Elevated blood pressure increases the risk for two major killers—stroke and heart attack. High blood pressure also plays a role in dementia and kidney damage. That’s why doctors emphasize keeping blood pressure under control. Blood pressure varies throughout the day, so it makes sense to measure it at home from time to time rather than relying on a single measurement or two at the doctor’s office. Exercise raises blood pressure, but afterward pressure generally drops noticeably. To get a good reading at home, make sure your arm is resting at about the same level as your heart. Use a cuff that is the correct size for your arm. Don’t talk while you are taking your blood pressure, and write the number down in a log. Keeping records will help you and your doctor figure out how best to handle your blood pressure.
Is there anything in the way of vitamins or herbs that a person can take instead of a prescription drug for high blood pressure? I’ve heard about garlic, but I don’t like it much. Is there anything else?
The newest candidate for natural blood pressure control is beet juice. Beets are high in dietary nitrate and increase nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide helps blood vessels relax (thus helping to lower blood pressure), has anti-inflammatory properties, and discourages blood clot formation. A diet rich in vegetables and dark chocolate can also lower blood pressure. Pomegranate and grape juice, magnesium supplements, and breathing exercises also can be beneficial.
THE PEOPLE’S PHARMACY
Favorite Food #15: Beets
Distinctly colorful—the expression “beet red” comes to mind—this old-fashioned root vegetable was adopted by eastern Europeans long ago. Red beets (they also come in gold) make a delicious addition to salads, and there’s nothing like borscht, served hot in winter or cold with a dollop of sour cream in summer. (And don’t worry if your urine or stool turns red; it is simply a natural consequence of eating beets.)
Beets made headlines back in 2008, when British investigators announced the findings of a study on beet juice and blood pressure. They had randomly assigned volunteers to drink either two cups of beet juice or two cups of water. Blood pressure was carefully monitored before and up to 24 hours after the subjects drank the beet juice.
In the British study, beet juice lowered blood pressure readings by around ten points, and the effect lasted for nearly a day.1 This benefit compares well to many antihypertensive drugs.
This is good news for people who take blood pressure medicine, since a recent article has raised questions about the safety of several of them. The article noted that Atacand, Diovan, and Micardis may be linked to “a modestly increased risk of new cancer occurrence.”2 Another recent study suggests that about 8.5 ounces of beet juice can significantly lower systolic blood pressure.3
Scientists have hypothesized that the nitrate content of beets is responsible for this effect. (Spinach and other dark, leafy greens are also naturally rich in nitrate.) Nitrate in the diet leads to nitric oxide formation in the tissues. That, in turn, helps blood vessels relax and discourages blood clot formation.
Research on mice suggests that nitrate-containing foods can reduce the inflammation triggered by high blood levels of cholesterol.4 And, in fact, some of our readers have indeed reported successfully lowering their LDL cholesterol by adding beets to their diet.
I started eating Hershey’s dark chocolate when it was on sale a few weeks ago. I enjoy about five of the little squares twice a day. My systolic and diastolic blood pressure numbers went down about 15 or 20 points each.
Chocolate will never be a substitute for blood pressure medicine, but some data support your experience. Studies have demonstrated modest benefits of cocoa and dark chocolate in lowering blood pressure.1 Your reaction to chocolate is greater than average. The amount used in studies ranges from a little less than 10 grams (one small Ghirardelli square) to 100 grams (a Ritter Sport bar). Keep in mind that chocolate is high in calories, and weight gain can drive blood pressure up.
Many years ago, I read that people should eat brown rice to reduce blood pressure. More recently I read that the rice diet works, but modern medicines are better for treating high blood pressure. Have you ever heard of this diet regimen?
The rice diet (mostly brown rice, vegetables, and fruit; no salt) was originally developed to control blood pressure, before many medicines were available. Since then, people have also used it successfully for weight loss. Research shows that a diet rich in vegetables and very low in sodium (the DASH diet) can help control blood pressure almost as well as some medications. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. In one study, women who followed this diet were less prone to heart disease.2 Other natural approaches for controlling blood pressure include weight loss, stress management, deep breathing, tea, Concord grape juice, pomegranate juice, dark chocolate, and minerals such as potassium and magnesium
THE PEOPLE’S PHARMACY
Favorite Food #16: Chocolate
One of our favorite foods is chocolate, the darker the better. A surprising amount of research shows that the active ingredients in chocolate and cocoa have exciting biological benefits. Cocoa flavonoids, as these compounds are called, reduce insulin resistance and improve insulin sensitivity.1 These are important issues for people with type 2 diabetes, because their bodies often make normal or even high amounts of insulin, but their cells become resistant to this hormone. Increasing insulin sensitivity can help improve blood sugar control.
Eating dark chocolate may also reduce inflammation, now being blamed for everything from diabetes and heart disease to cancer and Alzheimer’s. One marker of inflammation is C-reactive protein (CRP). Scientists have found that eating less than an ounce of dark chocolate every three days significantly lowered CRP levels.2 Eating a lot more than this amount was counterproductive.
Epidemiologists in China analyzed eight studies to see if cocoa polyphenols in dark chocolate can lower cholesterol.3 They found that these compounds lower bad LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol by approximately six points. But the benefit was seen only in people at risk of heart disease. Research suggests that cocoa flavonoids can also lower blood pressure, improve flexibility of blood vessels, and keep blood platelets from sticking together to form blood clots.4 They may even reduce the chance of a heart attack, which is, after all, why we are concerned about blood clots or blood pressure. A Swedish study followed more than a thousand heart attack survivors for eight years. A person who has had one heart attack is at increased risk for a second one. The investigators found a striking result: Compared to people who never ate chocolate, those who indulged twice a week or more were about three times less likely to have a second heart attack.5 If a pricey prescription drug produced such dramatic results, physicians would be prescribing it like candy!
Joe Graedon & Terry Graedon, The People’s Pharmacy: Quick & Handy Home Remedies, published by National Geographic