Don’t know your systolic from your diastolic? Not sure what high or low blood pressure really means? W&H lets you in on the ‘silent killer’.
If your blood pressure is too high or too low, it could be a sign of potential health issues. High blood pressure is the third biggest risk factor for all disease, after smoking and poor diet. ‘High blood pressure (hypertension) often doesn’t have any symptoms,’ says Dr Gill Jenkins, a GP. ‘But left untreated, this can increase your risk of serious health problems, such as heart disease and stroke.’ Low blood pressure (hypotension) is much less common and usually not as dangerous as high blood pressure, but this may also indicate a health issue that needs to be addressed. ‘Blood
pressure is the force that pushes blood through your circulatory system,’ says Dr Jenkins. ‘As blood moves around the body, it pushes against the sides of the blood vessels and artery walls.
This pressure is generated with each heartbeat as blood is pumped from the heart into the blood vessels. ‘A blood-pressure reading looks at systolic blood pressure (top number), the pressure when your heart pushes blood out, and diastolic blood pressure (bottom number), the pressure when your heart rests between beats.’
Checking your blood pressure
‘If you’re over 40 and healthy, you should have your blood pressure checked at least every five years,’ says Dr Jenkins. ‘You can have a blood pressure test at your doctor’s office and pharmacies.’
HOW TO MEASURE IT YOURSELF
‘Taking your own blood pressure can be more convenient and less stressful,’ says Dr Jenkins. Roll up your sleeve…
✣ Sit with your back supported and legs uncrossed for five minutes before the test.
✣ Hold out your arm in line with your heart.
✣ Wrap the cuff around your upper arm, just above the elbow.
✣ Press start for the cuff to infl ate.
✣ Check your reading.
✣ Do the test twice a day, morning and evening, for seven days. Each time take two readings, one minute apart.
✣ Consult your GP if your blood pressure is too high or too low.
High blood pressure
✣ YOUR HEART
‘High blood pressure can damage the arteries, potentially causing heart disease,’ says Dr Jenkins. Heart disease causes 450 deaths a day, on average.
✣ YOUR BRAIN
Damaged arteries can lead to a stroke. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, every day in South Africa, nearly 240 people will suffer a stroke, of which it will claim nearly 70 lives.
✣ YOUR KIDNEYS
‘High blood pressure can cause arteries around the kidneys to harden and weaken, affecting blood supply,’ reveals Dr Jenkins.
YOU’RE MORE AT RISK IF YOU…
✣ Are overweight – this means having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25 or over
✣ Drink too much
✣ Don’t get enough exercise
✣ Are over 65
✣ Have a family history of high blood pressure
✣ Don’t get enough sleep
✣ Eat too much salt (sodium), and not enough fresh fruit and vegetables.
HOW TO LOWER YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE
✣ Enjoy some form of physical activity every day, even if it’s just walking to the shops.
✣ Do at least 150 minutes’ moderate intensity activity a week. Moderate activity raises your heart rate, makes you breathe faster, feel warmer and break out in a slight sweat. As your blood
pressure goes down you can progress to more vigorous intensity activity, for 75 minutes a week.
✣ Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables. Aim for 10 portions of 80 g each a day.
✣ Cut down on alcohol.
✣ Lose weight, if you are overweight. Consult a dietitian or join a slimming club if you need help with this.
✣ Quit smoking. Try the National CouncilAgainst Smoking (NCAS) quit line on 011 720 3145.
✣ Get enough sleep. Most adults need six to nine hours every night.
✣ Take magnesium. A review found that a magnesium supplement (365-450 mg) daily can help reduce blood pressure.
✣ Reduce stress. Try yoga, breathing exercises and meditation. Research shows that breathing deeply and slowly (six breaths a minute), practised regularly, can help to reduce blood pressure.
✣ Your GP may prescribe medication such as ACE inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers, calcium channel blockers or diuretics.
Low blood pressure
✣ STANDING UP TOO QUICKLY
If your blood pressure drops abnormally when you stand up, it could lead to dizziness and fainting. Stand up slowly and take care when getting out of bed.
A fever, sweating, vomiting, alcohol or heat can lead to dehydration, which can cause blood pressure to fall. Dehydration signs include tiredness, darker urine, dry mouth and lips, dizziness and peeing fewer than four times a day. It usually takes about 24 hours to rehydrate.
The side effects of certain medications including diuretics, beta blockers and some types of antidepressants can cause low blood pressure. Talk to your GP about modifying your medication.
IS IT A PROBLEM IF IT’S TOO LOW?
‘Some people have naturally lower blood pressure and, if you are healthy with no symptoms, this may not be a problem,’ says Dr Jenkins. ‘But symptoms such as dizziness, light-headedness, blurred vision, weakness or fainting may be a sign that blood pressure is too low.’
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