Approximately 70 million Americans suffer from hypertension, or abnormally high blood pressure (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015). Understanding hypertensive disorder can help you modify the diet and lifestyle factors that place you at greater risk for cardiovascular disease.
What Is Hypertension?
Blood pressure, as its name suggests, refers to the amount of physical force the blood places on vessel walls as it pumps throughout the body. The blood vessels are designed to be flexible, expanding as the heart pushes blood to your extremities; however, when blood pressure is too high, these vessels can suffer damage associated with poor health (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 2015).
A blood pressure measurement consists of two numbers, which are expressed as a ratio (e.g., 135/90). The upper number represents systolic blood pressure, which is the amount of pressure placed on the arteries when your heart contracts (American Heart Association, 2014). The lower number, diastolic blood pressure, reflects the amount of pressure on the arteries when your heart is resting between beats.
Hypertension occurs when systolic or diastolic blood pressure is higher than is healthy. The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute (2015) defines the following categories of high blood pressure:
- Normal. Normal blood pressure is defined as less than 120/80 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury).
- Prehypertension. Prehypertension is an “at risk” zone in which you have elevated risk of developing high blood pressure. Prehypertension is defined as a systolic blood pressure ranging from 120 to 139 or a diastolic blood pressure ranging between 80 and 89.
- Hypertension Stage 1. In Stage 1 hypertension, you officially have high blood pressure. Stage 1 hypertension includes a systolic pressure of 140 to 159 or a diastolic pressure of 90 to 99.
- Hypertension Stage 2. Stage 2 hypertension involves systolic pressure greater than 160 or diastolic pressure greater than 100.
- Hypertensive crisis. In some cases, blood pressure can spike to dangerous levels. Known as a hypertensive crisis, this involves a systolic pressure greater than 180 or a diastolic pressure greater than 110. Emergency care is warranted when blood pressure reaches this level.
It should also be noted that people with diabetes or kidney disease should keep their blood pressure below 130/80 mmHg (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 2015).
Signs and Symptoms of Hypertension
Hypertension is sometimes called the “silent killer” because it may occur without obvious signs or symptoms (American Heart Association, 2015). Getting your blood pressure checked regularly is the best way to understand your risk. In some cases, you may experience shortness of breath or headaches associated with high blood pressure.
Risk Factors for Hypertension
Certain risk factors make you more susceptible to hypertension. Some of these risk factors are changeable, while others are not. Modifying certain risk factors can prevent cardiovascular disease. The most common risk factors include (Mayo Clinic, 2015):
- Age. Men older than 45 are at higher risk for hypertension, as are women older than 65.
- Race. Black people have higher risk for hypertension than Caucasians or Hispanic Americans.
- Genetics. Certain genes influence your risk for hypertension. If you have a close relative with the condition, it is more likely that you will also experience hypertension.
- Obesity. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of hypertension.
- Tobacco use. Using tobacco products increases your risk of hypertension.
- High stress. The hormones released when you are stressed also affect blood pressure.
- Sedentary lifestyle. Those that are particularly inactive are at greater risk of developing high blood pressure.
Consequences of Hypertension
Prolonged hypertension places a great deal of stress on the arteries. Over time, this can negatively affect overall cardiovascular health. Uncontrolled hypertension may lead to the following complications (Mayo Clinic, 2015):
- Stroke or heart attack.
- Heart failure.
- Kidney disease, due to weakened blood vessels of the kidneys.
- Vision loss, due to altered blood vessel integrity in the eyes.
- Memory problems.
- Metabolic syndrome. This refers to a cluster of disorders that often co-occur, including high triglycerides, low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, obesity, and high insulin levels. Collectively, these syndromes increase risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Dietary Considerations for Hypertension
The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute developed an eating plan called the DASH Diet to combat hypertension. In fact, the DASH Diet is more like a healthy eating routine than a diet per se. One of the critical components of the DASH Diet is limiting sodium intake. This is because sodium causes the body to retain water, increasing blood volume and thus blood pressure (Alderman, 2000). To comply with recommended sodium intake levels, it is important to limit consumption of processed foods, table salt, cured meats, and canned foods (Mayo Clinic, 2015).
The DASH Diet calls for adherents to focus on eating plenty of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, poultry, nonfat dairy products, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Overall, this eating pattern increases intake of fiber and healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, promoting heart health. Furthermore, the DASH Diet lowers intake of saturated and trans fats, which can clog arteries and contribute to hypertension (Mayo Clinic, 2015).
Snack and Recipe Recommendations
For more information on the dietary considerations of those with hypertension be sure to check out our article on High Blood Pressure & Your Diet and find a full list of recipes and snacks suggestions selected to mitigate the risk of developing high blood pressure on our DASH Diet page.