High Blood Pressure
If I were to take a poll in any room of people asking how many were on blood pressure (BP) medications, I'm sure a large percentage of the room would raise their hands.
High blood pressure is quite common these days, and it's not surprising, really, given all the stressors that surround us and the way we lead our lifestyles. However, there are probably a few underlying causes of HBP that might not be so common and are worth exploring, which is exactly what we are going to do today.
For starters, we need to define what constitutes HBP. I like to use the following standards:
Optimal BP: <120 mm Hg/<80 mm Hg
Normal BP: <130 mm Hg/<85 mm Hg
High Normal BP: 130-139 mm Hg/85-89 mm Hg
Hypertension: >140 mm Hg/90 mm Hg
You'll note there are two numbers given, the systolic and diastolic pressures. The systolic pressure measurement is an indicator as to the maximum pressure your heart exerts while beating. The diastolic pressure, on the other hand, describes the amount of pressure in your arteries between heartbeats. These differences are important to note as we look into the various causes of HBP, as one number might be more of an issue than the other.
The Causes of High Blood Pressure
Try not to be overwhelmed by the extensive list posted below. Remember, HBP is a symptom of something else that is going on in the body, and, as you'll come to see, many of these causes of HBP can be traced back to an imbalance in one of the foundations (digestion, blood sugar, diet, minerals, fatty acids, and hydration).
1. Kidney Function/Hydration
Our kidneys work hard to filter water in and out of our body, as well as remove cellular wastes. The kidneys also regulate BP by adjusting blood flow in and out of the kidneys creating a homeostatic environment in the body. Therefore, if we aren't drinking enough water and keeping our kidneys functioning optimally, we start to run into severe issues with dehydration and blood pressure regulation.
2. Liver/Biliary Stasis
Our liver produces bile which is stored in the gallbladder and released when we need to digest fat (bile's main function). However, if our liver is stressed, we will not produce good quality bile needed to break down fats properly. And, as we will see soon, we need the right balance and breakdown of good, high quality fats to support our BP and entire cardiovascular system.
In addition, our liver is a filter for just about everything in the body, so if it is stressed from a poor diet, environmental toxins, lack of exercise, etc, we start to see the consequences appear elsewhere, such as in HBP.
Our adrenals produce some of the most important hormones in the body, and hormones are the master of our bodies. When we have an imbalance in our cortisol levels (our stress hormone), we start to see the effects in our BP readings as well. Those who have hypercortisol levels (too much cortisol aka too much stress) will find that this is constricting to the body, which makes our heart work much harder to pump blood throughout the body efficiently and effectively.
4. Blood Sugar Dysregulation
Blood sugar issues are basically the root cause of every issue in the body. Why? Because blood sugar imbalances throughout the day is VERY stressful to the body. Even if you don't have high blood sugar or HbA1c levels, you can still have blood sugar imbalances from a diet too high in refined carbohydrates and lacking in high quality fats and proteins. Getting your blood sugar under control helps reduce inflammation and therefore help your heart do its job much easier. You can read more about blood sugar here and here.
5. Mineral Imbalances
Minerals work in a balance with each other inside of our bodies. If one mineral is out of balance, it skews the rest of them, making it hard on the body to perform all the functions minerals assist in. The most common mineral that comes to mind with HBP is obviously sodium, but what we really need to look at here is the sodium-potassium balance, not just sodium in isolation. When we eat a diet rich in processed foods with tons of salt, we are also naturally eating a diet low in potassium. However, if we eat real, whole foods (seasoned with high quality sea salt - remember salt isn't necessarily the enemy here) that also contain potassium, we start to see this balance realign.
There is another set of minerals at play as well - calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium. These minerals, especially magnesium which has over 300 functions in the body, are often lacking or out of balance in the body. Certain types of soda can be high in phosphorous, which skews the balance of calcium and magnesium needs. Plus, if we aren't absorbing calcium effectively (read more here), we aren't able to utilize it properly in the body either, hence another key factor in HBP.
6. Fatty Acid Imbalance
Fatty acids, or fats in general, have long been vilified for causing cardiovascular issues, especially high cholesterol and heart disease which often go hand in hand with HBP. However, this is truly not the case IF AND ONLY IF we are eating the right kinds of healthy, wholesome fats that allow our bodies to achieve the correct balance of fatty acids in the body, especially when it comes to our omega 3:omega 6 ratio.
We all know the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids, but often times, we aren't getting enough of them in proportion to our intake of omega 6 fatty acids from foods like vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and certain grains. While we need some omega 6 fats from wholesome sources (like nuts and seeds), what we don't need is a huge discrepancy between our body's stores of the two. Ideally, we want a ratio of 1:1 or 1:2 of omega 3: omega 6. Most of us have a ratio more like 1:50. When this ratio is off, we start to see a rise in inflammation in the body, and inflammation from the wrong kinds of fats and/or the wrong balance of fats is a huge driver behind HBP. Eating more wholesome sources of omega 3 fatty acids is the best way to go (salmon, sardines, walnuts, flax seed oil, etc). Avoid most supplements unless they are professional grade, meaning not from the vitamin shop, as they will not be of good enough quality.
7. Allergies and Food Sensitivities
Allergies and food sensitivities create more inflammation in the body as they tear apart our gut lining and disrupt our microbiota, Plus, if we are eating foods we do not tolerate, it puts our body on high alert, creating a stressful state (even if we can't "feel" that stress). Chronic stress in the body effects cortisol levels, disrupts blood sugar regulation, and causes inflammation (see above and below for more).
I know how the thyroid effects BP first hand, as I believe I had a low-functioning thyroid for several years during my undereating, overexercising years. Routinely, my BP would test at 80 mm Hg/60 mm Hg. Once I started eating more real, whole foods and exercising properly (no more chronic cardio), by BP normalized. The same can be true for the reverse - a malfunctioning thyroid can also make your blood pressure rise high than normal.
This one is obvious. If we have inflammation in the body from any of the factors discussed today, we will see its effects on the circulatory system. Inflammation is what causes trouble in our arteries, as it tears apart the delicate lining. Cholesterol comes to the scene to be the band-aid over the inflammation tears, creating a healing plague (cholesterol is NOT the enemy here - it's the helper). However, too much inflammation means that they body has to work harder to heal more and more tears in our arteries, creating even more stress. This obviously makes it difficult for our blood pressure to be regulated as well.
We've discussed stress several times already, but I'll say it one more time. Stress is very inflammatory to the body because of its effects on our entire health. We MUST address any and all stressors in our lives if we have any hope of optimal health (beyond just HBP).
Some people simply have smaller, narrower arteries, making it harder for the heart to do its job.
12. Lack of Exercise
This factor is obvious - how can we expect our heart to function optimally if we never exercise it? Now, what I don't encourage here is long bouts of steady state cardio every day all day (other than walking, that doesn't really count). Yes, some cardio is fine, but research is now showing how stressful chronic cardio can be on the heart (inflammation again!). Having a balance between strength training and cardio is what is most important to strengthen your heart and thereby your BP regulation.
Obviously, I'm not a doctor, but it is always good to explore all the possible causes of high blood pressure, especially if it something you've dealt with for years and/or have a family history as well. Taking care of your body through diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management is critical to keeping BP levels normalized.