7 Ways to Lower Your Blood Pressure Without Medication

7 Ways to Lower Your Blood Pressure Without Medication

While plenty of health conditions make you painfully aware of their presence via any number of impossible-to-ignore symptoms, high blood pressure (a.k.a. hypertension) can be a sneakier beast. You can literally walk around all day, every day without a clue that your blood pressure numbers are higher than they should be—many people don’t have physical symptoms that they can feel. Although people who have high blood pressure (which is nearly half of adults in the US) might not have any discomfort from it most of the time, it’s really serious. High blood pressure significantly ups your risk of heart attack and stroke, makes you more likely to develop kidney disease, and can even mess with your sex drive.

​Rampant as high blood pressure is, getting it under control can be a tricky business. Kathryn Harris, MD, a cardiology fellow and the fellows representative for the Association of Black Cardiologists, tells SELF that more than half of people treated for high BP don’t have it under control, meaning that it stays high despite treatment like medication. While the ideal reading is less than 120/80 mmHg (the top number is your systolic pressure and the bottom number is your diastolic pressure), BP that lingers above 140/90 mmHg typically requires both medication and lifestyle changes to rein it in, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

If you’re one of the many people struggling to keep the beast of high blood pressure on a leash, let us make one thing crystal clear: Significantly lowering blood pressure is tough—and often requires taking medication (in many cases, more than one) and making some pretty serious changes to your lifestyle. It’s complicated stuff, and can take some trial and error.

Finding the right balance of medications and switching up your behaviors around food, exercise, and other key parts of the way you live your life can feel challenging for even those who can afford any prescriptions they need, shop at the health food store, and try out the latest fitness studio in town. And yet, many of the people with the greatest risk of high BP and its downstream effects live with limited access to heart-healthy food or medication that’s within their budgets, Estelle Darlyse Jean, MD, a board-certified non-invasive cardiologist with MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute, tells SELF.

Case in point: While 27.5% of white Americans have hypertension, those numbers are much higher among non-white people. Black Americans face the highest rates of high BP, with 43.5% of adults affected. It’s no secret why: Discrimination, which results in a lack of access to blood-pressure-friendly food and solid health care, puts Black and other non-white people in the US at a much greater risk of hypertension. There’s a LOT of work to be done to ensure that the variety of resources that help with heart health are available to all people. But there are still realistic, gradual ways you can bring those blood pressure numbers down, even when the cards are stacked against you.

One method is through the power of your lifestyle, which, yes, is really freakin’ powerful—even if you’re not taking blood pressure meds, you can often make a big dent in your numbers (and if you are, you can use these tactics to support the meds as they do their thing). Tweaks to your habits can lower blood pressure by at least as much as a single medication, says Dr. Jean. Regardless of your medication situation, moving towards a more blood-pressure-friendly daily routine makes a big impact—and you don’t have to overhaul your entire life to see encouraging results at your next check-up. Here’s where to start.

1. Move your body however you can, as much as you can.

Dr. Jean and Dr. Harris both say that exercise is one of the biggest needle-movers for your blood pressure out there. Moving your body can potentially knock your numbers down by about five mmHg. Your goal: 30-plus minutes of moderate-intensity movement like power walking at least three days a week.

If that feels like a lot, don’t panic; research shows that as little as 30 to 60 minutes of exercise per week has a notable impact on blood pressure. Start where you are and increase as you’re able. You don’t have to log 30 straight minutes of movement at a time either. Little exercise “snacks” add up, so try out tactics like dance parties while making dinner, taking the dog for a spin around the block in the morning, or even pacing around the room while you’re on the phone, per suggestions from Colorado State University.

You can also practice a wall sit while catching up on your favorite show; a recent study found that, while pretty much all forms of movement do good by your BP, isometric exercise (in which you build strength by holding a position, not moving—think planks and chair poses), takes the cake.

2. Reduce your sodium intake.

Sodium is a notorious foe for anyone trying to get their blood pressure down, so minding the salt in your diet is a must-do. Though most Americans consume upwards of 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day (mostly from packaged and restaurant foods), the AHA recommends sticking below 2,300 milligrams—and ideally below 1,500 mg if you have high blood pressure. Research suggests this change alone can pull your BP reading down by up to eight mmHg.

Since packaged and restaurant foods are the primary drivers of high sodium intake, cutting back on those things and cooking more at home go a long way in getting towards that 1,500-milligrams-per-day zone, says Dr. Harris. When you do go for premade foods, make it a habit to read labels and opt for lower-sodium versions of things you eat often, like soups, tomato sauces, canned goods, and condiments, per the AHA.

Be patient here. Your taste buds might miss salt at first, but most people who cut down adjust in time, the AHA says. You can take this opportunity to work in more fresh herbs and spices, plus flavors like lemon juice, so that you’re expanding the flavors of what you eat, not just reducing it.

3. Fill your plate with your favorite fruits and vegetables.

You’ve likely heard of the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet before—and there’s a reason this fruit- and vegetable-forward eating approach is the going recommendation for all people with high blood pressure! It works, says Harris. “The results are impressive—and comparable to using medication,” she notes.

This meal plan is focused on plant-based foods. It recommends four to five servings each of fruits and vegetables, six servings of whole grains, and two or three servings of low-fat dairy per day, while minimizing added sugar and sodium.

Of course, DASH success is dependent on factors like access to healthy food and the understanding and support of friends and family—and research shows that non-white Americans living in low-income communities are less likely to stick with DASH because of these barriers. But whatever DASH-minded adjustments are possible can help, wherever you’re able to make them in ways that work for you: Thankfully, even small changes make a difference here, says Harris. Do your best to add an extra vegetable or fruit to what you eat every day, and build from there.

When people stick to DASH as much as is realistic, they can reap the benefits to the tune of 4-mmHg improvements in systolic BP and 2-mmHg improvements in diastolic BP.

4. Find new mocktail recipes to try.

If you haven’t hopped on the zero-proof beverage bandwagon yet, your invitation has arrived. Not only does drinking more alcohol than the standard rec of one drink per day for women and two for men raise blood pressure, but it can also make BP medications less effective, according to Dr. Jean. In fact, research shows that alcohol has a “direct and linear” relationship with systolic blood pressure (the first number in your BP reading), meaning that the more you drink, the higher that number creeps.

Though any cuts you make to your alcohol consumption move the needle for heart health, Dr. Jean recommends doing your best to stick to that general recommendation of a drink per day for women and two for men. (“One drink” equals five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.) The good news is that mocktails are huge right now, and there are many delicious ways to enjoy an adult beverage without consequences for your heart.

5. Make whatever tweaks you can to get more sleep.

When surviving modern life requires juggling work, family, health, and a million other things with circus-level skill, it’s understandable that getting to bed early or sleeping until the sun rises can feel like a pipe dream. But if the only thing standing between you and slumber is your Netflix queue, you won’t regret prioritizing extra time between the sheets.

“Getting a quality night’s sleep—which means seven-plus hours—cannot be overlooked” in terms of blood pressure management, says Dr. Jean. “Insufficient sleep can lead to hypertension, as well as other heart health risks.” It’s true: Research shows that poor sleep patterns (which include not sleeping for long enough, sleep disorders, and general “trouble sleeping”) all up your risk of high blood pressure.

Do your best to stick to a regular sleep schedule (even on weekends!), give yourself some quiet time before getting into bed (read: no screens), and create a relaxing sleep routine that helps you cut down on stress and actually doze off, Dr. Jean suggests.

And, when in doubt…take a nap. That’s right, research suggests that snagging extra sleep during the day can be as helpful as other lifestyle changes for getting a handle on high BP. So if the opportunity for a midday crash presents itself, take it.

6. Get some good bacteria in the mix.

Probiotics have been buzzy for some time now—and touted to ease digestion and support immune health. Well, consider them a friend to your blood pressure, too. Scientists believe that imbalances in the complex ecosystem that is the billions of microbes inhabiting our digestive tract contribute to hypertension—and ongoing research (which includes clinical trials!) suggests that probiotics can help restore balance.

One recent meta-analysis published in Hypertension found that taking a multi-strain probiotic (that contains more than 10 billion CFUs, or colony-forming units) for at least eight weeks has a positive impact on blood pressure. We have more to learn here, but talk to your doctor about whether increasing probiotic-rich foods is a worthy addition to your beating-high-BP plan.

7. Take good care of your precious brain.

Stress can wreak havoc on pretty much every aspect of our health, so it’s no shock that it leaves its mark on our blood pressure. A growing body of scientific evidence identifies that social stressors, work stress, as well as low socioeconomic status and discrimination, all increase the risk of hypertension.

While no mere mortal can bubblewrap themself tightly enough to avoid all stress, you can get serious about reducing the impact of those inevitable stressors. Dr. Jean’s go-tos for feeling less on edge are yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness practices. One study on people with high blood pressure also found that participating in a mindfulness-based program that emphasized skills such as meditation, yoga, emotional regulation, and self-awareness contributed to a 5.9-mmHg drop in systolic blood pressure. (If meditation feels intimidating, here’s how to get started.)

Think of all of these ideas as tools in your toolbox for keeping your blood flowing in the way it should be—whether or not you’re taking medication, they can seriously help your heart out. Of course, whatever your situation, talk to a cardiologist about what’s best for you: While all of these tweaks to your routine are proven to have positive effects, you might need a little more support in the form of hypertension meds—and if that’s a part of your toolbox too? That’s one more thing setting you in the right direction here. You got this.


Originally Appeared on SELF