What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the force which moves blood around your body. Every time your heart beats, it is actually contracting like a pump and pushing blood out of its valves and into your arteries. In order for your blood to flow, your arteries squeeze back, ensuring it moves forward. The strength of this pressure is your blood pressure. How hard your heart pumps, how elastic your arteries are and a number of other factors determine how high or low your blood pressure is.
How is abnormal blood pressure diagnosed?
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is often called the silent killer, as there are usually no symptoms associated with it. Generally, the first sign will be a heart attack, stroke or kidney failure. The only way to know what your blood pressure is, is to have it measured. Low blood pressure, or hypotension, is associated with light headedness or dizziness. If you are in a high risk group or have a family history of high or abnormal blood pressure, it is essential you have your blood pressure tested.
How is blood pressure measured?
Blood pressure is measured using an instrument called a sphygmomanometer. The doctor or nurse will place a rubber armband around your upper arm and inflate it. From here the doctor will measure your blood pressure. The procedure is quick, easy and painless.
The measurement is taken using two numbers, called systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Systolic pressure is the maximum amount of pressure exerted when your heart pumps, and diastolic pressure is the amount of pressure your arteries exert to force blood forward. A blood pressure of 120 over 80, written as 120/80 mmHg, for example, means you have a systolic blood pressure of 120, and a diastolic blood pressure of 80. The units of measurement are mmHg, or millimetres of mercury, a reference to a time when medical pressure gauges used mercury.
Why is abnormal blood pressure problematic?
Blood pressure is tightly controlled in order to keep you healthy. If blood pressure is too low, blood doesn’t move fast enough around your body, and your tissues do not receive enough oxygen and nutrients. If blood pressure is too high, unnecessary stress is placed on your cardiovascular system. High blood pressure makes your heart work harder to pump blood. It also puts extra strain on your arteries and organs, especially your brain and kidneys. High blood pressure may therefore lead to heart attacks and strokes, the risk of which double with every increase of 20 mmHg systolic or 10mmHg diastolic blood pressure, as well as kidney failure and other disorders.
When is a blood pressure measurement abnormal?
It is important to note that high or low blood pressure can only be diagnosed from a number of readings over a period of time. One abnormal reading does not mean you have high blood pressure, but could be a result of some acute stress, illness or a number of other factors.
Blood pressure ranges are categorized as follows (sourced from The Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa):
Low blood pressure
In general, low blood pressure is actually desirable. It only becomes problematic when the brain and other organs are not getting enough oxygen. The point at which this happens varies from person to person, and so what constitutes low blood pressure is dependent on your own body.
Symptoms indicating your blood pressure has fallen too low include dizziness, light-headedness and fainting. If you regularly experience these symptoms, see your doctor.
In some cases, blood pressure can fall dangerously low and be life-threatening. If the below symptoms are experienced, seek medical attention:
- Confusion, especially in older people
- Cold, clammy and pale skin
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Fast, weak pulse
Optimal blood pressure (less than 130 / 85 mmHg):
If your blood pressure falls within this range it is normal. Adopt heart-healthy habits or keep them up to ensure your blood pressure does not start to rise.
Elevated blood pressure (130-139 / 86-89 mmHg):
Elevated blood pressure is a sign that a problem could be developing. Although no medications are required at this stage, you should begin to practice a heart-healthy lifestyle. If you’re older than 65, your doctor might recommend treatment to further ensure your blood pressure does not rise.
Mild hypertension (140-159 / 90-99 mmHg):
If you are experiencing mild hypertension, lifestyle changes are essential and doctors may consider including blood pressure medication based on your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Moderate hypertension (160-179 / 100-109 mmHg):
If you have moderate hypertension, doctors will prescribe a combination of blood pressure medications and lifestyle changes. Both are extremely important to ensuring long-term positive health outcomes are reached.
Hypertensive emergency (from 180 / 110 mmHg):
If your blood pressure is higher than 180/110 mmHg and/or you are experiencing the following symptoms, you should seek emergency treatment:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Visual changes
- Symptoms of stroke, such as paralysis or a loss of muscle control in the face or an extremity
- Blood in your urine
How can I lower my blood pressure and what can I do to prevent it from rising?
Even if your blood pressure is normal, it is still important to ensure you practice heart-healthy habits. As you age, arteries naturally increase in stiffness, plaque builds up inside them and blood pressure increases. This is coupled with the general decline in cardiovascular health with age. Certain other conditions such as diabetes and kidney problems may also contribute.
The following habits will help to lower or prevent a rise in blood pressure, as well as keep you healthy in general:
Reduce salt intake
Sodium (or salt) is part of the natural signalling system keeping blood pressure in check. A diet high in salt can disrupt this balance, leading to an increase in blood pressure. Generally, persons at risk of blood pressure issues shouldn’t consume more than 2300 mg per day. People who already have high blood pressure may need to reduce this even further.
The easiest way to cut down your salt intake is to refrain from adding extra to your food. Instead, make use of herbs and spices to flavour your food. These also have their own positive health benefits. It is also wise to avoid processed foods which are generally high in sodium, as well as foods such as french fries, biltong and others which use salt as flavouring or a preservative. If in doubt, check the nutritional information on the package.
Download our C.A.P.E meal plan for meals and recipes naturally low in sodium.
Reducing caffeine intake
Caffeine and other stimulants can increase blood pressure, partly through increasing heart rate. Reduce intake of caffeine and other stimulants in order to help keep your blood pressure low.
Exercising has many benefits, including reducing blood pressure and resting heart rate. It will also improve the health of your heart, arteries and organs, significantly reducing your chances of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular disorders. In order to maximise the effectiveness of exercising, it is better to exercise for shorter periods more frequently (at least 30 minutes a day) as opposed to longer periods only once or twice a week. If this is difficult for you, keep in mind that any exercise is better than none – park your car further away from the shop entrance or office, climb the stairs or do some gardening.
Note, that it is important to obtain permission from your doctor to exercise if diagnosed with serious hypertension.
Maintaining a healthy weight
Excess weight is one of the chief contributors to cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Losing even a few kilograms can make a huge difference to your blood pressure. Adopt a healthy diet and exercise to begin losing weight today.
Stress naturally increases your heart rate, blood pressure and other contributors to cardiovascular disease. When you are threatened, these serve to improve energy and alertness so you can better deal with the danger. In the modern world, however, this stress is too often chronic, leading to constantly elevated blood pressure and other health issues.
Find out how serious your stress levels are with our FREE stress test
Reducing alcohol intake and quitting smoking
Both alcohol and smoking contribute significantly to cardiovascular disease. Avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption could very well be the difference between having a healthy heart and early cardiovascular disease. Quit smoking as soon as possible and limit your alcohol consumption to only a few drinks per week.
Diet can both cause and prevent disease, it’s all about what, and how much, you eat. A healthy diet is essential to good health. This is not only in terms of keeping your blood pressure down, but also in avoiding diverse lifestyle diseases, including cardiovascular disorders, diabetes and cancer. Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables and avoid processed foods. Where possible, foods should be as close to their natural form as possible.
Download our C.A.P.E meal plan for more tips and recipes for a heart-healthy diet.