A recent survey has found that almost half of South Africans suffer from high blood pressure. Here are tips to help manage this condition…

According to the 2016 South Africa Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS), a staggering 46% of women and 44% of men (aged 15 years and over) have hypertension (the prevalence of which increases with age).

While some people have symptoms like headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, heart palpitations and nose bleeds, others experience no symptoms at all. This means there’s a fair chance you have hypertension and don’t know it.

As September is Heart Awareness Month, and the 29th marks Heart Health Day, it’s an opportune time to become more informed, before it’s too late.

What is hypertension?

“Hypertension is a condition in which your blood vessels have persistently high pressure,” explains Dr Deepak Patel, Clinical Specialist at Discovery Vitality.

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“A healthy blood pressure is 120/80 mmHg. If you have your blood pressure taken on three different days, and all your readings are 140/90 mmHg or higher, it is very likely that you have hypertension. The upshot of this is that your heart has to work harder to pump blood through your body.”

Why is it dangerous?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), uncontrolled high blood pressure is dangerous because it can lead to heart attacks, heart enlargement, and eventually heart failure.

Hypertension can also damage your blood vessels, and lead to aneurysms (weak spots and bulging in your vessels) and strokes. Additional negative health consequences include possible kidney failure, blindness, and cognitive impairment.

Lifestyle changes that combat hypertension 

The WHO offers these five key steps to prevent or manage hypertension:

  1. Follow a healthy diet: Opt for whole foods over processed foods and limit non-nutritious, health-harming foods such as those high in sugar and unhealthy fats.
  2. If you drink alcohol, stick to moderate amounts: Drinking too much alcohol also increases your blood pressure. Limit alcohol to no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
  3. Exercise regularly: Consistent exercise has shown to be highly effective in lowering the risk of chronic diseases of lifestyle. Get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity a week.
  4. Stop smoking: Smoking has been shown to increase high blood pressure.
  5. Manage stress in a healthy way: Prolonged periods of stress have negative health effects on your body.

Managing hypertension with a healthy diet

“One of the easiest ways to lower your blood pressure and improve your health is make a few simple changes to your diet, says Candice Smith, Head of Vitality’s nutrition strategy, “For example, including more potassium-rich foods (like vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fruits) and less sodium (found in salt, bread, margarine, processed meats, soup, stock powder, condiments, crisps and crackers and convenience foods) will help to lower your blood pressure.”

Smith offers these nine tips to help prevent or manage hypertension through your everyday food choices:

  1. Gradually add less salt to your food during cooking and at the table. Instead, flavour food with fresh and dried herbs and salt-free spices, garlic, vinegar or citrus juice and zest.
  2. Limit salty foods such as packet soups, stock cubes, gravy, cheese, many breakfast cereals, bread, salty snacks, processed meat and fast food.
  3. Learn to read food labels so you can identify hidden salt in products. Aim to fill most of your shopping basket with minimally-processed whole foods. Choose low-sodium versions of products where available.
  4. Replace salty snacks with fresh fruit or unsalted nuts and seeds.
  5. Incorporate more vegetables into your day – add a side salad to meals, snack on vegetable crudités, and incorporate more vegetables into existing recipes (like a spinach and mushroom omelette, wraps or sandwiches with grated carrot, beetroot and cucumber, pasta sauces with pureed baby marrows and butternut, and so on).
  6. Serve fresh fruit after dinner instead of sugary desserts, to satisfy sweet cravings.
  7. Add beans, chickpeas and lentils to your favourite meals. Be sure to rinse canned legumes before using them to remove any excess salt.
  8. Use healthy fats such as avocado or salt-free nut butters as a spread instead of mayonnaise, butter or margarine; cook with olive or canola oil; and add unsalted seeds and nuts to a salad, or a bowl of oats porridge, or have them as a snack.
  9. Calcium helps to regulate blood pressure, so incorporate nuts and seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, and more unsweetened milk and plain yoghurt into your day. Make dairy smoothies, add milk to your porridge, or have yoghurt as a snack.

Exercising with high blood pressure

As far as exercise goes, any physical activity that increases your heart and breathing rate will help to control high blood pressure.

An exercise session should last for 30 to 60 minutes and be done at least three to five days each week.

“If you can’t set aside that amount of time in one go, break it up into a few five to 10-minute bursts of activity each day,” suggests Mari Leach, a biokineticist at Discovery Vitality. “Walk around the block during your lunch break and be physical in your daily tasks, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift. Mow the lawn yourself, or do some concerted laps instead of just paddling in a pool.”

To keep your blood pressure within a normal range, you need to keep exercising. Leach advises that you schedule exercise into your daily routine.

“Write it up in your diary or calendar like any other appointment.” It usually takes about one to three months of regular exercise to see a positive change in your blood pressure.

Exercise is quite safe for most people who have high blood pressure, but it’s always advisable to get advice from your doctor or an exercise specialist, who can assist with a personalised, safe exercise programme.

“It’s important to know your health status,” concludes Dr Patel. “Even if you feel fine, visit your GP or a clinic for a general check-up once a year, or book a Vitality Health Check to track your key health indicators on a regular basis. Taking steps towards prevention and early treatment of hypertension will help ensure a healthier heart.”

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While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.