I don’t mean to cause undue alarm — especially since the point of this article is to reduce stress, not add to it — but we have to face facts. And the reality is that high blood pressure is becoming an increasingly significant problem for women. Consider…
I don’t know how much the lousy economy might be contributing to the problem (though research has shown that worries about job stability increase a person’s risk for high blood pressure) — but I do know that chronic stress is a significant contributor to hypertension. As C. Tissa Kappagoda, MBBS, PhD, a professor in the preventive cardiology program at the University of California, Davis, explained to me, “Chronic stress raises blood pressure by increasing levels of adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that promote artery spasm and salt retention. It also increases vascular resistance, the resistance to flow that must be overcome to move blood through the blood vessels, which is a primary cause of hypertension.” Stress also can impede basic self-care, such as eating healthfully and exercising — which probably explains why stress is such a “massive multiplier of the effects of conventional risk factors,” Dr. Kappagoda added.
Though high blood pressure doesn’t cause pain or other obvious symptoms, it does damage arteries — increasing the risk for heart attack, diabetes, stroke and kidney problems. How high is too high? Hypertension is diagnosed when blood pressure hits 140/90 mmHg or higher… but doctors now realize that prehypertension (blood pressure between 120/80 and 139/89) also is risky.
Of course, it’s important to follow your doctor’s advice regarding blood pressure-lowering lifestyle changes, such as limiting salt and alcohol and losing excess weight. But stress reduction should be a priority, too, Dr. Kappagoda said — and may reduce the need for hypertension medication. That’s good, because these drugs can have side effects, such as dizziness, chronic cough and muscle cramps, and often are taken for the rest of a person’s life.
Research shows that the following stress-lowering techniques help reduce blood pressure. If you have hypertension or prehypertension, consider…
Breathing control. When you’re relaxed, your breathing naturally slows… and if you slow down your breathing, your body naturally relaxes. This encourages constricted blood vessels to dilate, improving blood flow. Target: Practice slow breathing for 15 minutes twice daily, aiming to take six breaths per minute.
If you find it difficult (or even stressful!) to count and time your breaths, consider using a biofeedback device instead. One example designed for home use is Resperate (877-988-9388, www.Resperate.com, from $299.95), which looks like a portable CD player with headphones and uses musical tones to guide you to an optimal breathing pattern. Typically, it’s used for 15 minutes three or four times per week, and results are seen within several weeks. In studies, users experienced significant reductions in systolic pressure (the top number of a blood pressure reading) and diastolic pressure (bottom number). There are many similar and effective devices, said Dr. Kappagoda, so ask your doctor about the options. Biofeedback devices are safe and have no side effects.
Meditation. A recent analysis of nine clinical trials, published in American Journal of Hypertension, found that regular practice of transcendental meditation reduced blood pressure, on average, by 4.7 mmHg systolic and 3.2 mmHg diastolic. Though these results are for transcendental meditation specifically, many experts believe that any type of meditation works. Goal: Meditate for 20 minutes daily.
Exercise. Regular physical activity reduces blood pressure not only by alleviating stress, but also by promoting weight loss and improving heart and blood vessel health. Research shows that becoming more active can reduce systolic pressure by 5 mmHg to 10 mmHg, on average. An excellent all-around exercise is walking, Dr. Kappagoda said — so with your doctor’s OK, take a 30-minute walk at least three times weekly.
Caution: Weight training can trigger a temporary increase in blood pressure during the exercise, especially when heavy weights are used. To minimize this blood pressure spike, use lighter weights to do more repetitions… and don’t hold your breath during the exertion.