Hypertension

Hypertension (high blood pressure) is a leading cause of heart disease and death worldwide. It is so common in older people in Australia and other developed countries that it has been considered a normal part of aging – but it need not be so. Blood pressure actually goes down slightly in old age in communities which subsist on minimally processed plant-based diets.

High blood pressure damages blood vessels, greatly increasing the risk of stroke and heart attack. It also damages the filtration units in the kidneys further compounding the condition. Larger blood vessels eventually become hardened and no longer absorb the pressure pulse of each heartbeat, leading to damage to smaller vessels further down the line. Vessels can even blow out causing a haemorrhagic stroke (not the most common type).

It has been suggested that hypertension is an attempt by the body to provide adequate blood supply to the tissues, raising the pressure to overcome resistance and sludgy blood flow.

Our diet and lifestyle can work to worsen or normalise blood pressure in many ways:

  • High salt intake results in the fluid retention
  • Every animal protein based meal puts the kidneys into a ‘hyperfiltration’ state, leading to reduced function in the long term.
  • Cholesterol plaque in arteries causes them to harden and narrow. Flexible arteries maintain blood flow between heart beats.
  • Ongoing damage to the endothelium (lining of the arteries) and a lack of nutrients from plants reduces the capacity of arteries to relax and dilate, resulting in a subtle increase in resistance throughout the body.
  • Diets rich in animal products and oils vs minimally processed plants cause red blood cells to become sticky and sludgy as they flow through capillaries, depriving sensitive tissues of oxygen and nutrients.

There is little doubt that a whole foods, plant-based diet with a reasonably healthy lifestyle will prevent hypertension but what about reversing it? There have been many clinical trials in which vegan or WFPB diets have been proven to reduce high blood pressure. The DASH diet was designed to get some of benefits of a plant-based diet without going vegetarian.

The bottom line is that a whole foods, plant-based diet – high in whole grains, tubers, legumes, vegetables and fruits – will improve your blood pressure. Virtually all people with hypertension will improve and most will be able to reduce or cease their medication. Some individuals will need a high degree of dietary compliance to get full benefits – minimal salt, absolutely no oil and avoidance of fat-rich plants as well as coffee. Some particular plant foods such as leafy green vegetables, high in nitrates, actively reduce blood pressure. Regular exercise will further reduce blood pressure.

Let’s temper our optimism with the following consideration. Not everyone will be able to get off all  of their blood pressure medications. You may have spent decades unwittingly damaging your kidneys, hardening your arteries, degrading your endothelium and growing thick muscular arteries – some of this is not reversible. But rather than be disappointed consider the bigger picture – lower cholesterol and rapid reduction in heart attack and stroke risk, preservation of kidney function and broad range of other health benefits.

NB Do not stop your blood pressure medications without medical supervision.

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Page created 18 December 2014
Page last updated 15 January 2017