Lower Your Blood Pressure--Without Drugs

Find out how to get a healthy blood pressure—without resorting to medicine

By Nancy Stedman

HER GOAL: Lower blood pressure, without medication
START: 140/90
FINISH: 128/70

A few months ago, ROSA DAGRACA looked like the poster woman for good health. The daughter of Portuguese immigrants, she grew up in Newark, New Jersey, eating a Mediterranean diet—plenty of fish, soups, beans, rice and olive oil—and as an adult she con-tinued to make smart food choices. When the corporation she works for as a merchandising planner opened an on-site gym nine years ago, Rosa started exercising there every work-day at six AM. The svelte divorcĂ©e also walked or ran each Saturday and Sunday.
Yet when More first caught up with Rosa, she acknowledged a few health problems in her life, such as an abundance of stress. “I can get 200 e-mails a day at work,” she said. “On days like that, my heart starts racing. Sometimes I’ll notice that my fists are clenched when I’m driving.” Because there’s so much she wants to accomplish—this is a woman who worked two jobs for 12 years to put her son, Patrick, through school—she slept only five to six hours a night. And all that exercising? Turns out you can have too much of a good thing. (More on that later.)

Over the past six or seven years, Rosa’s blood pressure crept up to 144/90,
with an occasional spike to 154/90 (120/80 is considered a healthy score). Because high blood pressure, aka hypertension, greatly increases the risks of kidney disease and stroke, among other concerns, her physician prescribed a medication to bring her numbers closer to normal. The drug caused no obvious side effects, but Rosa stopped using it; she wanted a more natural ap-proach. Which is just what Roberta Lee, MD, medical director of the Contin-uum Center for Health & Healing in New York City, came up with when Rosa joined More’s  antiaging program.

As a mind-body expert, Lee suspected that reducing Rosa’s stress level would also lower her blood pressure. Under the doctor’s direction, Rosa learned how to calm down on the job by visual-izing her “happy place” (she imagined a beach) or leaving her desk and walking around the building. Lee also pre-scribed daily sessions on a biofeedback machine called Resperate. Not a cheap gizmo (it sells for $290 on amazon.com), the machine analyzes your breathing patterns and guides you, through aural and musical cues, into slow-ing down your breathing. Preliminary evidence suggests that using it daily for 15 min-utes can significantly lower blood pressure. Rosa ended up working with the machine four to five nights a week.

Although Rosa already followed a low-fat diet, nutritionist Mary Beth Augustine switched her to a more stringent eating plan called DASH (Dietary Ap-proaches to Stop Hypertension), which was developed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute spec-ifically for patients with issues such as Rosa’s. (For tips and sample menus, go to nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash
/index.htm.) High in plant-based foods (eight to 10 servings a day) and low in red meat, the diet is rich in nutrients that are associated with controlling blood pres-sure, especially potassium, calcium, magnesium and fiber. Processed and prepared foods, which tend to be high in sodium, are on the “do not eat” list. Re-search shows that within just two weeks, the DASH diet can lower blood pressure in hy-pertensive people by 11.4 points in the top (or systolic) number and 5.5 in the bottom (or diastolic) number.
But the DASH diet isn’t easy, and when Rosa first started it she said, “I’m taking it meal by meal.” The biggest challenge was cutting down on sodium. Because Rosa couldn’t stand the thought of cooking pasta without salt, she simply stopped eating it. The only starches she allowed herself were sweet potatoes and brown rice. When she got the munchies at night, she nibbled on some dark chocolate or a handful of pistachio nuts. “My mind-set has become very different,” Rosa said. “Before I reach for food, I think about my health.”
During the program, Rosa’s company nurse checked her blood pressure several
times a week and reported no sig-nifi-cant change. Yet Rosa felt much healthier. Jeff Young, the team’s exer-cise physiologist, had suspected she might be overexercising, and he cajoled her into taking a 10-day break. Rosa couldn’t even remember a time when she didn’t exercise every day, but agreed to give it a shot. By the time she started up again, she felt rested and stronger. Young also suggested Rosa log more sleep time, since shortfalls in slum-ber have been shown to increase blood pressure. She began turning in an hour or so earlier than usual and letting her-self sleep an hour later some mornings. Result? “I’m not so pooped all the time,” she said, “which makes it a little easier to get more accomplished.”

One night, about a week before the end of the Crash Program, Rosa settled in at home after a really stressful day. “I sat and read the papers, ate some din-ner.” At one point, she noticed a new sensation. “I caught myself thinking, I’m really relaxed. Jeez, something is working.”
A few days later, Rosa’s blood pressure dropped to a healthy level—where it has remained. “I feel I have more control over my destiny now,” she said.

UPDATE: 80 Days After Start of Program
BLOOD PRESSURE: A healthy 130/80
SECRET WEAPON: Personal training sessions with Jeff Young, the exercise physiologist for the anti-aging program
QUOTE: "It’s been life-changing to know that it’s possible to get myself together and have a good outcome."

Our Blue Ribbon Anti-Aging Team

Roberta Lee, MD, vice chair, Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center, Continuum Center for Health & Healing, in New York City, coordinated the 40-day program for our three participants. An integrative medicine expert, Lee believes not just in treating a patient’s symptoms but also in improving her overall wellness. The participants’ first meetings with Lee lasted over an hour. The women were also advised by Jeff Young, an exercise physiologist and consultant to the center, and staff nutritionist Mary Beth Augustine, RD. To gauge the women’s progress, More partnered with the Principal Wellness Company, a Des Moines–based corporate wellness organization, which tested our guinea pigs before and after the program.
For estimating each woman’s improved longevity, we enlisted Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer and chairman of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute and coauthor, with Mehmet Oz, MD, of the best-selling You: Staying Young. Forty days, of course, is just the beginning for a wellness program. “Even more benefits will come as these women continue with their new lifestyles,” Roizen says.

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First Published Fri, 2009-05-15 10:15

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