To make matters worse, my family has a history of high blood pressure. My father had high blood pressure, my sister has it, and my mom has it. It turns out that my mom’s parents had it as well, she revealed recently, telling the story of her father getting a spontaneous nosebleed once, leading to the discovery of his condition. When I ran my DNA through 23 and Me, I came back with some markers for high blood pressure. So in the back of my mind I saw it coming, whether I wanted to or not. Still, when I went to the doctor finally and got my pressure taken, I couldn’t help but be a little alarmed when it was off the charts. The nurse’s response was something along the lines of “Hmmm, maybe we should think about sending you to the ER”. I didn’t end up going to the ER, but I did take action finally.
It turns out high blood pressure is not a good thing. Though people are usually not aware of any symptoms when they have high blood pressure, it leads to a greatly increased risk of stroke, and damaging other organs like the kidney. I might not like going to the doctor, but I like the idea of a stroke even less, and I’m fond of my kidneys as well.
At first I reasoned that my pressure was only high because I was nervous about getting it tested. They even have a name for this – “White Coat Syndrome”, for when people have their blood pressure go up at the doctor’s office because they are nervous. But I checked my pressure at home several more times, and it did not get any better. I wasn’t going to get out of it that easily.
The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to improve your blood pressure. Genetics plays a role, but diet and lifestyle are also very important, and there are a variety of drugs available that help as well. I can’t do much about my genetics, but I can change many other aspects of my life.
I exercise and eat pretty well, but I also had developed an engrained habit of drinking lots of coffee all day and all night. I let stress eat away at me sometimes, anxious thoughts bouncing around in my mind from one worry to the next. So there was plenty to work on, and it was time to make some changes and not die, for now anyway.
One of the first things I did was to cut my coffee way down to 2 cups a day, starting the very next day. I thought I needed the coffee to stay alert but suddenly with less coffee I found my anxious thoughts have slowed their monkey swings, and my gut churning anxiety seemed to ease up. I’m keeping up the exercise up, jogging a few times a week and doing yoga on the weekends. I’ve started trying my own home-brew meditation, sitting still or lying in bed and counting my breaths, and clearing my mind. It’s harder than it sounds, I’m afraid. I’ve been reading books about Zen lately that were suggested by my girlfriend, and while I can’t say I really get it, I feel calmer when I read these books. Step by step it all seems to help.
Another change was to start taking drugs. Legal ones, I mean. The nurse practitioner wrote me prescriptions for two blood pressure drugs I started taking the same day. I wasn’t excited about the idea of taking medications on a daily basis, and I feel that many chronic diseases of the western world can be addressed in other ways. But once you’ve done everything else you can with lifestyle and diet, drugs can also play an important role.
Yet another important factor in high blood pressure is diet. I don’t think I had a bad diet, eating a rough approximation of Michael Pollan’s advice to “Eat Real Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I drink moderately, beer and wine. But I had gotten into the habit of salting food while I was cooking. So there was room for improvement there as well.
I stopped cold turkey on salting my food, and my nurse practitioner and my girlfriend want me take supplements as well. I’m struggling on this one a bit. I’m taking a multivitamin, but in addition they recommend Coenzyme Q10 and Fish Oil, or Krill Oil. I’m struggling with these still, I must admit. I haven’t been a huge fan of supplements in my life. I have a bias, which is a belief that I should be able to get all that I need in nutrients from my food, particularly if I eat well. But I’m willing to think about it and give these steps a go too, over time. Maybe I will do a little research and write more about the role of these supplements in blood pressure later.
My pressure started dropping within a week, and has continued heading downward over the last month, out of the red zone and into a yellower range. Any lower and I might almost be normal. I think I’m doing better now. Not perfect, but better.
My mom has made it to 88 so far, and I told my girlfriend I’m going to live to 150. I’m a third of the way there so far, and still kicking. So we will see how it goes.
Glenn Croston is a PhD biologist and the author of “The Real Story of Risk”, “Gifts from the Train Station” and “75 Green Businesses”
Check out Glenn's blog on psychologytoday.com https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-real-story-risk/201211/the-thing-we-fear-more-death