Whether your blood pressure is normal, borderline or high, you probably think of it as a Big Number. If it’s less than 120/80, it’s normal. If it’s between that and 139/89, it is considered prehypertension. If it’s 140/90 or higher, that’s hypertension/high blood pressure.
To lower the number, we think of doing Big Things—changing our diet, losing weight, getting regular exercise and, if needed, taking medication. They are important.
But so are some of the little things we do every day. Here are seven simple lifestyle changes that can help…
• Pouring that extra drink. Moderate consumption of alcohol actually lowers systolic blood pressure by 2 to 4 millimeters. But if you have more than one drink a day for women, two drinks for men, it can raise blood pressure. Binge drinking—four or more drinks for women, five or more for men, within two hours—is even worse. It not only raises blood pressure in the short term, but it’s associated with an increased risk of developing chronic high blood pressure.
• Drinking lots of coffee—if you’re a slow metabolizer. The jury is out on whether coffee—or caffeine in general—raises blood pressure significantly, but some studies show that drinking a lot of it (about 24 ounces a day) can raise it. One study published in Journal of Hypertension found that coffee raised adrenalin levels and blood pressure—but only in people whose bodies were slow to metabolize caffeine.
Self-test to see if you are a slow metabolizer: Check your blood pressure for a baseline reading. Then drink some coffee, and check your blood pressure again an hour later. If systolic goes up five to 10 millimeters you should cut back on caffeine.
• Taking mini exercise breaks. Blood pressure actually rises slightly while exercising, but studies consistently show that it goes down soon after exercising, and the results last for as much as eight hours. If a long morning run or gym session isn’t in the cards, there’s good news—spreading your exercise out over the day has blood pressure benefits. One study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise of men with borderline high blood pressure (aka, prehypertension) showed that taking three 10-minute walks throughout the day was more effective at preventing increases in blood pressure than working out for 30 minutes once a day.
• If you can’t exercise, get up and stretch. If exercise lowers blood pressure, the reverse—being sedentary—keeps it high. Just standing up can help. Another study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise of overweight volunteers with prehypertension found that those who stood up for a total of two-and-a-half hours over an eight-hour day had better blood pressure readings than those who sat continuously for an eight-hour workday.
• Calm yourself. When stressors hit—whether you’re fighting with your spouse or coping with a demanding boss—it’s easy for blood pressure to rise. “Anger raises your blood pressure in the moment,” says Samuel Mann, MD, professor of clinical medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill-Cornell Medical College. “So does fear.” Stress hormones raise levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine, which boost heart rate and constrict blood vessels. The stress surge will subside on its own…but you can speed the process by using relaxation techniques. Just five minutes of deep breathing, for example, has been shown to lower blood pressure. So can short bouts of meditation. This is especially true if you practice meditation—then you can elicit the “relaxation response” in just two or three minutes. Transcendental meditation, for example, has been shown to lower blood pressure by about three points.
• Take a midday snooze. Getting a good night’s sleep—especially the deeper, restorative, “slow wave” phase—helps keep blood pressure lower during the daytime. But if you didn’t get your proper ZZZs, consider an afternoon nap, which has been shown to lower blood pressure in people with hypertension.
According to one study presented at a European Society of Cardiology conference, habitual mid-day snoozers (average nap was one hour) had blood pressure readings that were about 4% lower than people who didn’t nap. Nappers also had greater nighttime drops in blood pressure, and they needed less hypertension medication.
• Breathe in the scent of lemon or lavender. Aromatherapy can quickly lower blood pressure, although it hasn’t been shown to have long-term benefits. Most effective scents: Lemon, lavender, peppermint, chamomile, neroli. In one study published in Physiology & Behavior, simply smelling oil of lemon for 15 minutes reduced blood pressure by about five millimeters systolic (the upper number) and three millimeters diastolic (the bottom number). Try putting two to four drops of essential oil on a cotton ball and keeping it in your office or at home…or putting just a drop or two on your pillow at night. You don’t have to take a whiff to have the effect…just having it in the room helps.
Doing these little things doesn’t get you off the hook to tackle big issues such as losing weight, eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and, if you have blood pressure that doesn’t respond to these lifestyle changes, taking medication.
But sometimes the best way to accomplish the Big Things is to start with little things.