Have you been diagnosed with elevated or Stage 1 or 2 high blood pressure (aka hypertension), and your MD wants to put you on side-effect-ridden prescription medications (that often aren’t very effective)? If so, and if you – very sensibly – don’t want to go that route, what natural options do you have?
As a holistic and Functional Medicine doctor, one of my main goals is always to aim to treat the roots of disease, so that we’re fixing the real underlying problem(s), and not just addressing the symptoms (though that’s important too, so you feel better quickly).
With most modern health problems, this root-treatment approach involves:
- Changing diet to reduce inflammation and improve physiological functions.
- Identifying and addressing hormone imbalances and nutrient deficiencies through herbs and supplements.
- Boosting the immune system and clearing underlying infections (surprisingly common!)
- Helping the body to effectively detoxify from all our modern toxins.
- Improving stress resilience and stress management.
Because it plays such a critical role in hypertension, today we’re going to focus on stress, and talk about my top 5 recommendations for stress management for high blood pressure.
How Stress Affects Blood Pressure
When you feel stressed, your nervous system responds by “tensing” and activating your defensive “fight or flight” mode: your heart rate increases, your blood vessels constrict, your breathing becomes more shallow, and your blood pressure increases. This reaction prepares your system to meet perceived threats with heightened awareness and responsiveness. And when this stress response is triggered frequently, it becomes more and more difficult to dial back down to the relaxed, non-defensive, “rest and digest” mode. So your nervous system remains worked up and blood pressure remains elevated for more of the time.
As a result, many of us go through life feeling chronically stressed, overstimulated and taxed by the demands and busy-ness of modern life, with not enough “down time” to unwind, let go, and regroup. When this chronic stress piles up on us, we more easily get upset, frustrated, impatient, moody, anxious, worried and/or overwhelmed, and it becomes harder to remain or regain calm in the face of even small stressors.
Is this you?
If so, then stress-management techniques can help tremendously, both with hypertension and overall health and quality of life!
Top 5 Stress Relievers for Hypertension
Stress is a good thing, up to a point. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, makes us want to do and be, to learn and grow, to play and laugh and create, to engage in life and get the most out of every day.
It’s when we have too much stress, or constant stress, and we have trouble managing that stress, that we get into trouble. So, let’s look at ways you can improve your ability to deal with stress, so that you bounce back quickly from stresses and can get on with really enjoying life.
One of the best ways to manage stress and naturally lower blood pressure is to get regular bodywork, especially acupuncture and massage. These directly affect the nervous system, turning off the “fight or flight” response and turning on the “rest and digest”, giving our bodies and minds a much-needed break. And over time, getting regular bodywork treatments retrains the nervous system to more quickly and easily turn off the stress response, so it becomes easier to relax and let things go.
In the decades that I have been treating patients, I have seen this countless times: once people start having weekly acupuncture treatments, they begin to feel more resilient, things bother them less, they are less likely to over-react, and they are quicker to calm down and put things in perspective and let them go. I call this the “duck’s back” effect of acupuncture – stress rolls off of you like water rolling off a duck’s back!
We do not get enough sleep these days. The optimal amount of sleep for most people is 8-9 hours per night, yet we are collectively averaging less than 7 hours per night. And, many of us are not sleeping well, either – sleep is not deep, and is often interrupted or disturbed by various factors. Getting more and better sleep is crucial for stress resilience – you know how when you’re tired, everything seems worse and is harder to deal with? So, if you’re not getting at least 8 hours a night on average, start working towards that.
Here are a few tips on how to calm your system, boost melatonin production, and improve sleep quality and duration:
- Turn off all electronics (TV, phone, computer, tablet) and all lights 2-3 hours before bedtime. (If you must have lights on during this time, only have on yellow bulbs, like these.)
- Go for a short walk outside after dark. This cools your body, and the darkness resets the pineal gland (internal clock), both of which help boost melatonin production to improve sleep quality and quantity.
- Another way to stimulate melatonin production in the evening is to get warm and then cool down with a hot shower or bath, followed by a short burst of cool or cold water. Or, lay down on a heating pad for 10-30 minutes, and then remove the heat, and the cooling down from that will also stimulate melatonin. And you’ll already be in bed, so when you get drowsy, boom, go to sleep.
- Go to bed earlier in the evening. Without lights and electronics, this will happen more naturally. Fun fact: Before Thomas Edison’s invention of the electric light in 1879, people got an average of 10 hours of sleep!
- Create a bedtime ritual that will help signal your body it’s time to wind down, such as a cup of tea, some calming yoga or meditation, or some quiet time with a book (lit by a yellow light).
- Take a natural sleep aid in the evening, such as Magnesium Glycinate or Theanine, and boost your consumption of magnesium-rich foods.
- Make sure your bedroom is absolutely pitch dark, with no light from electronics, night lights, or from outside. Ideally, unplug everything electronic and/or move those items to another room, and get blackout shades.
- Make your bedroom cool (<65F) during sleep time.
Put Your Feet Up
You’ve probably heard of cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone”. When our stress levels are low or well-managed, our natural cycle of cortisol production goes like this: first thing in the morning, your cortisol level is at its peak, and then it gradually wanes through the day, until, at night, it is at its lowest, like this:
But when we encounter stressors through the day, our cortisol spikes, often repeatedly, and then when evening comes, cortisol is still elevated and it’s hard to settle down (hence the desire for a glass of wine, or two, or the desire to stay up later, because we’re “wired”). So bedtime arrives while we still have more cortisol and stress buzzing around in our system than is ideal, causing difficulty falling asleep, and/or less than ideal sleep quality.
To help with this, I have a sweet, simple fix for you (and a nod to Dr. Sara Gottfried for this gem): elevate your feet and knees at least 6″ above your heart for 10-30 minutes each evening. I recommend this super-comfy leg-elevating pillow for this.
Within a few minutes of putting your feet up, your cortisol level will begin to drop, and when you do this regularly, you will retrain your body to more easily ramp down on its own in the evening as it should. You’ll feel calmer immediately and overall, and your sleep will be deeper and more restful.
Hopefully you already have your own toolkit of healthy ways to relax (and no, sorry, alcohol, carbs, and screen time don’t count! 😜), but here’s a list of options in case you’re looking for some new or additional ideas:
- Meditation, or, just sitting quietly
- Slow deep breathing (such as square breathing – see below for details)
- Leisurely biking
- Listening to music
- Making music
- Sewing, crocheting, knitting, quilting
- Reading a good book
- Writing prose, poetry, etc.
- Doing puzzles
- Going on a “Media Fast”
- and more!
You’ll notice that these things all have at least two things in common: they are active (vs passive like watching TV) but not too active, and they engage parts of our brains that we typically don’t use so much during the rest of the day.
The key to choosing activities for relaxing is to pick things that you will look forward to and that will light you up inside. Whether that’s painting, or walking along a river, or cooking an elaborate gourmet meal, or whatever, choose activities for relaxation because when you think about doing them, your spirit says YES. Don’t pick, say, meditation just because you know it’s supposed to be good for you and you’ll just struggle through it even though it really makes you a little crazy to even think about trying it. NO! Life is too short for that sort of nonsense. And, that is not relaxing. Pick things that will soothe and nourish you, that will fill you up inside while they calm you.
How To Do Square Breathing
This is very effective for quickly calming your nervous system, and can be done anywhere, anytime. Plus, it has the added bonus of better oxygenating your system, boosting energy, and improving mood. 😊
- Breathe in through your nose, breathing deep into your belly (not your upper chest), for a count of 5
- Hold your breath for a count of 5
- Release your breath slowly through your nose for a count of 5
- Hold your breath for a count of 5
Embrace the power of friend-time!
Connection, community, compassion, laughter, love, affection – we get all of these incredibly crucial things and so much more from spending time with friends. And it doesn’t always have to be super-high-quality time, or a lot of time, or time only with our very closest friends. Even spending a bit of time with friendly acquaintances is good for us, and helps to manage stress, makes us calmer and happier, and generally makes life better.
So get out there and make a date for some friend time! ❤