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The Doctor Game: Pandemic a perfect storm for hypertension | Guest Columns

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The Doctor Game: Pandemic a perfect storm for hypertension | Guest Columns

It’s a devastating time. A pandemic and economic disaster rolled into one that’s killing thousands and bringing society to a standstill. So how can we keep our blood pressure from shooting through the roof during this perfect storm? Keeping our heads cool may help to prevent a stroke, heart attack, even kidney disease and blindness.

The World Health Organization says that 1.3 billion people worldwide have hypertension or high blood pressure, including about 1 in 3 North Americans. But extensive research shows that hypertension, a silent killer, can be prevented and lowered.

In 1997 researchers published the results of a clinical trial called DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension). They concluded that a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, and reduced in total fat and saturated fat, reduced blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and coronary heart disease by 6-21%.

Aim for foods that are rich in potassium and magnesium. For example, potassium in bananas, oranges, and leafy greens offsets the blood-raising effects of sodium by helping kidneys remove water from the body as urine. And magnesium in dark leafy greens and whole grains helps blood vessels to relax, decreasing blood pressure.

The most important message is to keep processed foods to a minimum. Why? Because they’re often loaded with salt that deters the lowering of blood pressure. Besides, packaged foods are high in sugar too, contributing to obesity. This column has informed readers for years that gaining excessive weight is to be avoided.

Remember the Gifford-Jones Law that says one problem leads to another and another. In this case obesity leads to Type 2 diabetes, then hardening of the arteries, hypertension, heart attack, and stroke. So, don’t let stressful time become an excuse for not stepping on the scale. Or failing to exercise.

So how much will your pressure drop from moderate exercise? This varies from person to person. The systolic pressure (the top number) will increase during exercise. Then drop back to normal and may fall 5 to 7 points for several hours. The drop in diastolic pressure (the bottom number) is usually smaller and more variable.

A report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2018 concluded that exercise programs may reduce blood pressure in patients with hypertension as much as first-line medication. Studies also show that shorter and more frequent exercise can be as helpful as longer workouts.

What about building up muscles with weight lifting? Doctors used to warn patients with hypertension against it. But now the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association recommend that a combination of both is an effective way to decrease hypertension.

Readers may wonder what exercise is best. The choices in the current environment are limited. You may like a brisk walk with friends or a gym routine. But right now, the only wise choice is to exercise at home, being careful to avoid accidents. So several days each week, set aside time to work on your fitness. You’ll feel good if you do.

It’s always prudent to ask your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. For instance, some drugs that treat hypertension, such as beta blockers, make it difficult for the heart rate to increase to the desired levels.

It’s been aptly said that, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Our current perfect storm will not pass quickly. Now is the time to buckle-down. Keep blood pressure from increasing by eating right and exercising well. We know ships get barnacles when tied up too long. So do humans!

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones, aka Ken Walker, is a graduate of the University of Toronto and Harvard Medical School. You can reach him online at his website, docgiff.com, or via email at info@ docgiff.com.

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