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Living with high blood pressure
According to the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare, 25% of Australian men and 20% of Australian women had controlled high blood pressure in 2017-2018. High blood pressure is a risk for many conditions including stroke, coronary heart disease, heart failure and kidney disease so it’s important that those with the condition manage it effectively. As well as taking medication, it’s also possible to make changes to your lifestyle and diet to help control high blood pressure.
What is high blood pressure?
Your blood pressure is the pressure of your blood on the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps it around your body. While your blood pressure naturally goes up and down all the time depending on what you are doing, if your blood pressure is continuously higher than normal, you have high blood pressure (hypertension). There are often no symptoms of high blood pressure, so it’s important to regularly have your blood pressure tested. If you’re over 18, you should have your blood pressure tested every two years or more frequently if recommended.
An optimal blood pressure reading is under 120/80mmHg, while readings over 120/80mmHg and up to 139/89mmHg are in the normal to high normal range. With long-term high blood pressure you tend to be at higher risk of developing heart and kidney disease, and having a stroke. Most doctors will say you have low blood pressure if your reading is below 90/60mmHg.
Causes of high blood pressure
While the exact cause of high blood pressure is not always known, we do know factors that can raise your blood pressure. These can include:
- a family history of high blood pressure
- a diet high in sodium
- high alcohol intake
- being overweight
- having diabetes
- low levels of physical activity
- high stress
It’s important to remember that some medicines can also raise your blood pressure levels.
Managing high blood pressure with your diet and lifestyle
If you have a diagnosis of high blood pressure, it’s best to talk to your doctor about the best ways to control it. While there is medication to help control high blood pressure, in some cases you might be able to avoid taking medication or delay taking it by making lifestyle changes. It’s always important to follow your doctor’s advice. Even if you do take medication, it’s still important to live a healthy lifestyle.
A healthy and balanced diet can help to reduce your blood pressure. It’s important that your diet is rich in the following foods:
- legumes, lentils and beans
- lean meats
- fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines
- reduced fat dairy such as yoghurt and milk
- poultry, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds
You should also try to limit your intake of saturated fat, added sugars and salt, and alcohol. You can find out more about what to eat at the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
It’s important to reduce your intake of salt (or sodium) to less than 2000 mg a day - that works out at less than a teaspoon of salt. Even small reductions in the amount of salt in your diet can reduce high blood pressure. You can try using herbs and spices to flavour your food instead, and experiment with ingredients such as vinegar and lemon juice to enhance your meals without salt. It’s important to remember that the salt in your diet doesn’t only come from the salt shaker. According to the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, 80% of the salt in our diets come from packaged foods. You should read nutrition labels when you’re shopping and look for foods with 120mg sodium or less per 100g.
The following foods are usually high in salt so it’s a good idea to cut them out to eat them less often:
- salted nuts
- soy sauce
- stock cubes
Limit alcohol intake
Drinking more than moderate amounts of alcohol can lead to a rise in your blood pressure levels. You should keep within the healthy limits for drinking. For healthy men and women, that means drinking no more than 14 standard drinks each week and no more than two standard drinks on any one day. A standard drink is 10 mg of alcohol and it’s important to remember that many standard drinks have more than one standard drink in them. To find out more, read alcohol and your health.
Maintain a healthy weight
Obesity increases your risk of high blood pressure, so it’s important to maintain a health weight. Being overweight can also impact your quality of sleep and lead to sleep apnoea, which can further affect your blood pressure. Losing weight can help you reduce your blood pressure.
You should be aiming for 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each day or a total of 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity a week. This can include exercises like walking, dancing, or brisk walking. If you’re not used to exercise, you should talk with your doctor about what form of exercise is best for you. If you want to lose weight, you’ll need to build up to doing 45 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week.
Smoking is a known cause of high blood pressure and raises the risk of heart disease. When you quit smoking, it will not only help you reduce your blood pressure, and it can also reduce your risk of many other diseases and health issues. You can find out more about how to quit smoking at the Department of Health.
Where to get help
It’s best to see your doctor to get advice on diagnosing and managing high blood pressure.
If you have a specific question, you can also call the Heart Foundation Helpline on 13 11 12 and talk to a qualified heart health professional.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified health care professional.
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