A doctor checks a patient for high blood pressure. Courtesy Centers for Disease Control
Early in the pandemic, it was revealed that having high blood pressure, also called hypertension, put people at greater risk for having severe complications related to COVID-19.
The heightened attention on blood pressure continued, and in December 2021, the American Heart Association reported that blood pressure levels have increased across the board for men and women during the past two years.
We can attribute the rise to more people engaging in behaviors — fueled by the restrictions and lifestyle changes brought about by the pandemic — that contribute to high blood pressure. These include eating processed food, increasing alcohol use, and decreasing exercise and physical activity. There is also the added factor of the elevated stress levels people have been experiencing during this time.
Additionally, we have noticed elevation of blood pressure in patients with previously controlled hypertension. This is concerning because elevated blood pressure over time can lead to serious complications, including stroke, heart attack, heart failure and kidney failure.
Controlling Hypertension with the Help of Your Doctor
It is important to note that a rise in blood pressure can be gradual or it can rapidly spike. For patients susceptible to hypertension, risk factors that quickly elevate blood pressure include drinking more than two alcoholic drinks a day, eating a high-sodium diet, and dealing with acute and chronic stress.
Such stress can trigger an increase in blood pressure by raising levels of adrenaline and cortisol. Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, also contribute to high blood pressure.
If you experience a sudden increase in blood pressure, it is vital you promptly contact your primary care doctor to rule out any secondary causes. You should have your blood pressure taken at every appointment. If the reading comes back as elevated, blood pressure should be retaken to verify the numbers.
If you have elevated blood pressure, there are several ways to monitor and control it:
- Initial guidance — Your doctor can instruct you on how to take blood pressure recordings at home and make healthy lifestyle changes.
- Follow-up — A follow-up visit should be scheduled for high blood pressure. Close contact should be maintained with your care provider until your hypertension is well controlled. Then, follow-up appointments every 6 months are recommended.
- Medication and treatment — If your blood pressure remains high, your doctor might discuss treatment options with you, such as blood pressure medication.
- Testing — Your kidney function will also be monitored with annual blood and urine tests.
- Health coaching — If you have difficult-to-control blood pressure or need additional monitoring or education, many care providers offer health coaches who keep in contact with you and provide support, education and guidance.
Ways to Lower Blood Pressure on Your Own
While medical intervention to treat high blood pressure is often necessary, dietary changes can also have an immense impact. In fact, lifestyle modification is crucial and is the backbone of all hypertension treatment.
It is recommended that those at risk for high blood pressure switch to a DASH diet or Mediterranean diet. These are generally low in refined carbohydrates and sugar, rich in fruits and vegetables, and include a moderate amount of lean proteins, such as chicken and fish, as well as healthy fats, including olive oil, nuts and avocados.
In some studies, this type of diet has been shown to reduce blood pressure 5 to 10 points. Cutting back on sodium to no more than 1,500 milligrams a day can reduce blood pressure an additional 4 to 5 points.
Combined with a healthy diet, exercising for 90 to 150 minutes a week can also significantly lower blood pressure. These changes will often lead to weight loss, which improves blood pressure. Stress reduction and limiting alcohol intake can also make a big difference.
Talk with your primary care doctor if you are concerned about your hypertension management. Together, you can come up with an appropriate plan to treat it, make lifestyle changes and reduce your risk of serious complications.
David Hall, MD, is a board-certified internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.