High blood pressure, or hypertension, is one of the most common, chronic health problems in developed countries. A silent killer, hypertension damages blood vessels and organs, often silently, without causing obvious symptoms. According to the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES), around 30% of U.S. adults have high blood pressure, many of whom don’t know it. The incidence goes up with age as well, so you might escape it when you’re younger, only to find your blood pressure slowly creeps up later in life.
Why should you be concerned about your blood pressure? People who have hypertension are 4 times more likely to die of stroke and 3 times more likely to experience a heart attack than those with a healthy blood pressure. Plus, over time, high blood pressure slowly damages blood vessels, tissues, and organs. In fact, according to a study published in The American Journal of Medicine, health risks start to rise at a blood pressure of 115/75 mmHg and higher, a level at which most people don’t get treatment. Plus, even mildly elevated blood pressure over a lifetime is linked with substantial health risks.
Fortunately, high blood pressure can usually be controlled, sometimes without the need for medications. Most people don’t want to take a medication longer term unless they have to, especially when some drugs used to treat hypertension have side effects. For example, one class of antihypertensives called beta-blockers slow the heart rate and can reduce exercise tolerance.
Are there natural or alternative treatments for high blood pressure that work? Let’s look at what science shows about popular, alternative treatments for hypertension.
Aerobic exercise is one science-backed intervention for the treatment of mild hypertension. Studies show that aerobic exercise can lower systolic blood pressure an average of 4 to 6 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure around 3 mmHg. Aerobic exercise works by reducing resistance within the walls of arteries so your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood to tissues. If you have mild or borderline high blood pressure, aerobic exercise alone may be enough to bring your blood pressure into the normal range. Of course, you have to keep working out to sustain the benefits. All in all, aerobic exercise is one of the best natural strategies for improving the health of your heart and blood vessels.
Resistance training, too, helps lower blood pressure. One meta-analysis showed that moderate-intensity resistance training lowers blood pressure by an average of 4 mmHg systolic and 4 mmHg diastolic. However, acutely, heavy resistance training can markedly increase blood pressure. That’s why anyone with uncontrolled high blood pressure should consult their doctor before doing heavy resistance training.
Diet, too, is an evidence-backed way to lower blood pressure. A dietary approach supported by science is the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, also called the DASH diet. The DASH diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, fish, and poultry and low in processed foods, sugar, and red meat. A study showed that following this type of diet can lower systolic blood pressure by an average of 6 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure by 4 mmHg.
In addition, reducing sodium intake may be beneficial for certain groups of people, those who are “salt sensitive.” Around 10% of the population experiences a rise in blood pressure with an increase in dietary sodium. For everyone else, sodium restriction is less important than consuming enough potassium and magnesium, both of which are essential for blood pressure control.
Specific dietary components that may modestly lower blood pressure, if you consume them regularly, include omega-3s from sources like fatty fish, potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, beetroot juice, cocoa, hibiscus tea, and garlic. Each of these foods is linked with reductions in blood pressure in small studies.
If you’re above your ideal body weight, losing weight will help lower your blood pressure. Research shows that every kilogram of weight you lose, you can expect around a 1 mmHg reduction in blood pressure. That’s significant! The impact of weight loss on blood pressure is independent of whether or not you exercise, although why wouldn’t you want to do both?
High Blood Pressure: Other Alternative Therapies
Meditation is helpful for relieving stress – but can it also lead to meaningful reductions in blood pressure? A 2007 study found that transcendental meditation significantly lowered blood pressure, while other forms of meditation and relaxation were not as effective. This study also found that biofeedback did not lead to meaningful reductions in blood pressure, although other research shows it may be beneficial. In this study, transcendental meditation was as effective as dietary changes and exercise for lowering blood pressure.
Although you can’t do it at home, some studies also show that acupuncture lowers blood pressure. In one study, participants with mild high blood pressure experienced a modest reduction in blood pressure readings upon receiving “electroacupuncture,” a type of acupuncture where low levels of electrical stimulation are delivered through needles. The participants received one 30-minute treatment weekly. Blood pressure reductions averaged 6 mmHg systolic and 8 mmHg diastolic and persisted for 6-weeks after the treatments.
Simply leading a healthier lifestyle – getting enough sleep, reducing stress, exercising, and eating a healthy diet, may be enough, in combination, to keep mild high blood pressure controlled without medications.
The Bottom Line
These approaches to treating hypertension are best suited for people who have a mildly elevated or borderline elevated blood pressure and have no other underlying health problems, like heart disease or diabetes that increase the risk of health issues. As always, talk to your physician about the best way to treat your own high blood pressure. Even if you need medications, adjusting your lifestyle will help lower the risk of health problems related to hypertension such as heart disease and stroke.
The American Journal of Medicine, Vol. 128, No. 6, June 2015.
Up-to-Date. “Exercise in the treatment and prevention of hypertension”
PubMed Health. “Can losing weight lower high blood pressure?”
Science Daily. “Transcendental Meditation Effective In Reducing High Blood Pressure, Study Shows”
Acupunct Electrother Res. 2013;38(1-2):1-15.
WebMD. “Acupuncture Might Help Ease High Blood Pressure”
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