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Why is your blood pressure high?

Published:Tuesday | May 22, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Nutrition, emotions and hypertension

High blood pressure (hypertension) is a common disorder and a major risk factor for heart disease, the world's number-one killer. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 600 million people worldwide suffer from elevated blood pressure.

What is blood pressure?

Our blood circulates throughout the body by the constant pumping of the heart. The force with which the blood flows through the arteries is referred to as blood pressure.

Blood pressure is measured with an instrument, and its value is expressed in millimetres of mercury (mmHg) as two readings: The higher reading is called the systolic pressure and is the pressure of blood in the arteries as the heart contracts and the lower reading or diastolic pressure describes the pressure on the blood-vessel walls as the heart relaxes between beats.

Modern medicine considers that an optimal blood pressure should stay within the range of 120/80 mmHg. However, blood pressure is usually higher in older people because of the stiffening and hardening of the artery walls that occurs with age. Additionally, blood pressure generally rises and falls throughout the day in a cyclic rhythm and is influenced by many factors such as exercise and emotional stress (like a visit to the doctor).

High blood pressure may not display any symptoms and can only be detected by measurement. Several blood-pressure readings must be taken at different times to definitely diagnose high blood pressure.

What causes high blood pressure?

In the western world, more visits are made to the doctor for high blood pressure than for any other problem, yet the medical profession still claims ignorance of its underlying cause. Yes, more than 90 per cent of the people diagnosed with hypertension are told that they have essential hypertension, meaning that the cause is unknown.

I find this amazing as everything has a cause. I regard high blood pressure to be more a symptom rather than a disease. It is an indicator of an underlying disorder. The cause may vary from person to person, but it must be identified if we are to deal with the problem.

In my experience, in most cases 'essential' hypertension is a lifestyle-related disorder often having its roots in nutritional deficiencies and poorly managed stress.

Nutritional imbalance

Cellular medicine, a term coined by Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling and has student Dr Mathias Rath, has identified the most common cause of high blood pressure as a chronic deficiency of specific nutrients in the cells that make up the walls of our blood vessels. A deficiency or imbalance of these key nutrients can lead to persistent tightening and thickening of the blood-vessel walls that eventually elevates the blood pressure.

Some of these nutrients are needed for the production of nitric oxide (NO) called the 'vascular relaxing factor' that decreases the tension in the walls of the arteries and keeps blood pressure in normal range. Other nutrients are essential for maintaining optimal contraction and relaxation of the smooth muscle cells and the elasticity of the blood vessels. The combined action of these nutrients is needed to keep blood pressure within a normal range.

These nutrients include the amino acid arginine, which creates (NO) the blood-vessel relaxing factor, as well as lysine, vitamin C, magnesium, calcium, potassium, omega-3 fatty acids, the B vitamins and coenzyme Q10. Botanical factors like green tea, soy and garlic also play a positive role.

Unfortunately, the modern diet is woefully inadequate in many of these nutrients and supplementing with them will play an important role in correcting hypertension. The strong association between hypertension and obesity is another indication that there is a common underlying nutritional cause. The loss of a few pounds of excess abdominal fat can dramatically improve the control of your blood pressure.

Stressful events and hidden emotions

In his excellent book, Healing Hypertension, Dr Samuel Mann of the renowned Hypertension Center at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Cornell Medical Center, points out how stressful life events can fuel hypertension. Here, he does not refer to just the ordinary stresses of everyday life.

Contrary to popular belief, his research shows that, although everyday stress can cause transient increases in blood pressure, it does not usually produce sustained, severe hypertension. The stresses Dr Mann identifies are the severe stressful life events, often occurring in childhood, which are so overwhelming and potentially destructive that the individual handles them by hiding away the powerful feelings that surround them.

Sometimes the person completely blocks out any memory of the event, while in other cases they can remember the event but express no real pain about it. A common telltale sign of people in the latter group is when the individual can talk about extremely traumatic issues with no outward sign of emotions. They often claim that they have got over it, but, in fact, they have not addressed it. Those who have blocked their memories can often remember very little about their childhood.

My own experience with hard-to-manage hypertensive patients, makes me agree strongly with Dr Mann. Many hypertension sufferers are manifesting a psychosomatic disorder. As Dr Mann puts it, "Many people with severe hypertension do not realise that their past revisits them every day, whether they feel it or not". To approach their problem simply with lab tests and powerful drugs will be missing the boat. But the problem must still be addressed, as uncontrolled hypertension from any cause can still kill.

Get appropriate help

As not all cases of hypertension are the result of suppressed emotions, you may first wish to use the nutritional tools discussed above before discussing this possibility with an appropriate health-care provider. Then you can consider one or more of the following therapies:

Individual or group psychotherapy

Behavioural techniques: yoga and meditation, relaxation techniques, stress management, biofeedback, hypnotherapy and regression therapy

Bodywork: emotional release therapy, reflexology, thought-field therapy and Reiki.

Connecting with an individual or a group support system.

I along with music therapist Dr Winsome Miller-Rowe have created a powerful CD entitled A Time to Relax which is a useful self-help tool in the management of stress-related hypertension.

These modalities may be safely used in conjunction with conventional medication. However, many patients who use these techniques are able to drastically reduce or completely eliminate their need for drug therapy. Remember, the long-term use of many of the popular drugs for hypertension carry the risk of many potentially serious side effects.

You may email Dr Vendryes at tonyvendryes@gmail.com or listen to An Ounce of Prevention on POWER106FM on Fridays at 8:00 p.m. His new book An Ounce of Prevention - Especially for Women is available at local bookstores and on the Internet.