Get to the root cause of high blood pressure.
By Dr. Martin Gleixner, MSc, ND
Your blood pressure is over 140/90, you’ve tried to cut down on salt and started exercising and improving your diet. It’s not going down as quickly as you like. You’re starting to wonder…why is my body increasing pressure in my arteries???
As a tribute to Heart month, this month’s column explores the underlying (and often under looked) causes behind high blood pressure. This article is one of a series of articles discussing cardiovascular disease (previously, cholesterol was discussed in a previous column).
Along with diabetes, smoking and obesity, high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Left untreated, hypertension can lead to larger health problems such as artery damage and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), heart failure and heart attacks, kidney failure, and can promote clotting or hemorrhage (stoke).
By understanding the cause(s) behind the increase in blood pressure, treatment strategies can be better implemented.
Understanding how the body works
To help patients understand and overcome their condition, I encourage them to understand how their body functions (or reasons why it doesn’t function). Asking why an increase in blood pressure occurred is paramount. An engineer for example would never neglect to examine a pipe where water pressures have changed. High blood pressure is one of the many signs and symptoms that let’s us know that there is an imbalance in the body.
A new way of understanding our health is to acknowledge that the symptom or sign (in this case high blood pressure) is not the ultimate problem; rather the symptom is an expression of a deeper, underlying problem. The symptom guides us to address and treat the root of the problem that created the symptom in the first place.
Two classes of hypertension
In 90% of patients presenting with hypertension, the cause is considered ‘unknown’ as there is no clear disease state that can explain it. This condition is called primary (or essential) hypertension and is caused by lifestyle factors that create functional (versus pathological) changes in the body. The remaining 10% have hypertension that results secondarily from renal disease, drug side-effects, endocrine disorders, or other identifiable causes. This form of hypertension is called secondary hypertension.
Most patients find themselves in the 90% category. For some patients, conventional medications can be effective at reducing blood pressure by dilating blood vessels or promoting water loss via the kidneys. These drugs can have an important role to get very high blood pressure under control while the underlying causes are found and treated. Work with your naturopathic doctor to address the change in function that occurred in the body that caused the increase the blood pressure in the first place. In consultation with your medical doctor, your medication can then be reduced and eventually discontinued as your blood pressure stabilizes below 140/90.
Physiology of blood pressure
Our arteries bring nutrients and oxygen to all our cells in our body. Maintaining pressure in our arteries ensures that sufficient blood can get to all parts of the body.
Numerous systems in the body work together to regulate blood pressure, including: 1) the constriction or dilation of blood vessels maintained by the nervous system; 2) electrolyte balance (such as sodium levels) and water retention as regulated by the kidneys; 3) the hearts rate and force of contraction; 4) the flexibility of the artery walls; 5) body weight; and 6) hormones such as adrenaline, insulin and cortisol.
Sounds too complicated? Good detective work through clinical questioning, review of laboratory results and physical assessments will go a long way to determine which of these factors are the most important in increasing your blood pressure. Understanding your own unique medical predisposition will help target treatment strategies.
Let’s now look at a few of the most important (and often under looked) causes of blood pressure.
Ups and downs of blood sugar levels
Weight gain, inappropriate blood sugar levels and imbalances in hormones that control blood sugar, are important causes of high blood pressure.
Weight gain contributes to high blood pressure for a number of reasons. When our metabolism slows down (from lack of exercise for example) the body struggles to stay in equilibrium. Cortisol (a hormone which is secreted in higher amounts when the body is under stress) causes elevated sugar levels in the blood. This in turn causes the release of insulin (hormone that helps move blood sugar into liver and skeletal muscle cells). Insulin in turn raises heart rate and blood pressure.
To steady blood sugar levels, start off by eating protein with breakfast and snacks. Adopt a weight loss program that has been developed with the goal of not only weight loss, but also aims to maximize your health in general. By improving your health status, your metabolism will improve and your organs will function better. This will accelerate the reduction in blood pressure.
A stress response in the body
Autonomic hypertension is a form of high blood pressure that is caused by the way our body reacts to stress. The autonomic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that coordinates actions to our organs, glands and blood vessels. This system works automatically without our conscious effort. Signals are sent to constrict or dilate our blood vessels in order to bring oxygen and nutrients where it’s needed. When we are stressed the majority of blood vessels become narrow which increases blood pressure.
As mentioned in his book “When the Body’s Says No”, Dr. Gabor Mate, MD, explains how the worse type of stress is the kind that causes us to feel like we have no control. Examples include work deadlines, fluctuating stocks and mortgage rate, relationship difficulties, yet another car repair, or a sick child. Being in constant alert can significantly raise blood pressure.
Addressing the root cause of the stress and adopting strategies to decrease stress can substantially reduce blood pressure. Slowing down is one of the most effective ways of doing this. Of all my recommendations in my clinical practice, my patients often find this one the toughest to do. The key is to start somewhere. Take 10 minutes every day and do something relaxing (but non-productive). Put your feet up, drink your tea and do nothing. Enjoy the moment and the ‘me’ time. Soon your body and mind will get accustomed to slowing down.
Research shows that yoga, meditation and exercise also help to reduce blood pressure. The use of specific vitamins in medicinal doses and individualized herbal combinations that target the autonomic nervous system and bring it back into balance are also very helpful.
Published by Dr. Gleixner on Wednesday February 3rd 2010 in Times & Transcript.
Back to Dr. Gleixner’s full list of articles.
Interested in learning more about other unique concepts?
See Dr. Gleixner’s bio.
Ready to book an appointment?