Downward pressure

Many foods, especially when combined with exercise, can help lower blood pressure

Many folks look to initiate healthy diet and lifestyle changes after the holidays, and lowering blood pressure is often a focus or side benefit. From ginger to chocolate, yoga to recumbent cycling, there are many frequently overlooked dietary and lifestyle tools in the hypertensive's kit.

It's well understood that high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, poses a risk to cardiovascular health. Elevations in blood pressure during exercise are normal. However, chronic hypertension puts strain on the arteries and heart. Though hypertension is widespread among obese individuals and smokers, it's also increasingly common in kids and is considered a major risk factor in all age groups.

Dozens of tools are at the ready to lower blood pressure. Deep breathing and meditation, exercise, dietary changes and nutritional supplementation are general strategies from which to make plans for possibly avoiding or cutting back on blood-pressure drugs. Individual management of hypertension may necessitate closer attention to a particular method or behavioral change, but generally a combination of dietary and lifestyle shifts can be as effective as medication. Also, lifestyle changes can be parlayed toward improving other aspects of our health, including our mood, cognition, breathing, balance, vision and flexibility.

I always recommend varied exercise for lowering blood pressure. If we integrate cardiovascular exercise such as brisk walking, cycling, rowing, soccer or basketball, we can lower blood pressure and help manage stress, as well. Varying the intensity of cardiovascular exercise is important. Changes result from walking up hills or chasing after a basketball pass, for example.

Then there's the food, herbal and supplement side of the equation. Many foods are widely known to help maintain healthy blood pressure or lower it. However, they must be eaten regularly in sufficient quantities. Olives, ginger, dark chocolate, celery, onions, cinnamon and many other plant foods work through varied means to improve blood pressure and other facets of cardiovascular wellness.

Plant foods not only contain fiber, which prevents blood sugar from spiking and maintains healthy cholesterol levels. They also harbor numerous substances that protect the arteries from inflammation and damage. Vegetables also are rich sources of potassium and magnesium, important minerals for heart health.

In making a plan to overcome high blood pressure, consider the big picture of cardiovascular health. We can change our sedentary lifestyle and eating habits and enlist the support of competent health professionals to evaluate our progress and the possible benefits of supplementation.

A first step may be simply cutting down on processed and fast-foods that are notoriously low in key nutrients and especially high in sodium, which contributes to hypertension in many people.

Improving blood pressure doesn't have to be viewed through the prism of deprivation. It's really all about treating oneself better and exploring new possibilities for diet and lifestyle.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. E-mail him at

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