Food as Medicine Part.2, High BP

Welcome back to my weekly blog post! Today, I am talking especially about high blood pressure and how to prevent or reverse it. Please enjoy reading:

High blood pressure affects nearly 78 million Americans—that’s one in three of us, and as we age, our pressures get higher and higher, such that by age 60, it strikes more than half. If it affects most of us when we get older, maybe it’s less a disease and more just a natural, inevitable consequence of aging? No. We’ve known for nearly a century that high blood pressure need not occur. Researchers measured the blood pressure of a thousand people in rural Kenya who ate a diet centered around whole plant foods. Whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, and dark green leafy vegetables. Up until age 40, the blood pressures of rural Africans were about the same as Europeans and Americans, down around 120 over 80, but as Westerners age, their pressures creep up such that by age 60 the average person is hypertensive, exceeding 140 over 90. But what about those eating plant-based? Their pressures improved with age; not only did they not develop hypertension, their blood pressures actually got better.

The whole 140 over 90 cut-off is arbitrary. Just like studies show that the lower the cholesterol the better; there’s really no safe level above about 150. Blood pressure studies also support a “lower the better” approach to blood pressure reduction. Even people starting out with blood pressure under 120 over 80 appear to benefit from blood pressure reduction. So, the ideal blood pressure, the no-benefit-from-reducing-it-further blood pressure, is actually 110 over 70. But is it possible to get blood pressures down to 110 over 70? It’s not just possible; it’s normal for those eating healthy enough diets.

In the Western world, as the American Heart Association has pointed out, the only folks really getting down that low are strict vegetarians, coming in at about 110 over 65. So, does the American Heart Association recommend a strict vegetarian diet? No, they recommend the DASH diet.

The DASH diet has been described as a lactovegetarian diet, but it’s not. It emphasizes fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy, but just a reduction in meat. Why not vegetarian? We’ve known for decades that food of animal origin was highly significantly associated with blood pressure. In fact, you can take vegetarians and give them meat and you can watch their blood pressures go up.

So, when the DASH diet was created, were they just not aware of this landmark research, done by Harvard’s Frank Sacks? No, they were aware. The Chair of the Design Committee who came up with the DASH diet was Frank Sacks. In fact, the DASH diet was explicitly designed with the #1 goal of capturing the blood pressure-lowering benefits of a vegetarian diet, yet containing enough animal products to make it palatable to the general public. In fact, Sacks found that the more dairy the lactovegetarians ate, the higher their blood pressures went; but they had to make the diet acceptable.

A recent meta-analysis showed that vegetarian diets were good, but strictly plant-based diets may be better. Vegetarian diets in general confer protection against cardiovascular disease, some cancers and death, but completely plant-based diets seem to offer additional protection for obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease mortality. Based on a study of 89,000 Californians, those eating meat-free diets appeared to cut their risk of high blood pressure in half. But those eating meat-free, egg-free, and dairy-free had 75% lower risk.

If, however, you’re already eating a whole foods plant-based diet, and you’re still not hitting 110 over 70, there are a few plants recently found to offer additional protection. A randomized placebo-controlled trial showing that a cup of hibiscus tea with each meal significantly lowers blood pressure. In fact, tested head-to-head against a leading blood-pressure drug, Captopril, two cups of strong hibiscus tea every morning were as effective as the drug.

Another randomized placebo-controlled trial found that a few tablespoons a day of ground flaxseeds induced one of the most potent antihypertensive effects ever achieved by a dietary intervention—two to three times more powerful than instituting an endurance exercise program (though, of course, there’s no reason you can’t do both).

Red wine may help, but only if the alcohol has been taken out. Raw vegetables or cooked? And the answer is both, though raw may work better. Kiwifruit didn’t seem to work at all, even though the study was funded by a kiwifruit company. Maybe they should have taken direction from the California Raisin Marketing Board, which came out with this study showing that raisins can reduce blood pressure, but only, apparently, compared to fudge cookies, Cheez-Its, and Chips Ahoy! They know the Big Pharma trick of choosing the right control group.

As a Health Coach I empower my clients to choose health-promoting behaviors that work for them. I raise awareness and offer support as my clients move in their own bio-individual ways toward the greater health they want for themselves. My coaching hopefully leads to long-term behavior change to enhance my clients overall quality of life.

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