Did you know that in 90% of all cases of high blood pressure the exact cause is unknown?
Medically, this is called primary (or “essential”) hypertension. Unlike secondary hypertension where the cause of the high blood pressure is clear—for example, it’s caused by pregnancy or kidney issues—most cases of hypertension don’t have one specific cause we can point to.
But what we do know is that there are many lifestyle factors that can lead to primary hypertension and addressing them can help to keep your blood pressure in the healthy range.
- Smoking: While there are many chemicals in cigarettes that are dangerous to your heart and overall health, the biggest risk factor for your blood pressure is nicotine. Nicotine from smoking causes high blood pressure by triggering your body to release adrenaline. Plus, it’s a potent vasoconstrictor which makes it tough for blood to flow through your arteries and damages your blood vessel walls. If you smoke, here’s how to quit.
- High (or Low) Sodium Levels: Can salt cause high blood pressure? Yes. But what often surprises people is that too little sodium can be just as dangerous as too much. Consuming too much salt leads to water retention, increasing your blood volume which raises your blood pressure. And too little sodium can cause dangerously high renin levels, which elevates your blood pressure. For healthy blood pressure, you want to eat about 2.5-2.8 grams of sodium daily. When tracking your sodium intake, it’s important to watch for “hidden” sodium in foods like packaged and canned soups, dill pickles, and flame-broiled fast-food chicken.
- Sugary Foods and Drinks: Salt isn’t the only food that can raise your blood pressure, so can sugar. Cakes, candy, sodas, sweet teas, and other sugary foods can cause oxidative stress in your body, raising your blood pressure. Plus, sugar can contribute to heart disease.
- Low Potassium Levels: Your muscles require potassium to function properly, including the muscles in your blood vessels. Without potassium, your blood vessels won’t relax as they should—which can drive up your blood pressure. How much potassium do you need? You want to strive to eat 3,000 to 4,000 mg of potassium daily if you don’t have kidney issues. Good sources of potassium include baked potatoes, coconut water, bananas, oranges, raisins, squash, apricots, and eggplant.
- Low Magnesium Levels: Magnesium helps to keep your arterial walls relaxed and smooth, so your arteries dilate and contract as they should. Without enough of this vital mineral, your arteries can become rigid and tense, raising your blood pressure. Good sources of magnesium include bananas, beans, whole grains, salmon, and avocadoes. Plus, I recommend supplementing with 400 to 800 mg of a broad-spectrum magnesium supplement daily.
- Dehydration: Dehydration causes high blood pressure by forcing your body to retain sodium to make sure you have the fluid you need. Plus, your body reacts to dehydration by shutting down your capillary beds, which puts pressure on your arteries and raises your blood pressure. Signs of dehydration can include thirst, bright yellow urine, and fatigue. To keep your body well-hydrated, you want to drink about eight glasses of water daily.
- Alcohol: While a glass of red wine a few evenings a week with dinner is fine for your heart, drinking too much alcohol can cause high blood pressure. Having more than three drinks at a time can raise your blood pressure temporarily, and long-term binge drinking can lead to persistently elevated blood pressure. If you’re a heavy drinker with high blood pressure, you want to work with your doctor and taper off slowly since suddenly cutting out alcohol can cause a spike in your blood pressure.
- Stress: High blood pressure can absolutely be caused by stress, especially if it’s chronic. When you’re under stress, your body releases cortisol and adrenaline which raises your blood pressure. Some good ways to release stress and lower your blood pressure are by practicing yoga or Tai Chi, meditating, and spending time in nature.