It All Starts with the Heart
Blood is constantly flowing through every part of your body, propelled by the beating of your heart. Though this hardworking muscle is only about the size of your fist, it contracts sixty to eighty times per minute, sending oxygen-rich blood to the farthest reaches of your body and back.
Like any finely-tuned machine, the heart requires balance to remain in optimal condition. If it doesn’t pump hard enough, its vital job doesn’t get done. But if it starts working too hard, it runs the risk of tiring and eventually giving out. Blood pressure is one critical way the heart maintains its happy, healthy medium.
Blood Pressure Basics
Blood pressure is the force of the blood as it moves through the body. It’s important because we need blood to deliver the oxygen and nutrients that nourish our tissues along with antibodies and white blood cells for immunity. Blood pressure also helps us remove the waste products of our metabolism, like carbon dioxide and toxins from the liver and kidneys.
The heart creates blood pressure with every contraction, but there are other forces at work as well. Blood keeps moving through the network of blood vessels in our bodies because of differences in pressure in our continuously narrowing arteries, veins, and capillaries. It’s similar to what occurs with multi-function showerheads. The amount of water flowing through your pipes remains the same, but a more narrow flow exerts more pressure while a widened spray feels more gentle.
The initial, most substantial pressure comes from the heart, and the arteries’ structure helps maintain it as the blood continues to flow.
Measuring Blood Pressure
A blood pressure reading measures two forces. Systolic pressure is the force that occurs as blood flows out of the heart and into the arteries. Diastolic pressure is the force created when the heart fills with blood as it rests between beats.
These forces are measured using a sphygmomanometer, or what many of us know as the inflatable arm cuff that healthcare providers use during checkups.
The cuff is inflated enough to stop the pulse, and a reading is taken. When the pulse returns, the cuff is allowed to deflate slowly, and another reading is taken. The numbers are expressed in terms of the pressure it takes to move mercury around a tube against gravity, a unit called millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). Your healthcare provider will give your reading as two figures—systolic pressure first and the diastolic pressure second—such as “140 over 80 mm Hg.”
The National Institutes of Health advises that normal blood pressure for most adults is below 120 mm Hg systolic and 80 mm Hg diastolic. While both readings provide important information, “high blood pressure” typically refers to systolic pressure, the first number in your blood pressure reading.
What is High Blood Pressure?
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a condition that occurs when the force of the blood flowing through a person’s arteries is consistently above 130 over 80. The added pressure forces the heart to work harder and can stretch or injure the blood vessels. It also speeds the build-up of harmful plaque that can block blood flow, increasing blood pressure even further.
Over time, high blood pressure can lead to life-threatening issues like heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. It can also damage major organs such as your heart, brain, kidneys, and eyes. According to the CDC, high blood pressure usually has no early warning signs or symptoms. Getting your blood pressure checked regularly by your healthcare provider is the only way to determine whether your blood pressure is too high.
It’s critical to detect high blood pressure early because it can be treated, usually through heart-healthy lifestyle changes with or without prescription blood pressure medications. Your healthcare provider can determine the right treatment plan for you.
Encouraging Healthy Blood Pressure
The American Heart Association encourages everyone to know their blood pressure numbers and adopt a more heart-healthy lifestyle. Impactful changes include eating a well-balanced diet that limits salt, staying physically active, taking steps to manage stress, reducing alcohol, and eliminating smoking.
Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, eating less salt is one of the best choices you can make for your heart. Though sodium is essential for life, consuming too much salt pulls water into the bloodstream, increasing the volume of your blood. More blood flowing through your blood vessels exerts greater pressure on your heart.
The American Heart Association recommends that everyone limit their sodium intake to 1,500 mg/day. The biggest sodium culprits in the average American diet often don’t emerge from the salt shaker on the table. Processed or prepackaged foods like soups, cold cuts, bread, and frozen meals are major sources of excess salt because they often contain sodium-based preservatives and additives to enrich their flavor. It’s not always easy to determine by looking at their labels, however, there are several sodium-containing compounds to watch out for in the ingredient list, such as sodium benzoate, sodium tripolyphosphate, and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Start to make a habit of looking at labels while you grocery shop and choosing low-sodium options when possible. The American Heart Association created this sodium fact sheet to help you make heart-healthy choices.
Managing High Blood Pressure
If your doctor determines that your blood pressure is too high, you’re certainly not alone. According to the CDC, nearly half of American adults have hypertension. If blood pressure medications become part of your treatment plan, we’d be happy to connect you with one of our pharmacists, who are specialists in heart medications. Plus, our free hand-delivery means you’ll never have to plan an extra trip to the pharmacy. With a few healthy lifestyle changes and the support of your doctor and pharmacy, your life doesn’t have to miss a beat.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.