Let’s start with some extracts from the NHS website
“A blood pressure test checks if your blood pressure is healthy, or if it's high or low. Blood pressure is the term used to describe the strength with which your blood pushes on the sides of your arteries as it's pumped around your body. Low blood pressure (hypotension) is not usually a problem, although it can cause dizziness and fainting in some people. High blood pressure (hypertension) can increase your risk of developing serious problems, such as heart attacks and strokes, if it's not treated.”1
As low blood pressure generally doesn’t make you more susceptible to major health issues, we will focus on what makes it more likely you will have high blood pressure; the possible complications of high blood pressure; how to read your blood pressure; and some steps you can take to reduce your blood pressure.
As with the other measurements that indicate the current condition of our inner health, the good news is that if your blood pressure is too high (called hypertension), there are simple steps you can take to improve it. NHS website details factors that might put you at a higher risk of hypertension.2
They include if you:
- are overweight
- do not do enough exercise
- drink too much alcohol or coffee (or other caffeine-based drinks)
- do not get much sleep or have disturbed sleep
The NHS website, then goes on to say, “Making healthy lifestyle changes can sometimes help reduce your chances of getting high blood pressure and help lower your blood pressure if it's already high”.
Let us stay official for a moment. Blood Pressure UK, the only charity in the UK dedicated to lowering the country’s blood pressure, has some interesting facts:3
- High blood pressure is responsible for more than half of all strokes and heart attacks.
- High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, kidney disease and vascular dementia.
- In the UK, high blood pressure is the third biggest risk factor for all disease after smoking and poor diet.
- Around one in three adults in the UK has high blood pressure.
- Half of people with high blood pressure are not diagnosed or receiving treatment.
- In England alone, there are more than five million people that are undiagnosed.
- High blood pressure rarely has any symptoms which is why it is called the ‘silent killer’. The only way to know you have the condition is to get your blood pressure measured.
- High blood pressure costs the NHS over £2.1 billion every year.
Blood Pressure, Readings and High Blood Pressure
Let’s find out more about what blood pressure is; then we can start to understand what the readings mean; finally, how we can improve it, if your reading is high.
When your heart beats, it pumps blood round your body, which amongst other things gives it the energy and oxygen it needs. As the blood travels, it creates pressure against the sides of the blood vessels (arteries, veins and capillaries). When we measure our blood pressure, we only really measure the pressure in our arteries and not our veins or capillaries, as the pressure in our veins and capillaries is considerably lower.
If the blood pressure in our arteries is too high, it may put extra stress on the arteries, which can lead to several different health issues, including increasing the risk of stroke or heart attack.
Your blood pressure reading consists of two numbers: the bigger number is your systolic (systole = contraction) blood pressure. This is your blood pressure when your heart beats (contracts, squeezes). The smaller number is your diastolic (diastole = relaxation) blood pressure: as your heart relaxes between beats and fills back up (residual pressure).
According to Public Health England in 2017, if you have high blood pressure and can reduce it, every 10mmHg reduction in systolic blood pressure reduces the risk of coronary heart disease by 17% and heart failure by 28%.4
A quick explanation of the numbers and what mmHg means. In times gone by, blood pressure was always measured by how far it would push mercury (symbol Hg) up inside a glass tube. The more pressure, the more millimetres (mm) it would travel. So, with a systolic blood pressure of 120 mmHg, the mercury would travel 120mm up the glass tube.
The American Heart Association quote the following:
The NHS keep it a bit simpler with:
High blood pressure is considered to be 140/90mmHg or higher (or 150/90mmHg or higher if you're over the age of 80).
To measure your blood pressure accurately, it is important to be relaxed, and not to push your sleeve or cuff of your clothes to the top of your shoulder (wearing a short-sleeved or sleeveless top is best). Of course, when people go to the doctors, they tend to not be relaxed - sometimes known as “white coat syndrome”. If you are taking a measurement at home, it is best to sit down in a quiet room for 5 minutes first, breathing in and out of your nose, trying to relax. Then, with your wrist or arm resting on a cushion at about the same level as the heart, attach a monitor and take a reading and note down the numbers. Continue to rest and repeat the measurement 2 more times. Take the lower of the 3 measurements as your blood pressure.
Stress is a big factor in blood pressure, so if yours is high, please don’t stress about it. If it’s really high (140/90mmHg or higher) of course see your doctor straightaway. If it is only slightly elevated, trying making adjustments to both lifestyle and diet and then measure at a later date to see if your blood pressure has managed to drop slightly. And make sure you are comparing apples with apples. Usually, blood pressure is affected by the time of day. It tends to rise a few hours before we wake up and peaks around midday. Then it normally drops in the late afternoon and evening.
A few additional thoughts
The brilliant Dr Benjamin Bikman author of Why We Get Sick by wrote, “Almost all people with hypertension are insulin resistant”. So, considering this, it makes sense to do everything you can to prevent insulin resistance, adding further weight to the importance of our insulin resistance tree!
If you are worried about your blood pressure, no matter what the reading then please see your doctor.