High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. It's important to know your numbers and follow your doctor's advice to keep your blood pressure under control. And that means knowing and avoiding sneaky blood pressure triggers.
Understanding High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is often called the silent killer because there often are no obvious symptoms until it's too late, the American Heart Association warns.
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Blood pressure is a measure of the force that your blood exerts against the walls of your blood vessels. High blood pressure (hypertension) is defined for adults as 130/80 (130 over 80) or higher — meaning 130 millimeters of mercury per deciliter of blood (mm/Hg) for the systolic pressure (the upper number) and 80 mm/Hg or higher for the diastolic pressure (lower number), according to the American Heart Association.
Blood Pressure Triggers
"Every individual should look at their diet, what they drink, their physical activity and weight as these can all contribute a few millimeters to high blood pressure," says Matthew Tomey, MD, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City.
In addition, here's what you should know about eight factors that can sneakily affect your blood pressure.
1. Salt: A diet loaded with salt can spike your blood pressure, says Dr. Tomey. "More than 70 percent of the salt in our diet is from processed foods — just 5 percent comes from the salt shaker," he says. Nine out of 10 Americans consume too much sodium, according to the American Heart Association, which is why it recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams a day, with an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 milligrams a day for most adults.
2. Stress: Stress and how you cope with it can affect your blood pressure to a degree, Dr. Tomey says. Stress is also linked to anxiety and depression, both of which can cause blood pressure spikes in the short- and possibly long-term. Stress is a fact of life. That can't be changed. You can, however, change how you deal with stress. The Mayo Clinic suggests exercising three to five times a week for 30 minutes to reduce stress. Regular exercise also can aid weight loss, which lowers blood pressure and heart risks. It's a win-win.
3. Medications: If you have high blood pressure, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and decongestants can raise your blood pressure by 4 to 10 millimeters of mercury or higher, says George Bakris, MD, a professor of medicine and director of the American Heart Association Comprehensive Hypertension Center at the University of Chicago Medicine. "Certain high blood pressure drugs can block the effects that these other medications have on your blood pressure," Dr. Bakris says. Always read the labels on all medications and ask your doctor about safe alternatives if you are unsure, he says.
4. Potassium and magnesium levels: Potassium and magnesium help regulate your blood pressure, Dr. Bakris explains. If your levels are too low, it could cause your blood pressure to rise. Your doctor can order a blood test to see where you stand. "If your potassium levels are low, eating higher potassium-containing foods, like fruits and veggies, may help," he says. Magnesium can be found in dark, leafy green vegetables, unrefined grains and legumes, notes Harvard Health.
5. Doctor visits: If you are scared of seeing the doctor, you may develop "white coat hypertension," the name for a blood pressure spike seen only at the doctor's office. If this is the case, the American Heart Association suggests home blood pressure monitoring.
6. Working hours: Shift workers who typically work nights are four times more likely to develop high blood pressure than their counterparts who don't work night shifts, according to a study in the May 2019 issue of Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health. If your work schedule is affecting your health, talk to your supervisor.
7. Alcohol: Alcohol can cause fluctuations in blood pressure. This is one of the reasons that the American Heart Association suggests capping alcohol consumption at no more than two drinks a day for men and no more than one drink a day for women.
8. Caffeine: Your daily cup of coffee may affect your blood pressure, the Mayo Clinic notes. Keep your numbers in the safe range by limiting your caffeine intake to 200 milligrams a day.
- American Heart Association: “Why High Blood Pressure is a Silent Killer"
- American Heart Association: “What is High Blood Pressure?”
- Matthew Tomey, MD, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City
- American Heart Association: “9 out of 10 Americans Eat Too Much Sodium Infographic”
- American Heart Association: “How Much Sodium Should I Eat Per Day?”
- The Mayo Clinic: “Stress and High Blood Pressure: What's the Connection?”
- George Bakris, MD, professor of medicine and director, American Heart Association Comprehensive Hypertension Center, University of Chicago Medicine
- Harvard University: “Key Minerals to Help Control Blood Pressure”
- American Heart Association: “Monitoring Your Blood Pressure at Home”
- Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health: “Night and Rotational Work Exposure Within the Last 12 Months and Risk of Incident Hypertension”
- American Heart Association: “Alcohol and Heart Health”
- Mayo Clinic: “Caffeine: How Does It Affect Blood Pressure?”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.