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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Blood Pressure - What Is It, Why Is It Important, and What Can You Do About It?

What exactly do your blood pressure numbers mean and what is high blood pressure?  Blood pressure is the pressure exerted by circulating blood upon the walls of the blood vessels.  During each heartbeat, blood pressure varies between a maximum (systolic - or the top number in your reading) and a minimum (diastolic - or the bottom number in your reading).  The systolic rate is your peak blood pressure when the heart is squeezing blood out and your diastolic rate is the pressure when your heart is filling with blood and is relaxing between beats.  When referred to as a person's "blood pressure" - the term usually refers to the systemic arterial pressure measured at a person's upper arm and is a measure of the pressure in the brachial artery.  It is measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg). 

The American Heart Association guideline for desired blood pressure is a systolic rate (top number) of between 90 and 119 and a diastolic rate (bottom number) between 60 and 79.  Numbers below this fall within the "hypotension" category (meaning pressure is too low) while numbers of 120/80 and above fall within various ranges of prehypertension and actual hypertension. 

Why is this important?  At least in the case of "hypertension", elevated blood pressure puts mechanical stress on the walls of your arteries which make the heart have to work harder and contributes to the progression of unhealthy tissue growth within the artery walls.  The higher the pressure and the longer this continues, the thicker and larger and ultimately weaker the heart muscle becomes over time.  Persistent hypertension is a significant risk factor for strokes, heart attacks, heart failures, arterial aneurysms and is a leading cause of chronic renal failure.

First and foremost - know your blood pressure.  "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it" - so knowing your blood pressure (including at different times of the day and under different conditions) is critical.  Once you know it - there is so much information in the public domain as to how to keep it under control or to reduce it that It Is Not Rocket Science as to action steps you can take.  Some of the most well known ones are: 

1.  Don't smoke cigarettes or use any tobacco products
2.  Lose weight if you are overweight
3.  Exercise regularly
4.  Cut back on sodium intake  (adding salt to your food and eating processed foods SIGNIFICANTLY increases the amount of sodium you consume)
5.  Limit alcohol consumption to no more than 2 drinks a day.
6.  Incorporate relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation OR biofeedback into your routine.  If you can't leave a stressful situation or environment, you have to train your body and your mind to handle and manage the stress.

If these don't work to get and keep your blood pressure in the desired range, there are various medications for blood pressure but that should be the last resort. 

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