When your heart contracts and squeezes blood out into your network of arteries, the pressure inside those blood vessels is at its highest. This is called systolic pressure and it’s the top number on your blood pressure reading. In between beats, the heart relaxes and the pressure drops. This is your diastolic blood pressure, and it’s the reading’s bottom number.
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Blood pressure (BP) recordings consist of two numbers. The top one is the systolic blood pressure and relates to the contraction of the left side of the heart and the peak pressure achieved when it pumps blood round the body. The bottom number is the diastolic recording and is the lowest pressure achieved in the circulation; this relates to the relaxation of the heart. Blood pressure is measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg), e.g. 120/70 mmHg.
First-line medications for hypertension include thiazide-diuretics, calcium channel blockers, angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors), and angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs). These medications may be used alone or in combination (ACE inhibitors and ARBs are not recommended for use in combination); the latter option may serve to minimize counter-regulatory mechanisms that act to restore blood pressure values to pre-treatment levels. Most people require more than one medication to control their hypertension. Medications for blood pressure control should be implemented by a stepped care approach when target levels are not reached.
The cause for hypertension is not always known, although it can develop as a result of other health conditions including: sleep apnea, kidney problems, and thyroid issues. Beyond chronic health conditions, risk factors for hypertension include age, the amount of salt you eat, being overweight or obese, using tobacco, drinking excessively, not exercising, and having too little potassium in your diet.
During relaxation of the heart (diastole), the left ventricle of the heart fills with blood returning from the lungs. The left ventricle then contracts and pumps blood into the arteries (systole). The blood pressure in the arteries during contraction of the ventricle (systolic pressure) is higher because blood is being actively ejected into the arteries. It is lower during relaxation of the ventricle (diastolic pressure) when no blood is being ejected into the arteries. The pulse we feel when we place our fingers over an artery is caused by the contraction of the left ventricle and the ejection of blood.
Another form of postural hypotension occurs typically in young healthy individuals. After prolonged standing, the individual's heart rate and blood pressure drop, causing dizziness, nausea, and often fainting. In these individuals, the autonomic nervous system wrongly responds to prolonged standing by directing the heart to slow down and the veins to dilate thereby removing blood from circulating in the arteries.
Sodium, a chemical found in salt, raises blood pressure by promoting the retention of fluid by the body. This increases the workload on the heart. The American Heart Association recommends an upper daily limit for sodium consumption of 1,500 mg. Checking food labels and menus can help you calculate how much sodium you are consuming. Processed foods are particularly high in sodium and make up about 75% of our sodium intake. Among these, lunch meats and canned soups have some of the highest levels of dietary sodium.
If your blood pressure is above the normal range for up to 5 readings (taken at different visits), your doctor will likely diagnose you with high blood pressure. Sometimes the doctor may diagnose you after a fewer number of readings, depending on how high above normal your blood pressure is and if you have other medical conditions. Blood pressure tends to be at its highest during exercise, physical work, or stress, and lowest during sleep. Everyone can have a temporary increase in blood pressure at one time or another, which is why it's important to take multiple readings.
The kidney can respond to changes in blood pressure by increasing or decreasing the amount of urine that is produced. Urine is primarily water that is removed from the blood. When the kidney makes more urine, the amount (volume) of blood that fills the arteries and veins decreases, and this lowers blood pressure. If the kidneys make less urine, the amount of blood that fills the arteries and veins increases and this increases blood pressure. Compared with the other mechanisms for adjusting blood pressure, changes in the production of urine affect blood pressure slowly over hours and days. (The other mechanisms are effective in seconds.)
Dietary changes: The health care provider might recommend a diet that includes more vegetables (especially leafy green vegetables), fruits, low-fat dairy products, and fiber-rich foods, and fewer carbohydrates, fats, processed foods, and sugary drinks. He or she also might recommend preparing low-sodium dishes and not adding salt to foods. Watch out for foods with lots of hidden salt (like bread, sandwiches, pizza, and many restaurant and fast-food options).
Weakened heart muscle can cause the heart to fail and reduce the amount of blood it pumps. One common cause of weakened heart muscle is the death of a large portion of the heart's muscle due to a single, large heart attack or repeated smaller heart attacks. Other examples of conditions that can weaken the ability of the heart to pump blood include medications toxic to the heart, infections of the muscle of the heart by viruses (myocarditis), and diseases of the heart's valves such as aortic stenosis that reduce the flow of blood from the heart and into the arteries.
The first line of treatment for hypertension is lifestyle changes, including dietary changes, physical exercise, and weight loss. Though these have all been recommended in scientific advisories, a Cochrane systematic review found no evidence for effects of weight loss diets on death, long-term complications or adverse events in persons with hypertension. The review did find a decrease in blood pressure. Their potential effectiveness is similar to and at times exceeds a single medication. If hypertension is high enough to justify immediate use of medications, lifestyle changes are still recommended in conjunction with medication.
To control or lower high blood pressure, your doctor may recommend that you adopt heart-healthy lifestyle changes, such as heart-healthy eating patterns like the DASH eating plan, alone or with medicines. Controlling or lowering blood pressure can also help prevent or delay high blood pressure complications, such as chronic kidney disease, heart attack, heart failure, stroke, and possibly vascular dementia.
Your blood pressure is considered high when you have consistent systolic readings of 140 mm Hg or higher or diastolic readings of 90 mm Hg or higher. Based on research, your doctor may also consider you to have high blood pressure if you are an adult or child age 13 or older who has consistent systolic readings of 130 to 139 mm Hg or diastolic readings of 80 to 89 mm Hg and you have other cardiovascular risk factors.
"The implications and potential benefits of such healthier lifestyles could be great, particularly since about 22% of the adult population falls into the prehypertensive category," says Chobanian, who is also dean of the Boston University School of Medicine. "In fact, the blood pressure effects of weight reduction or adoption of the DASH eating plan can be comparable to those achieved with any single blood pressure medication."