Heart health is so important, not just in February (Amerian Heart Month), but all year long. One of the contributing factors to heart and artery damage is high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. High blood pressure is a disease that effects 76.4 million U.S. adults. This disease typically has no symptoms, and can go undetected for years, earning hypertension the nickname "The Silent Killer," due to its deadly health consequences.

Hypertension occurrs when the force of the blood against your artery walls is too high. Over time, the tissue that makes up the walls of arteries gets stretched beyond its healthy limits. High blood pressure that is left untreated can lead to damage to the heart and coronary arteries, including heart attack, heart disease, and heart failure, as well as stroke, kidney damage, and more.

Risk factors for developing high blood pressure include:

  • Family history of high blood pressure
  • Advancing age (45 and older)
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Poor diet
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Stress
  • Smoking (and secondhand smoke)
  • Sleep Apnea

Increased High Blood Pressure Risks for Women

Hypertension can effect both men and women equally, but certain women's issues can increase their risk. In some women, birth control pills can increase blood pressure. This is more likely to occur in overweight women or women who also are smokers. The chance of getting high blood pressure gets even higher after menopause. After the age of 65, women are more likely to experience hypertension than men.

Some women who have never had high blood pressure can develop it while pregnant. This is known as Pregnancy Induced Hypertension (PIH), and can affect 6-8% of all pregnancies in the United States. (Almost 70% of which are first time pregnancies.) PIH is closely related to preeclampsia, a disorder that can endanger the lives of both mother and child - damaging kidneys, liver, and brain, and resulting in premature births and stillbirths.

Prevention and Treatment of High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)

The American Heart Association recommends the following to control blood pressure:

  • Eat a better diet, such as the DASH diet
  • Enjoy regular physical activity
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Manage Stress
  • Avoid tobacco smoke
  • Limit alcohol

Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension- the DASH Diet

The DASH diet is a healthy eating plan that promises to lower blood pressure in just 14 days. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and it has been endorsed by the American Heart Association, The Mayo Clinic, and the The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, to name a few.

Hypertension is associated with a high sodium intake and excess body fat. Healthy levels of potassium, magnesium, and calcium have protective roles on blood pressure. These principles are the guidelines for the DASH diet. 

The DASH diet has been shown to be effective for the prevention and management of hypertension. The DASH diet is rich in frutis, vegetables, and whole grains. It focuses on consuming low-fat and fat-free dairy products, along with nuts, seeds, dry beans, and limited amounts of lean meats, poultry and fish.

This eating plan is lower in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat, and higher in potassium, magnesium, calcium, fiber, and protein than the standard American diet. 

What do I Eat on the DASH Diet? 

Whole grains are higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals than refined grains. 6-8 servings a day of whole grains. 

Fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of dietary fiber, potassium, and magnesium. The DASH diet encourages fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, rather than canned, which can have too much sodium. 4 -5 servings a day EACH of fruits and vegetables. 

Fat-free or Low-fat dairy products are an excellent source of calcium and protein, as well as potassium and magnesium. For lactose sensitive individuals, lactase enzyme drops and pills can ease digestion of dairy products. 2 -3 servings per day. 

Lean meat proteins bring protein and magnesium to the DASH diet. Red meat can be included,but in limited amounts and lean cuts. Processes meats are high in sodium and should be avoided. 6 or less servings per day. 

Nuts, seeds, and legumes bring magnesium, potassium, protein, and fiber to the DASH diet. Legumes like dry (not canned) beans, peas, lentils and peanuts can be eaten. Be sure to select un-salted nuts and seeds, and pay close attention to portion sizes. 4- 5 servings per week. 

Fat is good, particularly when it comes from good sources of healthy fats such as olive oil or avocados. With the DASH plan, be sure that fat intake remains around 27% of total calorie intake. 2 -3 servings a day 

Sweets are not completely outlawed on the DASH diet, but you should choose fat-free, low-fat treats like sorbets, low-fat cookies, or graham crackers. 5 or fewer a week. 

The DASH diet recommends that alcoholic beverages be limited, as alcohol can increase blood pressure. 

For best benefit, 1500 mg of sodium or less a day should be consumed to lower the risk of hypertension and to lower blood pressure. 

As we near the end of American Heart Month, it is important to remember that heart health is not just something we should think of in February - but keep in mind all year long. Get your blood pressure checked by your medical professional regularly, particularly if you are in one of the high risk groups mentioned above.

Melissa Zimmerman, Healthy Goods


References:

American Heart Association: High Blood Pressure/ Hypertension; http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/High-Blood-Pressure-or-Hypertension_UCM_002020_SubHomePage.jsp

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: DASH Eating Plan; http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/dash/

Mayo Clinic - DASH Diet;   http://www.mayoclinic.org/dash-diet/ART-20048456

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