If you want to lower blood pressure, it’s important to know about the many factors that can affect just how hard your heart has to work. Every second of every day, your heart is pumping blood throughout your body. Measuring your blood pressure essentially tells you just how hard your heart is working with each heartbeat.
But first, a quick recap on what the two numbers in your blood pressure readings mean, exactly: The top number is your systolic blood pressure, or how much pressure is exerted against the artery walls with each heartbeat. The bottom number is your diastolic blood pressure, which measures the force against the artery walls in between each heartbeat. For most adults, an optimal blood pressure reading is <120/<80, meaning systolic blood pressure is less than 120 mm Hg and diastolic is less than 80 mm Hg.
“The higher the numbers, the more your heart is working to pump blood, which is stressful to the heart,” says One Drop coach and registered nurse (RN), Lisa Goldoor.
From genetics to lifestyle habits, there are several variables that can affect how hard your heart works, or how high your blood pressure is. For example, excess amounts of fat and cholesterol can build up in the artery walls over time, making it harder for blood to flow through the body and setting the stage for a possible heart attack or stroke down the road. High blood sugar levels, when left unaddressed, can also raise blood pressure by damaging blood vessels.
“The fewer barriers your heart has to navigate to pump blood, the happier your heart is,” says Goldoor.
Below are some ways to lower blood pressure and ensure that your heart has as few barriers as possible.
1. Set Healthy Weight Management Goals
“With extra weight often comes extra fat and extra cholesterol in the bloodstream,” explains Goldoor. “Extra weight can also increase blood volume and the distance blood has to travel, putting more stress on your heart. Plus, excess weight is associated with insulin resistance, which can increase glucose in the bloodstream and, as a result, raise blood pressure.”
With all of that in mind, think of weight management as relieving stress on the heart, says One Drop coach Krista, a certified lifestyle medicine coach (CLM) and certified diabetes prevention specialist. And, depending on your situation, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a drastic change in your weight to see improvement in lowering your blood pressure.
“Losing as little as 10 pounds can help to manage or prevent high blood pressure, and the benefits are greater for those who are overweight and already have high blood pressure,” explains One Drop coach Danica Crouse, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN) and certified nutrition support clinician (CNSC).
Regular activity and a healthy diet are obviously two staples in any heart-healthy lifestyle, but there’s no one-size-fits-all way to maintain a healthy weight. To find a routine that works for you, check out One Drop’s Complete Weight for Heart Health package.
2. Maintain Movement In Your Day-to-Day
Staying active not only helps with your weight management goals, but it can also strengthen your heart, says Krista.
“The heart is quite literally a muscle, so the stronger it is, the better it can do its job of pumping blood,” she explains, noting that cardiovascular exercise (a.k.a. aerobic exercise) is best for the heart because it requires you to breathe more heavily, thus making the heart beat harder and faster to get enough oxygen to your muscles. “This gives the heart a workout just like the muscles of our arms and legs,” she says. “Aerobic exercise also causes more blood vessels to grow around the heart as it adapts to the added demands of increased physical activity.”
Find Joy in Movement
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) per week (or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, such as running, per week).
In addition to brisk walking and running, Krista recommends biking, swimming, or hiking for a good aerobic workout.
Regardless of the workout you choose, check with your doctor before starting any new program, especially if you have existing health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or another heart condition, says Goldoor. “Your doctor may want you to do a stress test, which is when you’re monitored while exercising in a controlled setting to make sure your heart is safe,” she explains.
It’s also important to remember that it takes time to build up to these recommendations, notes Goldoor. Need a starting point? Become a One Drop Premium member and explore our beginner exercise plans.
3. Fit More Fiber Into Your Diet
While there isn’t necessarily a direct link between fiber intake and improved blood pressure, a diet high in fiber can benefit the heart in a few indirect ways, explains Crouse.
For instance, soluble fiber (found in foods that keep you fuller for longer, such as beans, oats, and flaxseed) can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation, both of which contribute to lower blood pressure levels.
Eating a lot of fiber also means you’re probably getting a high intake of potassium—which helps to lessen the effects of sodium and relaxes the blood vessel walls, thus lowering blood pressure—and magnesium, which, especially when combined with potassium, can help reduce blood pressure as well. High-fiber diets are also typically beneficial to weight management, which you already know can help with lowering blood pressure.
Keep in mind that it’s important to get these nutrients from whole foods rather than supplements. For one thing, supplements won’t give you any of the fiber found in fruits and veggies. Plus, whole foods contain a more complex variety of micronutrients than supplements, not to mention antioxidants that can slow down the natural process of cell and tissue damage.
For guidance on which whole foods to aim for, explore some of the recommendations in the DASH diet (a.k.a. Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), an approach specifically designed to help treat or prevent high blood pressure. (And check out One Drop coach, Sandra’s breakdown of the DASH diet.)
If you’re looking for a quick list, below are some solid sources of soluble fiber to add to your daily meals and snacks:
- Beans (black, kidney, lima)
- Brussels sprouts
- Sweet potatoes
4. Go Easy On the Salt
“The more salt in your diet, the more difficult it is for the heart to push blood around the body, meaning blood pressure rises,” explains Carol Thelen, a certified registered nurse practitioner (CRNP).
It all comes down to the sodium in salt. Extra sodium in your bloodstream means more water is pulled into your blood vessels, raising the total volume of blood pumping through them and increasing blood pressure.
The AHA recommends limiting your salt intake to, at most, 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day, with an ideal limit of 1,500 mg per day. “You can achieve this by establishing mindful habits, like reading food labels and limiting your use of the salt shaker,” suggests Krista.
5. Manage Your Stress with Self-Care
Stress activates your sympathetic nervous system (a.k.a. your fight-or-flight response), which makes your heart beat harder and faster, increasing blood pressure in the process, explains Leann Poston, MD, a licensed physician based in Ohio. At the same time, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline also drive up blood pressure very quickly, adds Krista.
“This is a normal part of the stress response meant to prepare us for emergencies, like fighting off a bear,” she explains. “But when stress happens chronically, it can wreak havoc on our health, including our blood pressure.”
What’s more, stress can also indirectly affect blood pressure by leading to unhealthy behaviors, such as overeating (which can lead to weight gain) and excessive alcohol use, notes Goldoor.
The Link Between Emotions and Heart Health
You can’t exactly avoid all forms of stress, but you can commit to a sound self-care routine that boosts your ability to handle stress when it comes your way. In addition to getting enough sleep and maintaining a good work-life balance, practices such as “deep breathing, meditation, and even just cuddling with our pets and loved ones can all help release pleasure chemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin, which activate the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system, thus slowing breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure,” explains Krista. (Here are more mindful habits to help you manage stress.)
6. Aim to Quit Smoking
You already know that smoking can have negative effects on your health, including your heart. But how does it affect blood pressure, specifically?
In the short term, explains Goldoor, nicotine in cigarettes causes a temporary rise in blood pressure by narrowing blood vessels and increasing your heart rate. “Then, over time, the chemicals in cigarettes can cause sustained damage to blood vessels,” she says. “Damaged blood vessels aren’t smooth and cause resistance to blood flow, making the heart work harder and increasing blood pressure.”
Of course, quitting smoking is much easier said than done. There are countless options for tobacco cessation out there, but just because one strategy works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for another. For a health coach’s take on the challenges of quitting and how to overcome them, listen to our Life Without Limits podcast episode that explores the path to quitting smoking for good.
7. Consider Medications for Lowering Blood Pressure
First, it’s important to recognize that using medication to manage your health—whether it’s for your blood pressure, blood sugar, or anything else—does not mean you’ve “failed” in any way. In terms of lower blood pressure, specifically, there are multiple tools that can help, and medication is simply one among many. “Let’s normalize using all the tools (including medication) from the start to get blood pressure under control instead of waiting until the damage is done,” says Goldoor.
As for the type of medication you might use to lower blood pressure, different classes of medicine affect the body in different ways, and your doctor will prescribe what works best for your individual needs.
Overall, there are two main factors that blood pressure medications can address: the heart and the blood vessels, explains Goldoor. “Some medications work on the heart, and some help open the blood vessels if they’re constricted or narrow.”
Since individual circumstances like genetics can often determine which blood pressure medication works best, it’s crucial to talk to your doctor about what’s right for you, says Krista. Some of the most common blood pressure medications include ACE inhibitors (which lower blood pressure by relaxing the veins and arteries), beta-blockers (which block the effects of adrenaline, causing the heart to beat less intensely), calcium channel blockers (which slow the movement of calcium into your heart and arteries, thus widening blood vessels and allowing the heart to pump more easily), renin inhibitors (which also relax the blood vessels to help blood flow more smoothly), and diuretics (which clear the blood vessels of excess sodium and water).
8. Keep an Eye On Your Blood Pressure, Regardless of Whether You Live with Hypertension
Even if you don’t currently live with high blood pressure, the reality is that nearly half of all adults in the U.S. do. So, you probably either know someone who lives with hypertension, or there’s a chance you could develop the condition down the road.
Either way, one of the most concerning aspects of high blood pressure is that it doesn’t usually have symptoms, notes Krista. And, if left unaddressed, high blood pressure can eventually lead to permanent damage to not just the heart, but also the eyes, kidneys, and even the brain.
So, the only way to really know how your blood pressure is doing is to simply measure it. “Data is power,” says Goldoor. “If your blood pressure is high, you may as well know about it so you can start to plan on ways to lower it.”
Plus, once you know where your numbers are at, it’s that much easier to spot trends in how your self-care affects your blood pressure and hold yourself accountable for making changes or staying the course, whether in your lifestyle or medication regimen.
“Connecting the dots and seeing how our day-to-day habits impact our blood pressure can be a very powerful tool for building healthy habits that lead to positive health outcomes,” explains Krista.
Bottom line: Having high blood pressure doesn’t have to change your life, says Goldoor. “There are small steps you can take over time that will really help, and starting small can increase success by building confidence and momentum.”
To kickstart your health journey, learn how One Drop’s Complete Blood Pressure package can help lower your blood pressure with personalized coaching, a smart at-home blood pressure monitor, data tracking, predictive insights, and much more.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations at One Drop.