You can’t feel high blood pressure. But take it from the experts: Once you have it, it’s already damaging your arteries and setting you up for heart disease or a stroke.
Knowing you have high blood pressure is your cue to take steps to protect your future health. And you can do plenty of things to help control your blood pressure.
“Many studies have shown controlling blood pressure greatly reduces the risk for stroke and heart attack,” says Thomas Pickering, M.D., D.Phil., a hypertension expert in New York City and author of Good News About High Blood Pressure: Everything You Need to Know to Take Control of Hypertension ... and Your Life.
Your doctor can check your pressure, prescribe medication, and offer good advice. From there, Dr. Pickering insists, your health is in your hands.
The most important step in controlling blood pressure is to take your medication as directed by your health care provider.
“If you’ve been prescribed blood pressure medication, the number one thing to remember is to take it,” say Dr. Pickering. “Make it a habit, like brushing your teeth.”
Why should popping a pill top be so important? First, today’s blood pressure drugs are proven effective. Second, of all the lifestyle choices you can make, nothing is easier than taking a daily pill at the start or end of each day.
Buy a blood pressure monitor
At a one-time cost of about $40, a home blood pressure monitor is an excellent investment in your health.
“I ask each of my patients to buy a digital home blood pressure monitor so they can check their own pressure at home,” says Dr. Pickering. “That way, if they notice their blood pressure going up, they’ll know right away to take steps to keep it under control. They’ll also be more likely to take their pills and exercise.”
He notes that digital monitors are easier to use than the standard bulb monitors and are reasonably accurate.
“Smoking is the most lethal of all unhealthy habits,” says Dr. Pickering. “You may not see an immediate change in blood pressure when you quit, but it’s probably the number one thing you can do for your health.”
Weight loss is the most effective nondrug method for lowering blood pressure in overweight people, Dr. Pickering says. The higher your body mass, the higher the pressure on artery walls.
“Most people who have what’s called prehypertension—borderline high blood pressure—don’t just have high blood pressure readings; they’re typically overweight as well, and have high cholesterol,” he says.
Some of the most effective weight-loss steps are choosing low-fat foods, reducing the calories you consume, and exercising regularly.
Get regular physical activity
Besides being a necessary element of long-term weight control, physical activity also can have direct effects in lowering blood pressure and protecting against heart disease and stroke. A half-hour walk each day or so is a great beginning—for best results, pick a set time to exercise and stick with it.
DASH your meals
The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is a critical element in controlling high blood pressure.
“DASH is a Mediterranean-style diet with low-fat selections, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt,” says Dr. Pickering. “Large studies funded by the National Institutes of Health showed it to be very effective, and it’s a diet people can live with.”
Limit alcohol intake
Alcohol can increase blood pressure even in healthy people, and heavy drinking can damage the heart over time. If you drink alcohol, a good rule is to limit yourself to one drink a day if you’re a woman and two drinks a day if you’re a man.
Too much stress can raise your blood pressure over the short term, and uncontrolled stress can cause lasting damage to the cardiovascular system over the long term. Learn to set healthy limits in your life, get plenty of sleep, and practice healthy coping techniques, such as deep breathing or muscle relaxation.
Schedule regular doctor visits
An office visit is an opportunity to have your blood pressure checked and receive any recommended adjustments to your medications or self-care routine.
“What’s most important is to work with your doctor to ensure you’re getting the right treatment and stick with your plan for self-care,” Dr. Pickering says. “Doing so will help you control your blood pressure.”