Fighting the Silent Killer: Hypertension

By Sarah Samaan, Rosanne Rust, Cynthia Kleckner

Hypertension can lead to a number of cardiovascular ailments, including heart attacks, congestive heart failure, heart rhythm disorders, and stroke. Hypertension is also a leading cause of kidney failure and can contribute to dementia and eye disease.

Because it usually causes no symptoms until one of these serious conditions develop, hypertension is often known as the “silent killer.” The tragedy is that high blood pressure is easily diagnosed and can usually be effectively treated. Even better, it can often be prevented.

The the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet was created specifically to test the effects of a dietary pattern that includes a variety of foods known to help lower blood pressure. In fact, it was one of the first mainstream attempts to test the potential of what is now known as functional medicine.

To put it another way, in the DASH diet, food literally is medicine. And although the DASH diet has other very beneficial effects on your health and well-being, its power to prevent or reduce hypertension is its true strong suit. The following sections break down exactly why blood pressure concerns are relevant for everyone and how adopting a DASH lifestyle can help alleviate those concerns.

Why blood pressure matters

High blood pressure causes serious wear and tear on your heart, brain, and kidneys, so it’s critical that you take it seriously. Although a brief rise in blood pressure isn’t likely to cause permanent harm, your body isn’t designed to handle continuously high pressure. Just think of a garden hose gushing at full blast and imagine what that might do to your tender blood vessels.

The human body is built to be resilient, but over time, the nonstop strain of high blood pressure can cause the following:

  • Abnormal thickening and stiffness of the heart muscle, which can lead to heart failure

  • Microscopic tears, stiffening, and scarring in the arteries of the heart and brain, raising the risk for heart attack, stroke, and dementia

  • Irregularity of the heart rhythm, which may also raise the risk for stroke

  • Damage to the blood vessels that feed the kidneys, leading to kidney failure and, in severe cases, dialysis

  • Weaknesses in the walls of the blood vessels of the eyes, causing blurry vision or even blindness

Sure, some of these problems can be stabilized or even reversed if they’re caught early. But why put yourself in harm’s way? High blood pressure can almost always be treated safely and effectively. Even better, it can often be prevented.

How the DASH diet can help

High blood pressure usually develops over time, starting with a condition known as pre-hypertension, an important health issue. Although picture-perfect blood pressure is pegged at 115/75, blood pressure is not classified as hypertensive until the systolic reaches 140 or the diastolic hits 90. In between, you have pre-hypertension. About one in four Americans, and as many as 50 percent of people worldwide, fit this profile.

When you’re living in the pre-hypertensive zone, you carry a higher risk for heart disease and stroke than someone whose pressure is normal. To be more precise, every 20-point rise in systolic pressure or 10-point rise in diastolic pressure doubles the risk of heart disease and stroke. In this range, medications aren’t recommended. Instead, pre-hypertension is a wake-up call to get working on a healthy way of life.

The DASH diet is often thought of as a high blood pressure diet, but it was designed to help people with pre-hypertension as well. In order to get into the study, a blood pressure higher than 120/80 was required. If you’re pre-hypertensive, you can expect to drop your systolic blood pressure by a very respectable 7 points. For many people with pre-hypertension, that’s enough to move back into the normal range.

How does the DASH diet work its magic on blood pressure? For starters, it’s abundant in fruits and vegetables. Plants provide a wealth of health-boosting vitamins and antioxidants, and they’re loaded with blood pressure–friendly potassium.

Potassium works in opposition to sodium, lessening its effect on blood pressure. It may also have beneficial effects on the tone and health of your blood vessels. A potassium bonanza, DASH provides twice the amount of potassium found in a typical Western diet.

The DASH diet also promotes consumption of low-fat dairy, and research has found that a diet rich in low-fat dairy products such as yogurt and low-fat milk and cheese has consistently been linked to lower blood pressure.

In the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Family Heart Study, those with the greatest intake of dairy products were about one-third less likely to have hypertension. Not only do these foods provide a great source of calcium, which helps keep your arteries strong and flexible, but with the DASH diet, they also replace less-healthy saturated fats and processed foods.

Wondering whether you can pop some potassium and calcium supplements and get the same effect as if you were eating foods rich in these nutrients? Forget it! Your body is an expert at extracting nutrients from food, but unless you have a medical deficiency, supplements won’t do the same job. You can’t expect to eat a burger and fries followed by a potassium chaser and get the same effect.