By Wyler Hecht, ND., L.Ac.
When it comes to our health, it’s often the loudest symptoms that get our attention first. A headache will pretty much demand attention, and so will heartburn. Hypertension, on the other hand, is easy to miss or even dismiss. Hypertension, or chronic high blood pressure, is a disease that rarely causes symptoms. Nearly one of every three American adults has high blood pressure, but over twenty percent of those patients are unaware of their condition. Hypertension is often a case of “out-of-sight, out-of-mind,” and that needs to change. There’s too much at stake to ignore it.
Blood pressure, measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg), refers to the pressure exerted upon the walls of the arteries by circulating blood. With each heartbeat, the pressure varies between a maximum (systolic) and a minimum (diastolic) pressure. In a blood pressure reading (i.e. 120/80mmHg), the top number is the systolic blood pressure, or the pressure exerted upon the arterial walls when the heart contracts to pump the blood into circulation. The bottom number, the diastolic pressure, is the pressure exerted when the heart rests between beats.
With prolonged, uncontrolled high blood pressure, the force exerted on the walls of the arteries will eventually damage the lining of the arteries. With each microscopic injury, the scar tissue that develops acts like a web for particles of fat and cholesterol. Those particles, collectively known as plaque, accumulate causing a hardening and a narrowing of the vessels, a condition known as atherosclerosis. Alternately, a plaque can rupture, causing a blood clot to form and block the artery completely. Coronary artery disease (CAD), for example, common amongst those with uncontrolled hypertension and the leading cause of death in the United States, is a buildup of plaque in the arteries that supply oxygenated blood to the heart itself.
The damage doesn’t stop with the arteries, however. Arteries are the river beds through which freshly oxygenated blood is transported throughout our bodies. Damaged arteries hinder blood flow which means our organs don’t get the oxygen they need. If an artery that supplies blood to the brain becomes completely blocked, cutting off the supply of oxygen to the brain, a stroke can occur. If a coronary artery is completely blocked depriving the heart of oxygen, the result is a heart attack.
The potential damage goes further still. When blood doesn’t flow smoothly through our arteries it puts a higher workload on the heart itself. The heart must beat more forcibly to circulate the blood. Eventually, the over-worked heart muscle thickens and the heart becomes enlarged. If the heart becomes too large its function will significantly diminish–a condition known as heart failure.
Keeping your blood pressure below 120/80mmHg will go a long way to prevent cardiovascular disease. Between 120/80mmHg and 140/90mmHg is considered pre-hypertension, and higher than 140/90mmHg is considered hypertension. One reading is not enough to make a diagnosis, so if your blood pressure is high during a routine visit with your doctor it is important to continue to monitor your readings.
Look for this column in the next two editions of Southern Distinction to learn more about hypertension and to find out the latest on diet and lifestyle modifications, and herbs & nutrients that can lower your blood pressure and your risk of heart disease!
Dr. Hecht received her doctorate in naturopathic medicine and a master’s level degree in acupuncture from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Az. In 2004 she opened Oconee Natural Healthcare in Watkinsville, Ga. She practices naturopathic family medicine and traditional acupuncture and often combines the two for a comprehensive approach to wellness. www.oconeenaturalhealthcare.com.