Hypertension – the medial term for high blood pressure – affects 70 million American adults (per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). That’s 1 in 3 adults in the United States currently suffering from high blood pressure.
In Canada (per Hypertension Canada) 7.5 million Canadian adults (1 in 5) suffer from this ‘silent killer’.
In Australia (per the Heart Foundation), 4.6 million Australian adults (1 in 3) have high blood pressure.
In the European Union (per the European Society of Hypertension), 30-45% of adults in Europe are reported to live with hypertension.
And so on.
Needless to say, regardless of where you live, many people are suffering from hypertension – a well known risk for heart disease and death. According to the Mayo Clinic, over time, the strain on your heart caused by high blood pressure can cause your heart muscle to weaken and work less efficiently, which increases your risk of heart attack, heart failure and sudden cardiac death.
But wait! You’re a runner! Doesn’t that mean you’re healthier than those who don’t exercise? Maybe that makes you exempt from hypertension?
Just because you run doesn’t mean you are immune to high blood pressure. Certainly exercise is an important step in combatting hypertension, so you’re one step ahead in this regard! However, hypertension is still reported to be the most prevalent cardiovascular disease among athletes and physically active subjects (per this 2011 MedScape article). As Alex Hutchinson concludes in this 2015 article he wrote for Runners World:
“For now, the most unambiguous conclusion we can draw from this data is that exercise, no matter how much you do, doesn’t give you a free pass from hypertension. You’ve still got to pay attention to other aspects of lifestyle, particularly diet.”
So let’s get down to it. What can you do nutritionally to combat hypertension (or simply help to prevent it in the first place!)?
1. Eat more veggies (especially beets) and fruits – particularly those rich in potassium and vitamin-C.
Veggies and fruits are very nutrient-dense foods packed full of antioxidants, fibre, vitamins such as C and minerals such as potassium, calcium and magnesium that are all known to have blood pressure lowering effects.
This 2015 study concludes that consuming fruits and vegetables in amounts larger than 400g per day provides a protective effect against high blood pressure. That’s about 4-6 servings (one apple is ~100g, one carrot is ~75g, 1 cup spinach is ~30g, etc).
Summing up numerous studies, this 2014 meta-analysis concluded that vegetarian diets are associated with lower blood pressure and can be a useful means to reducing hypertension (vegetarian diets often have more fresh produce and legumes included overall than omnivore diets).
Indeed, there are many studies that point to increased veggie and fruit intake as a means of lowering blood pressure, but this 2008 study showed that fruit and vegetable consumption that was particularly those rich in vitamin-C and potassium were associated with a significantly lower risk of hypertension.
Vitamin-C rich produce (in order of greatest amount to lesser per serving) includes papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, strawberries, pineapple, oranges and kiwi.
Potassium rich produce (in order of greatest amount to lesser per serving) includes beet greens, swiss chard, spinach, beets, kale, sweet potatoes, potatoes, avocado, pinto beans, lentils… And of course bananas – although many veggies contain just as much if not vastly more potassium than bananas do.
Finally, this 2015 study concluded that 1 cup daily of beetroot juice provided sustained lowering of blood pressure in patients with hypertension, which came on the heels of this 2013 meta-analysis concluding that inorganic nitrate and beetroot juice supplementation was associated with a significant reduction in systolic blood pressure.
Needless to say, for so many reasons, aim to make your lunch and dinner plates at least half full of veggies (regardless of whether it’s a vegetarian or omnivore meal – the plate needs to be mostly veggies!). And include more beets. If you are suffering from hypertension, consider juicing beets regularly (or trying a beetroot powder). It’s a bit of a bonus really, as beets are actually a known ergogenic aid for runners – so hypertension aside, beets are simply great for runners to eat regularly, particularly before a race.
2. Eat more hemp, chia and salmon.
I have been talking for years about the many, many benefits to our health that can be brought about simply by ensuring consumption of enough omega-3 fatty acid rich foods – as per my recent Omega-3s: Why You Need Them & What to Eat blogpost. It should come as no surprise then that among the many benefits, eating more omega-3 rich foods is shown to significantly reduce blood pressure, such as this 2015 study, this 2012 study, this 2007 study, this 2006 study and this 1993 meta-analysis of 31 studies points out.
3. Eat more chocolate (rich in flavonoids).
Raw cacao is rich in a phytonutrient called favanols. These particular flavonoids are known to protect our heart and strengthen our cardiovascular system.
This 2010 meta-analysis suggests that dark chocolate is superior to placebo in reducing hypertension or prehypertension. This 2012 review describes numerous studies showing the blood pressure lowering effects of flavonoids in both healthy and hypertensive individuals, and concludes that flavonoid rich chocolate holds promising potential to reduce the risk of heart disease. This 2015 study confirms consuming chocolate rich in flavonoids resulted in a significant decrease in blood pressure.
Flavanols are found in raw cacao at a rate of about 34mg per gram. However, in processed cocoa powder they are greatly reduced – anywhere from lightly processed with about 13mg per gram, to heavily processed with only about 4mg per gram. This is why you want to look for raw unprocessed cacao products (cacao powder, cacao beans, cacao nibs, dark chocolate that lists ‘raw’ or ‘unprocessed’ or ‘cacao’ on its ingredient list).
4. Drink less coffee and more green tea.
The catechins in green tea have been found to have blood pressure lowering effects. This 2014 systematic review showed green tea significantly lowered blood pressure (as well as cholesterol) and concluded that green tea and its catechins may improve blood pressure. Try one serving of matcha green tea daily (½ tsp) which provides about 500 mg of the beneficial catechins (you’d have to drink 8-10 cups of regular green to get that same amount).
On the flip side, chronic high doses of caffeine (more than 300mg daily) have been found to be associated with high blood pressure. However, a cup of coffee daily (which would be about 100mg caffeine per 8 ounces) is not associated with hypertension – so certainly while a little caffeine appears to be fine, too much can eventually become problematic.
5. Limit sugar and processed foods.
Processed foods carry a lot of added sugar and sodium, both of which have been shown to play into hypertension. However, as this 2014 pubmed article suggests, there’s been such a heavy focus on salt that we’ve overlooked how detrimental sugar is to high blood pressure. Aim to limit or entirely avoid processed foods altogether – using only natural sweeteners and mineral rich natural (unprocessed) sea salt. Avoid high fructose corn syrup (also called glucose fructose) altogether.
I suppose here’s where I mention that excessive alcohol consumption (2-3+ servings per day or binge drinking) and smoking are both known to cause hypertension. I’m also assuming you already know this and as a runner you don’t fall into this category, so no need to worry here!
Lastly, exposure to chronic psychosocial stress (stress at work, social stress, economic stress, etc) has been shown to contribute to the development of hypertension (per this 2013 pubmed article). Therefore, as to not overlook an area that may be of great importance to preventing or dealing with hypertension, it’s in our best interest to take the time to work through and deal with any stressors that may be present.
Running and working out regularly in combination with a healthy diet rich in veggies, fruits, omega-3s and green tea (and low in sugar, processed foods, alcohol and highly caffeinated beverages) ultimately puts us on the path of protecting ourselves against hypertension (or helps to lower blood pressure if you currently suffer from hypertension). May you have good health and many years full of strong running to come!
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,
Sarah J Cuff, RHN