There has been a lot of interesting news lately on the subject of hypertension (chronically high blood pressure). Some of it is re-sparking the debate concerning whether salt restriction actually increases the risk of heart disease and stroke rather than reduces it. There have been other stories mentioning additional causes of hypertension like potatoes and air pollution. And the final bit of news is concerning the FDA’s recommendations to food manufacturers to reduce the amount of salt in processed foods. I’ve already been over most of this before, and you can read in detail about salt, hypertension, and heart disease here if you’re interested. This week, I just want to briefly summarize some of these findings and give advice on how to actually reduce your risks of hypertension and heart disease.
More than one cause
I’m not going to debate in this article on whether salt actually leads to hypertension and heart disease. If you want to see my argument on why it does not you can read about it here. I want to mention some of the other possible causes so you can see why focusing all your attention on salt misses the point and may not help improve your longevity.
Sugar: I mentioned previously that high fructose corn syrup not only increases hypertension but it also helps the heart grow and thicken into a diseased state known as cardiomegaly that will eventually lead to heart attacks. The new review of observational studies making the news looked at the effects of potato consumption on hypertension. They found that eating potatoes four to six times a week increased the risk for developing hypertension by 11 percent. The researchers involved attributed it to the rapid rise in blood sugar levels. This emphasizes just how impactful high-glycemic carbohydrates are on blood pressure and hypertension risk since potatoes are also high in potassium which typically lowers the risk.
Inactivity: Sedentary or overweight people have a higher resting heart rate. This not only puts more stress on your system throughout the day, but it makes it less responsive to changes in blood pressure associated with increased activity. Similar in the way to how your muscles and joints feel stiff from sitting around all day, inactivity trains your blood vessels to be stiff as well. These unresponsive blood vessels are one of the reasons why sitting all day increases your risk of death from all causes.
Air pollution: A review of 17 studies found that high blood pressure was associated with short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide (from burning fossil fuels) and small particulate matter (like dust, dirt, and smoke) and long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide (another combustion byproduct) and small particulate matter. I don’t bring this up to freak you out about something that is mostly out of your control, but to show that salt is not the only cause and that focusing solely on salt restriction isn’t going to help with this one. You may not be able to control the pollution in your environment, but you can train your body to reduce the damage it causes to your health (see below).
More than one solution
Since the science on whether salt restriction helps or not is contentious, let’s instead focus on things that definitely will reduce your risk.
Activity: One of the best ways to keep your heart healthy and your blood vessels responsive and pliable is to work them routinely. Both cardio and strength training have been shown to reduce blood pressure and hypertension risk. As for the air pollution risks I’ve mentioned above, there are multiple studies showing how exercise reduces the damage from air pollution, even if you exercise in a polluted environment. One mouse study exposed two groups of mice to diesel exhaust for five weeks. One group participated in regular aerobic activity while the other did not. While the control group showed significant inflammation and reactive oxygen species (which damages cells and DNA) in their lungs, the exercising group was able to counteract the damaging effects of the pollution exposure. Another epidemiological study looked at the effects of taking daily bike rides in a polluted city in the Netherlands. They concluded that while the pollution likely shortened the average lifespan by 0.8 to 40 days, the levels of activity likely extended those same people’s lives by 3 to 14 months. Pollution is a stressor that increases oxidative damage. Exercise is another stressor that creates oxidative damage in the body, but the difference is that exercise forces your body to adapt so that it can better deal with these harmful particles in the future.
Eat more potassium: I already mentioned the benefits of eating potassium-rich foods before, but I want to quickly mention it again here. Your body works best in balance. Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids are both essential but you only hear about the omega-3 because we already get way too much omega-6 in our diets. It’s the same thing with saturated fats. They do have unique benefits and should have a place in your diets, but the reason we think they’re unhealthy is because we already eat far too much saturated fats and not enough unsaturated fats. Potassium is the balance to salt, but the typical Western diet has the ideal ratio completely backwards. Check out the list of some potassium-rich foods here and look to improve the quality of your diet rather trying to restrict a single nutrient.
Cut out processed foods: I’ve mentioned this one many times before, and the benefits of doing so are profound when it comes to high blood pressure and hypertension. There’s a reason the FDA is asking food manufacturers to reduce the amount of salt in processed foods, and that’s because it is where the majority of people’s daily salt intake comes from. When people try to get healthy, they think they need to stop putting salt on their meat and vegetables, but if you just cut out stuff with a label on it, you’ll drastically reduce your daily sodium levels. Processed food is also the number one source of high-glycemic carbohydrates and high fructose corn syrup. Both of which not only impact your blood pressure, but help simple high blood pressure progress into hypertension and heart disease. Processed food is probably the biggest contributor to hypertension and replacing packaged foods with whole foods will make the biggest impact on your health.
Quality over restriction
As I’ve said many times before, don’t try to just cut back on calories, or salt, or fat, or whatever without replacing it with something that is filling, nutritious, and most importantly, something that you want to eat. Restrictive thinking leads to short-term weight loss at best and it likely won’t even improve your blood chemistry. You need to improve the quality of the foods you eat and chose ones that you can enjoy for the rest of your life. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend checking out the article on how to structure your diet. I get a lot of feedback from people telling me how much it’s cut through the confusion about what they should and shouldn’t eat. Once you see how easy it can be to eat right, you won’t need to worry about your daily salt intake at all.