Have you been diagnosed with 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?
In my clinic, Sunflower Wellness Center, one of my main goals is always to aim to treat the roots of disease, so that we’re fixing the real problem(s), and not just addressing the symptoms (though I do that too, so you feel better quickly).
With most modern health problems, this root-treatment approach involves:
- managing stress
- changing dietary habits to reduce inflammation and improve physiological functions
- addressing nutritional and constitutional imbalances and deficits through herbs and supplements and
- improving sleep and energy
Because stress plays such a critical role in hypertension, let’s talk about stress management.
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 prepares your system to meet perceived threats with heightened awareness and responsiveness. When this response is triggered frequently, it becomes more and more difficult to switch back over to the relaxed, non-defensive, “rest and digest” mode.
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 quality of life!
Top 5 Stress Relievers
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 load, 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 enjoying life.
One of the best ways to manage stress is to get regular acupuncture treatments. Acupuncture directly affects 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 acupuncture 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: after getting weekly acupuncture treatments for several weeks, people 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 – 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. In Part 4 of this series, I talk more in depth about how to improve sleep quality and quantity; for now, let’s start with these basics:
- If you aren’t getting at least 8 hours a night, start working towards that.
- Get to bed earlier if you can’t sleep in any later.
- Turn off all electronics at least 1 hour (and preferably 2+) before bedtime.
- Make sure your bedroom is pitch dark and cold (<65F) during sleep time.
3. 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 the evenings aren’t long enough to fully wind down (hence the desire for a glass of wine, or two), and we go to bed with more cortisol and stress buzzing around in our system than is ideal, causing less than ideal sleep quality.
I have a sweet, simple fix for you (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 descend, and when you do this regularly, you 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.
4. Relaxation Techniques
Hopefully you already have your own toolkit of healthy ways to relax (no, sorry, alcohol, carbs and TV don’t count!), but here’s a list of options in case you’re looking for some more ideas:
- Meditation, or, just sitting quietly
- Deep breathing
- Leisurely biking
- Listening to music
- Making music
- Sewing, crocheting, knitting, quilting
- Reading a good book
- Journaling, 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 (if some of these do, then maybe pick something else for your relaxation!)
And yes, getting some vigorous exercise can be great for you, and is often a great stress reliever, but what we’re focusing on here are things that are relaxing. Vigorous exercise is stimulating more than it is relaxing. And at the end of the day, when your stress levels are chronically high, relaxation is especially needed (in addition to exercise), especially if you have high blood pressure.
Now 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.
And speaking of things that fill you up inside…
5. Friend Time
Don’t ever underestimate the power of friend-time.
Connection, community, compassion – we get all of these crucial things and so much more from spending time with friends. And it doesn’t always have to be super-high-quality time, or time with our very closest friends; even 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 friend date!