Nearly one out of every three U.S. adults has high blood pressure—and more than half of them don’t have the condition under control. Left unchecked, high blood pressure can lead to heart attack and heart disease, as well as other conditions, including stroke and kidney damage. The good news? We don’t necessarily have to turn to medications to lower it. “What you eat and what kind of nutrients and minerals that food contains can have an effect on blood pressure,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, D.O., director of women’s heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and a Go Red For Women cardiologist. “It’s really about the processed foods and salt.” While an overall healthy lifestyle and diet is key, researchers have also identified a few specific foods that may help. Show your heart a little love this February—American Heart Month—by adding these foods to your diet.
Just one cup a day may help to reduce blood pressure and arterial stiffness. A recent study in post-menopausal women, from Florida State University, showed that daily blueberry intake might cut the risk for heart disease. In the study, one group of women consumed 22 grams of freeze-dried blueberry powder (about the same as a cup of fresh blueberries), while the other group received the same amount of a placebo powder—they otherwise continued their typical diet and exercise regimens. After eight weeks, the blueberry group experienced an average 5.1 percent decrease in systolic blood pressure (the upper number), and a 6.3 percent decrease in diastolic blood pressure (the lower number). They also had a 6.5 percent reduction in arterial stiffness.
“Our findings suggest that regular consumption of blueberries could potentially delay the progression of prehypertension to hypertension, therefore reducing cardiovascular disease risk,” study author Sarah A. Johnson, assistant director of the Center for Advancing Exercise and Nutrition Research on Aging and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Sciences at Florida State University, said in a statement.
Regularly consuming probiotics from yogurt, as well as fermented and sour milk, cheese and supplements, may lead to a healthier ticker. A 2014 research review published in the journal Hypertension analyzed nine studies to establish a link between probiotics and an improvement in blood pressure—probiotic consumption was linked with an average improvement of 3.56 mm Hg in systolic blood pressure and 2.38 mm Hg in diastolic blood pressure compared to control groups.
“The small collection of studies we looked at suggest regular consumption of probiotics can be part of a healthy lifestyle to help reduce high blood pressure, as well as maintain healthy blood pressure levels,” lead author Jing Sun, Ph.D., senior lecturer at the Griffith Health Institute and School of Medicine, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, said in a statement. “We believe probiotics might help lower blood pressure by having other positive effects on health, including improving total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol; reducing blood glucose and insulin resistance; and by helping to regulate the hormone system that regulates blood pressure and fluid balance.”
The studies in the review tended to be small, though, and some of them were of a short duration, which means more research is needed before doctors can start handing out an Rx for yogurt.
Here’s some sweet news. In a 2012 systematic review published in Cochrane Library, researchers looked at 20 trials involving more than 800 people meant to investigate the effect of cocoa flavanols on blood pressure. The findings? Cocoa powder or flavanol-rich chocolate had a small, but statistically significant effect on blood pressure, lowering it, on average, 2-3 mm Hg in the short term.
“Although we don’t yet have evidence for any sustained decrease in blood pressure, the small reduction we saw over the short term might complement other treatment options and might contribute to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease,” lead researcher Karin Ried of the National Institute of Integrative Medicine in Melbourne, Australia, said in a statement.
While the findings aren’t a hall pass to pig out on Valentine’s Day candy (which is, more often than not, also loaded with sugar), go ahead and enjoy a little dark chocolate in the name of your heart.
The American Heart Association recommends a diet high in natural sources of potassium, which is important because the nutrient mitigates the negative effects of sodium. “When you have sodium in the blood stream, that’s when the blood pressure can go up. When you have a diet that is high in potassium, it decreases the sodium,” says Steinbaum.
Steinbaum notes that people who eat twice the amount of potassium as they do sodium see the best results in reducing blood pressure. Aim for 4,700 mg of potassium a day—one medium banana has just over 400 mg (as well as other key vitamins like C and B6). Other potassium-rich foods include potatoes, greens, white beans, yogurt, seeds and nuts, and avocadoes.
In addition to its beautiful color, beetroot juice may help reduce blood pressure. A small study published American Heart Association journalHypertension showed that high blood pressure patients who drank about a cup (eight ounces) of beetroot juice experienced a 10mm Hg drop in blood pressure. While the effect was strongest three to six hours after drinking the juice, it was still present after 24 hours.
The reason may be because beetroot juice contains dietary nitrate, a substance that helps improve blood flow—the juice contained about .2g of it. “Our hope is that increasing one’s intake of vegetables with a high dietary nitrate content, such as green leafy vegetables or beetroot, might be a lifestyle approach that one could easily employ to improve cardiovascular health,” lead author Amrita Ahluwalia, Ph.D., professor of vascular pharmacology at The Barts and The London Medical School in London, said in a statement.
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