What Causes High Blood Pressure and How to Deal With It

All you need to know about hypertension or high blood pressure: why it happens, how to keep an eye on it and how to deal with it.

Image iStock/AndreyPopov
Image iStock/AndreyPopov

Getting your blood pressure checked every time you go to your doctor is a pretty routine affair. So is hearing that your blood pressure is a bit low or a bit high. That being said, when left unchecked, either condition can lead to serious ailments. This time around, we’re going to take a closer look at the high end: hypertension.

The Main Causes of High Blood Pressure

The term “high blood pressure” or “hypertension” is usually used when your blood pressure increases to unhealthy levels. It should be noted that having elevated blood pressure for short periods of time can actually be your body’s normal response to various situations, ranging from acute stress to intense exercise.

As such, an actual diagnosis of hypertension is usually based on sustained high blood pressure over time. As a general rule, blood pressure readings of below 120/80 mmHg is considered normal. Between 120 to 129 over 80 is considered elevated, while between 130 to 139 over 80 and 89 indicates stage 1 hypertension. A systolic reading of at least 140 and a diastolic reading of at least 90 means stage 2 hypertension. Finally, readings over 180/120 mmHg indicates a hypertensive crisis and is considered a medical emergency.

Regular blood pressure readings are highly recommended because the condition often comes without any symptoms, which is why hypertension is sometimes dubbed a “silent killer.” In rare and extreme cases, the condition can cause sweating, shortness of breath, flushing, dizziness, chest pain, anxiety, sleeping problems and even blood in the urine. These are, again, rare and usually appear by the time serious medical attention is warranted.

Several Factors That Will Trigger High Blood Pressure

Based on what causes it, there are two types of hypertension. The first and most common one is primary or essential hypertension, which develops over time with no identifiable cause. There are, however, several factors that are believed to play a role in primary hypertension, including genetics and unhealthy lifestyle choices such as lack of physical activity.

And then there’s secondary hypertension. This type occurs much more quickly and can also become much more severe than primary hypertension. Secondary hypertension has specific causes, which is normally a complication of another underlying health problem. Chronic kidney disease is one of the most common causes. Diabetes, sleep apnea, congenital heart defects, chronic alcohol abuse and thyroid problems are among the others.

How to Treat High Blood Pressure

Now we come to the most important part: how to treat high blood pressure. When it comes to secondary hypertension, the answer is more straightforward: treat the underlying condition. For primary hypertension—as well as in most cases of persistent secondary hypertension—lifestyle changes are usually recommended. These are the basic, first-line treatment for high blood pressure and can actually be a good idea even if you don’t have hypertension.

1. Physical exercise. As a rule of thumb, you should aim to exercise on at least five days of each week, for a total of 150 minutes/week of moderate intensity, aerobic exercise or 75 minutes/week of high intensity exercise.

2. Stress reduction.
Learning to manage stress can go a long way in managing blood pressure. Relaxation techniques—whether it’s yoga, meditation or simply long walks—are often recommended. Coping with stress through junk food, alcohol and recreational drugs are, of course, discouraged. Smoking is also closely related to high blood pressure.

3. Healthy diet.
Adopting proper eating habits is one of the easiest and most-recommended ways of treating hypertension and also prevent any possible complications. A plant-based diet—or simply eating less meat and more plants—can help you increase fiber intake while reducing sodium as well as unhealthy saturated and trans fats. Opting for lean protein like fish, poultry or tofu is definitely a good idea. The most important dietary consideration for people with hypertension, however, is sodium. A daily sodium intake of no more than 1,500—or at least less than 2,300—milligrams per day is usually recommended. Cornflakes, for example, contains 550 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams, and a typical serving will get you nearly 200 milligrams of sodium.

Of course, there are medications designed to treat hypertension, ranging from diuretics to angiotensin receptor blockers. The choice of medication in cases of high blood pressure is highly dependent on each individual’s condition and underlying medical conditions. As such, they should only be prescribed by medical professionals. Most importantly, however, sticking to a healthy lifestyle as described above can do wonders in managing—and hopefully preventing—high blood pressure.