Under Pressure: The meaning of blood pressure
By Dr M Hallee BScHK ND.
Q. What do the numbers mean in blood pressure? At what numbers should I be concerned?
Did you know that tarantula spiders actually use an increase in blood pressure in their legs to walk? And in us humans, an increase in blood pressure can have its place. High blood pressure (also called hypertension) has been named the “silent killer”, so it is understandable to be concerned about blood pressure. It is associated with heart attacks and stroke, but having slightly elevated blood pressure at times can be a good thing.
First, let’s examine what the numbers mean. There will always be a larger number over a smaller number and the units used are “mmHg”, meaning “millimeters of mercury” (a unit for measuring pressure). The commonly used example is 120/80mmHg, which is considered a normal reading for adults. This means that, when the heart has pumped out blood and there is a strong flow, the pressure on the artery wall is 120mmHg; this is called the “systolic pressure”. In between those strong beats of the heart, when there is no immediate pumping force, the pressure is 80mmHg – called the “diastolic” pressure. In an ideal world, adults would want to have blood pressure no higher than those numbers. In reality, however, there are a wider variety of blood pressures that are considered normal for an individual.
- If your systolic pressure is between 121-140mmHg and diastolic pressure is 81-95mmHg, here are some questions to ask:
- Is this happening every time you take your blood pressure? (i.e. is your pressure consistently high?)
- Do you have any family or personal history of stroke, heart attacks or heart disease?
- Do you have high cholesterol?
- Do you have diabetes or kidney problems?
- Are you younger than age 60?
- Do you have a lot of stress in your life?
If you answered “no” to all of these questions, then a higher blood pressure might actually not be a major concern. If you said yes to any of the questions, there may be cause to ask a doctor if you should start treatment. Those ranges of blood pressure are considered to be more mild/moderate of a hypertension stage and are often easily and effectively treated by lifestyle changes. Whether or not you answered yes or no to any of those questions, it is likely a good idea to make sure your life habits include mild-moderate physical exercise on a regular basis, a healthy diet with plenty of colourful vegetables and techniques to reduce the effects of stress on your body.
Once blood pressure goes higher than 145/95mmHg, I usually recommend a more involved approach to treatment. This may involve various natural medicines, such as herbs or supplements. Prescription medication can do a wonderful job at lowering blood pressure, but this can be a problem in some patients, particularly those ages 60 and up. Often pharmaceutical drugs can lower blood pressure too much, resulting in a rebound effect. This makes blood pressure drop too low at certain times, causing a person to faint, particularly after standing up. I have seen these falls lead to bruises, head injuries and broken bones. While a broken bone may be a fair price to pay instead of a heart attack, I usually encourage patients to try something natural, which will still help prevent heart disease but not be quite so strong. If prescriptions are needed, I usually dose my patients quite different than their family doctors do; the trick is finding something that works for you.
As you can see, low blood pressure can also be a problem. If you have any of these issues, you may have a blood pressure that is too low for what your body requires:
- Consistently fainting,
- Having trouble focusing (feeling foggy), or
- You get dizzy often, particularly after standing or sitting up suddenly.
This is another cause for investigation. In the majority of cases, the reason for the low blood pressure is not serious, but it can significantly affect your day-to-day life. Natural medicines work really well in these cases.
As with most things in life, blood pressure is about balance and knowing what is right for you. Because blood pressure is a concern that is not always obvious it is important to be pro-active and learn about your own health needs. This is a good time to start. If you have any health questions you would like answered, write Dr. Hallee ND; your question may be chosen as a featured topic in an article