One in three adults suffers from high blood pressure and some are unaware of it. That’s because hypertension is a silent disease that frequently causes few or no symptoms. However, untreated high blood pressure can damage organs, like your heart and kidneys, as well as your blood vessels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of seven people who have their first heart attack also has high blood pressure.
Unfortunately, blood pressure rises with age. Just because your blood pressure was normal at age 40 doesn’t mean you won’t have high blood pressure when you reach your 50s or 60s. That’s why it’s important to check your numbers regularly. Some people have borderline hypertension with blood pressure readings that are higher than optimal but not in the hypertensive category. In these cases, lifestyle factors, like diet and exercise, can have an impact and for some people may even be enough to ward off hypertension.
What about diet? While there are really no foods that magically cure hypertension, some foods appear to modestly lower blood pressure when you consume them regularly. Here are some that show the most promise.
Lower Blood Pressure #1: Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is not only tasty but it contains antioxidant compounds called flavanols that dilate the inner walls of arteries. The way they seem to do this is by boosting the production of nitric oxide. How effective is this delicious prescription? A meta-analysis carried out by Harvard researcher that looked at 24 chocolate studies showed that dark chocolate with a cacao content of at least 50% reduced blood pressure in both healthy people and those with hypertension. Plus, you don’t need large amounts of dark chocolate to get the benefits. One to two squares daily is enough to modestly lower blood pressure. Look for dark chocolate with a high cacao content (preferably 70% or greater) and one that’s low in sugar. Milk chocolate doesn’t appear to have the same benefits and white chocolate is devoid of flavanols and isn’t effective at all.
Lower Blood Pressure #2: Beetroot Juice
The power of beetroot juice lies with the natural nitrates this beverage made from beetroot contains. The power of nitric oxide is its ability to dilate arteries and reduce the resistance within the arterial wall. In turn, this leads to a drop in blood pressure. As with dark chocolate, the power to do this seems to come from nitric oxide, a volatile gas that expands the arterial walls. When you drink a glass of beetroot juice, the nitrates in the beverage are converted by enzymes in the arterial wall to nitric oxide. The nitric oxide then works its magic by expanding the vessel and reducing resistance so blood and oxygen flow more freely. Less tension and resistance within the arteries means lower blood pressure. In one study, one glass of beetroot juice daily lowered blood pressure by up to 10 points and the effects lasted for 6 hours or more. Don’t like beets or beetroot juice? Celery, spinach, and watercress contain substantial quantities of natural nitrates as well.
Lower Blood Pressure #3: Pistachios
Is there no end to the health benefits of nuts? We know that nuts are linked with a lower risk of heart disease and overall mortality, but a well-conducted study also found that pistachios lower the risk of hypertension as well. In the study, men and women ate a diet supplemented with 1.5 ounces of pistachios daily, or 3.0 ounces of pistachios daily or no pistachios. Otherwise, their diets were similar. What they found was that those who ate either dose of pistachios experienced less of a stress-induced increase in blood pressure and the effect was greater in the group that ate 3.0 ounces of pistachios daily.
In another study, researchers looked at more than 20 studies spanning a 55-year period. This analysis showed that pistachios had the greatest impact on lowering blood pressure relative to other nuts. These crunchy, unprocessed snacks lowered both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, whereas mixed nuts only reduced diastolic blood pressure. So, the next time you’re hungry for a snack, grab a handful of pistachios.
Lower Blood Pressure #4: Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
We know that extra-virgin olive oil is packed with heart-healthy, monounsaturated fats but consuming more of it may actually have an impact on your blood pressure. In one study, researchers found that participants who consumed around 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil daily were able to reduce by 50% the blood pressure medication they needed to keep their pressure under control.
Why would olive oil lower blood pressure? One theory is the polyphenol antioxidants in extra-virgin olive oil are responsible. All in all, extra-virgin olive oil appears to be a heart-healthy oil. However, buy from a reputable maker. Olive oil fraud is quite common and you may be getting olive oil diluted with a less expensive and less healthy option.
Lower Blood Pressure #5: Hibiscus Tea
Hibiscus tea is made from the petals of a flower called Hibiscus sabdariffa. In one study, hibiscus tea was compared with a common medication used to treat hypertension called lisinopril. The study showed hibiscus tea was as effective as lisinopril for lowering blood pressure. In fact, compounds in hibiscus tea behave like the active ingredient in this medication. It blocks an enzyme called angiotensin-converting enzyme, or ACE, that lisinopril does. To get the benefits, studies suggest you would have to drink 3 glasses a day. Fortunately, it’s easy to find and has a slightly tart but pleasant taste, somewhere similar to cranberry juice.
The Bottom Line
These foods are good additions to a healthy diet but it’s most important to focus on your diet as a whole. Unprocessed foods that are low in sugar and contain heart-healthy fats will be the most beneficial for heart health and for your health as a whole.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “High Blood Pressure Facts
AARP. “Harvard Study: Dark Chocolate Can Help Lower Your Blood Pressure
Medical News Today. “Does Beetroot Juice Lower Blood Pressure?
Medscape.com. “Pistachios May Reduce Risk for Hypertension
Business Wire. “Researchers Link Pistachios to Lower Blood Pressure”
WebMD. “Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Reduces Need for Blood Pressure Medication”
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Indian J Pharmacol. 2015 Sep-Oct;47(5):540-5. doi: 10.4103/0253-7613.165194.