High blood pressure is practically nonexistent in traditional hunter gatherer societies. There are likely several reasons for this, but diet is certainly one of them. Here’s what to pay attention to:
Increased consumption of sugar—especially sugar-sweetened beverages like soda—is associated with high blood pressure, and reducing sugar intake has been shown to lower blood pressure. (4)
High dietary intake of potassium is associated with lower blood pressure. In fact, many researchers believe that the protective effects of potassium are one of the major reasons why hunter-gatherers like the Kalahari Bushmen and traditional pygmies of Sub-Saharan Africa have such a low incidence of high blood pressure. In Paleolithic diets, the average daily intake of potassium was approximately 10,500 mg/d. In comparison, the average American consumes about 2,800 mg/d. (5)
I’ve written before about the numerous health benefits of EPA and DHA, the polyunsaturated fats found in cold-water fish. Studies have shown that DHA, in particular, is very effective at reducing blood pressure. You don’t need to take a fish oil supplement to get this benefit; eating cold-water fish three times a week is just as effective as taking a high-dose fish oil supplement, and the protein in the fish may also have a blood-pressure lowering effect. (6)
A high dietary intake of magnesium has been shown to reduce blood pressure, though its effect is not as strong as what is observed with potassium. Nuts, seeds, spinach, beet greens, and chocolate are the highest food sources of magnesium on a Paleo diet. Magnesium’s effect on blood pressure is magnified when combined with increased potassium intake. In fact, increasing potassium and magnesium intake together while moderately reducing sodium intake can lower blood pressure as much as a single medication. (7)
What about salt? We’ve been told for years that a high salt intake is one of the primary risk factors for high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, but it’s time to shake up the salt myth. Though some studies do suggest that restricting salt can lower blood pressure, the evidence supporting a connection between salt intake and cardiovascular disease is weak at best. What’s more, some evidence suggests that restricting salt too much may be harmful to our health. (For more on this important topic, read my special report on salt.)
As usual, individual variation plays a role. It appears that a minority of the population is “salt-sensitive”, which means they’re susceptible to developing hypertension when consuming a diet higher in sodium. For the rest of us, there’s no strong evidence that reducing salt intake below one and one-half teaspoons (3,600 mg/d, which is the average intake in the US today) is beneficial.
There are a number of steps you can take in terms of behavioral and lifestyle change to lower your blood pressure. These include:
Weight loss. Excess body fat can raise blood pressure, and reducing it can lower blood pressure.
Endurance exercise, strength training, high-intensity interval training and simply moving around more during the day (outside of a distinct exercise period) have all been shown to significantly reduce blood pressure. Sleep. Both short sleep duration and poor sleep quality increase the risk that you’ll develop high blood pressure. (8) Correcting sleep apnea has been shown to reduce blood pressure. (9)
Exposure to ultraviolet light (via sunshine or tanning beds) increases the production of a chemical in our bodies called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a powerful vasodilator; it helps our blood vessels to relax, which in turn lowers blood pressure.
Several studies have shown that meditation can be effective for lowering blood pressure, possibly via its relaxing effects on the nervous system.
Deep breathing is part of many traditional practices such as yoga, qi gong and certain forms of meditation. Even short periods of deep breathing have been shown to modestly lower blood pressure, and using deep- breathing techniques over weeks to months may lead to long-term reductions in blood pressure. Research suggests that three to four fifteen- minute sessions per week of deep breathing are sufficient to have this effect. (10)
Biofeedback, the process of becoming aware of the body’s physiological functions, has been shown to effectively reduce blood pressure, with no side effects or risks. (11)