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General Health: Hypertension

Of all the illnesses that make up cardiovascular diseases (CVD)—such as heart attack, stroke, angina pectoris, atherosclerosis, and arteriosclerosis—high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is the most common. It is also a condition about which many North Americans are complacent.

This is a riddle. Hypertension may be common, and we may not worry about it, but it can be deadly. Hypertension can result in serious conditions such as kidney disease to traumatic and often tragic events such as stroke, heart attack, and even death.

So why the laid-back attitude? Do we just not care? It may be because of how hypertension "works." It is quiet—there is no evidence of the disease until it has progressed to the point at which a crisis occurs. Its treatment is not without a physical cost—much of the medication used for hypertension has uncomfortable and troubling side effects. Nor is its treatment of short duration—hypertension therapy is generally lifelong.

However, treatment does not have to be uncomfortable—hypertension can be lowered through three things that have no negative side effects (and actually have positive side effects); three things for which you may not have to pay extra because you use them as a matter of course; and three things that you may actually enjoy. These three things are diet, supplements, and exercise.

The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; rich in fruits, vegetables, and fiber; and contains small amounts of nonfat dairy products and meat, fish, poultry, or nuts. Hypertensive volunteers who followed this diet for eight weeks saw a significant reduction in blood pressure—the same reduction as experienced with some drug therapies. The Harvard Health Letter (January 1998) notes that this diet "significantly and quickly lowered blood pressure in hypertensive participants … ."

One nutrient that may contribute much to the DASH diet is potassium. In the clinical trials for the DASH diet, subjects received 4,700 mg (4.7 g) of potassium per day; the control subjects received only 1,700 mg (1.7 g) per day. Indeed, the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends consuming 3,500 mg (3.5 g) of potassium a day. The best sources of this are foods such as orange juice, bananas, potatoes, prunes, and yogurt.

Harry Preuss, M.D., has been studying garlic’s effect on hypertension at Georgetown University Medical Center. Although he has been studying a number of different garlic types, he has been particularly impressed with the Allium ursinum species of garlic, which is also known as alpine wild garlic.

In an interview in conjunction with Dallas Clouatre, Ph.D., Dr. Preuss notes that wild garlic "worked beautifully as far as blood pressure [is concerned]" in rat models.

Drs. Preuss and Clouatre believe this is due to an ACE-inhibiting property. Simply put, ACE is an enzyme that may lead to increased blood pressure. Rat studies show that wild garlic inhibits this enzyme, resulting in lower blood pressure. When Dr. Preuss measured angiotensin II, which causes blood vessels to contract (resulting in greater pressure), he found that rats fed wild garlic had one-half of this substance compared to control rats.

Dr. Preuss also found that wild garlic works on the nitric oxide system. An increase of nitric oxide in blood vessels causes them to vasodialate—to expand. This, of course, also helps to reduce blood pressure. The combination of ACE inhibition and nitric oxide synthesis may be why alpine wild garlic works so well. As Dr. Preuss notes, "There are medical reasons why wild garlic is reported to have this [antihypertensive] effect."

Finally, getting some form of exercise is beneficial—there is ample evidence that weight loss and exercise positively affect blood pressure.

Richard D. More, M.D., Ph.D., writing in his book The High Blood Pressure Solution, notes that in some studies, weight loss in the obese led to normal blood pressure in three out of four people, and that no drugs were used. Moore also notes that losing excess weight "has been reported to lower elevated blood pressure even more effectively than drug treatment with beta blockers."

Exercise alone, with no weight loss, also affects blood pressure. Moore again reports that in one program 105 hypertensive patients undertook a walking program, starting with walking one mile and working up to running two miles. One-hundred and one of the 105 patients had significant drops in blood pressure, and 50 percent of those who had been using antihypertensive therapy were able to discontinue their drug use.

If your "pressure is on," take control of your health by working with your health practitioner to develop a new lifestyle. A lifestyle that includes diet, judicious supplementation, and exercise.

What is high blood pressure?

Blood pressure is a measure of the force of blood against the walls of the arteries. It is read with two numbers, systolic and diastolic, which are often just referred to as "top and bottom." The top number, systolic, measures blood pressure when the heart is pumping out blood. The bottom number, diastolic, measures blood pressure between heartbeats, that is, when the heart is not pumping, but at rest.

The usual cause of high blood pressure is a persistent increase in resistance to blood flow through the smaller branches of the arteries, which carry blood from the heart throughout the body. Why this happens is unknown 95 percent of the time.

Blood Pressure
Systolic Diastolic
Optimal <120 <80
Increased risk 120-139 80-89
(Normal risk) (120-129) (80-84)
(High-normal risk) (130-139) (85-89)
High risk >140 >90

*If your systolic and diastolic pressures are in different categories, your risk depends on the higher category.