between heartbeats
These are the two forces represented by numbers in a blood pressure reading (i.e., 120/80 mmHg). The first number is the systolic reading, and the second is the diastolic reading. The abbreviation mmHg stands for millimeters of mercury, the unit used to measure blood pressure.
What Are Normal Blood Pressure Numbers?
An average blood pressure level is considered to be anything less than 120/80 mmHg. (3)
What Are High Blood Pressure Numbers?
The American Heart Association defines high blood pressure as 130/80 mmHg. (4) According to this definition, nearly half of U.S. adults are considered to have high blood pressure, placing them at an elevated risk for heart attack and stroke.
There are two stages of high blood pressure. Stage one is 130-139 systolic and 80-89 diastolic. Stage two is 140 or higher systolic and 90 or higher diastolic. A Hypertensive crisis is considered anything above 180 systolic and 120 diastolic and requires immediate medical tension.
The categories of blood pressure are outlined in the graphic below (4)
A diagnosis of high blood pressure must be confirmed by a medical professional. Low blood pressure numbers should also be evaluated, as numbers that are too low can be a sign that your body's vital organs are not getting enough oxygen.
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
High blood pressure usually develops over time due to unhealthy lifestyle choices. The most significant risk factors for high blood pressure are diet, lack of exercise, and stress. In addition, certain health conditions, like obesity and diabetes, can also increase the risk of developing high blood pressure. (5) Different lifestyle factors may influence systolic and diastolic blood pressure differently.
What Causes High Systolic Blood Pressure?
While the biggest risk factors for high systolic blood pressure are still poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and stress, high systolic blood pressure is also commonly attributed to older age and other underlying conditions like diabetes, obesity, artery stiffness, heart valve problems, and hyperthyroidism. (6)
What Causes High Diastolic Blood Pressure?
Poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and stress are likewise the most significant risk factors for high diastolic blood pressure. However, smoking and heavy use of alcohol increase the risk of diastolic hypertension. (7)
What Causes Sudden High Blood Pressure or Blood Pressure Spikes?
High blood pressure usually develops over time. However, blood pressure can also spike as a result of certain risk factors—typically from chemicals that influence blood pressure, such as:
- Certain medications
- Stimulant drugs like cocaine
Chronic kidney disease and high stress levels can also cause spikes in blood pressure.
What Food Causes High Blood Pressure?
The primary dietary habits that contribute to high blood pressure are diets low in potassium and high in salt. (7) However, certain foods can increase the risk for high blood pressure as well, such as:
- Table salt
- High-sodium condiments (ketchup, soy sauce, barbecue sauce, etc.)
- Foods high in saturated fats
- Foods high in trans fats
- Fried foods
- Fast foods
- Canned, frozen, and preserved foods
- Deli meats and cured meats
- Salted snacks
Most of these foods are high in sodium, the most considerable dietary risk for high blood pressure. Salt makes your body hold onto water. If you eat too much salt, the extra water in your blood means extra pressure on your blood vessel walls, which raises your blood pressure. (8) Some of these foods or substances raise blood pressure in other ways. Caffeine and alcohol, for example, are known to raise blood pressure.
Potassium helps to lower blood pressure as it helps balance out sodium levels in the body. Therefore, diets low in potassium can also increase the risk of high blood pressure. Too much potassium, however, is also not healthy as it can lower blood pressure beyond healthy levels. Therefore, trying to have a healthy balance of sodium and potassium in the diet is essential. You can do this simply by eating various whole foods—especially fruits and vegetables—and limiting salt intake.
What Are the Symptoms of High Blood Pressure?
High blood pressure usually has no warning signs or symptoms, so it is essential to measure it often with regular doctor visits. However, once blood pressure reaches a certain level, it can cause specific symptoms, such as:
- Blurry vision
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Vomiting (9)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the only way to know if a person has high blood pressure is to take blood pressure readings (5)
How Do You Lower Blood Pressure?
Doctors commonly prescribe blood pressure medications to lower blood pressure, such as:
- ACE inhibitors
- Amlodipine besylate
- Calcium channel blockers, and
- Generic hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ)
While these may lower blood pressure, they may also have adverse side effects. Many people choose to take more holistic approaches to lowering their blood pressure. If you are concerned with your blood pressure or are seeking to lower your blood pressure, you should consult with your doctor about the best treatment method for you.
How Do You Lower Blood Pressure Naturally?
Understanding the causes and risk factors for high blood pressure gives us insight into the best ways to naturally reduce blood pressure. The primary causes are:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Chemical substances (caffeine, alcohol, cocaine, certain medications)
The biggest risk factors are diets high in sodium and low in potassium. So, to reduce this significant risk factor for high blood pressure, you can lower your sodium intake and include more potassium-rich foods in your diet.
This sounds simple enough, but the standard American diet is extremely high in sodium. Sodium is used as a preservative in many foods, as well as a food additive for flavoring. Sodium is exceptionally high in processed and packaged foods, fried foods, fast foods, and processed meats. Many people today consume large amounts of these foods—chips, crackers, deli meats, bacon, sausages, hot dogs, burgers, french fries, fast food, etc. Conversely, many people today also consume far too few potassium-rich foods—namely fruits and vegetables.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for sodium is less than 2,300 mg per day, with an ideal number being closer to 1,500 mg. (10) Americans, on average, however, eat about 3,400 mg of sodium per day—over twice the ideal amount.
On the other hand, the RDA for potassium is 4,700 mg. (11). The average American, however, consumes about 2,500 mg per day—meaning most Americans are not getting nearly enough potassium in their diet. (12)
Potassium is found in many foods, mainly fruits and vegetables. Some high-potassium foods include:
A sedentary lifestyle—prolonged sitting and lack of exercise—is known to be a major risk factor for high blood pressure. A sedentary lifestyle contributes to artery hardening and plaque buildup in the arteries. When your arteries are stiff and narrow, your heart must work harder to circulate blood throughout the body, raising your blood pressure. (13)
According to the Mayo Clinic:
"You should try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of the two. Aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity most days of the week. If you're not used to exercising, work slowly toward this goal." (14)
When you are under stress, your body releases a surge of hormones that cause the heart to beat faster and the blood vessels to narrow. This can increase blood pressure for a time, and if someone is under chronic stress, this can lead to normal levels of elevated blood pressure. (15) It is essential to find healthy ways to manage stress, such as meditation, yoga, exercise, deep breathing, nature therapy, good sleep, healthy social relationships, and not taking on more responsibilities than you can sustainably manage.
Certain chemicals can have a direct impact on your blood pressure and can lead to blood pressure spikes. The primary chemicals that are known to raise blood pressure include:
- Angiogenesis inhibitors
- BPA (found in plastics)
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, aspirin, etc. (16)
Avoiding these chemicals and substances can help lower your risk for high blood pressure and heart disease.
High blood pressure is a condition in which the force of the blood against the artery walls is too high. This can increase the workload of the heart and blood vessels and damage the tissue in the arteries, resulting in a buildup of plaque and an increased risk of heart disease. Nearly half of U.S. adults are considered to have high blood pressure, which is also why heart disease is the leading cause of death in America.
The primary causes of high blood pressure are diets high in sodium and low in potassium, sedentary lifestyles, stress, certain chemical substances, as well as certain underlying health conditions like diabetes and obesity (which themselves are related to diet and lifestyle).
To reduce high blood pressure and to lower the risk of high blood pressure, it is important to avoid these causes and to eat a healthy diet low in sodium and with sufficient potassium, to exercise regularly, manage your stress levels, and avoid chemical substances that affect blood pressure.
As with so many health conditions, it comes down to our diet and lifestyle. There are ways of eating and living that lead to wellness and ways that lead to illness. Fundamentally, it comes down to you and the choices you make each day for your health. As Heather Morgan, MS, NLC stated, "Every time you eat or drink, you are either feeding disease or fighting it."
Of course, it is helpful, and even necessary at times, to work with a healthcare professional to support your well-being, but even so, you are responsible for the dietary and lifestyle choices you make each day, and these daily decisions and actions play the biggest role in your health and well-being.