Every time your heart beats, it pushes blood, nutrients, and oxygen through your arteries to reach the rest of your body. But when you have high blood pressure, it's a sign that your heart is having to work too hard to pump that blood where it needs to go. The result: Damaged arteries, a worn-out heart, and an increased risk of heart disease—which is to blame for the deaths of one in three women every year. Here's what causes high blood pressure, and how you can fight whatever might be throwing your heart into overdrive.
Sitting on Your Butt
While the most noticeable way that sitting all day results in high blood pressure (aka hypertension) is by promoting fat storage and weight gain, it's also true that the less you get your heart pumping and working during the day, the less effective it will become at doing its job over time. And most women don't work out enough to counteract the effects of sitting disease, according to 2015 research from the University of Toronto.
Get at least 30 minutes of exercise at least five days (and preferably seven days) a week, advises Robert A. Kloner, MD, PhD, director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute at Huntington Medical Research Institutes. Your best bet is performing cardiovascular exercise like swimming, running, and spinning. Plus, even walking can go a long way toward lowering your blood pressure, he says. So start taking extra trips to the water cooler.
Overdoing It on Alcohol
Alcohol use in moderation is actually associated with lower cardiac mortality, possibly because alcohol increases good cholesterol levels and dilates the body's blood vessels. But excess alcohol tends to jazz up the sympathetic nervous system and increase blood pressure. What's more, overdoing it at happy hour can pack on the pounds, which, again, will increase your blood pressure.
Drink. But only in moderation, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines as no more than one drink per day in women. Bonus: Research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that women who drink a light to moderate amount on the regular tend to gain less weight over the years compared to those who never raise a glass.
Eating Too Much Salt
You probably hate the way a bag of chips—or, more specifically, its sodium—makes you bloat. But there's a whole other reason to hate salt's water-retaining ways. When your kidneys respond to excess sodium intake by retaining water, you end up with too many fluids running through your bloodstream, which can increase the pressure on your blood vessels.
Cut down on processed foods, even better, cut out completely. According to the CDC, more than nine in 10 Americans get more sodium than they should. The top sources include breads and rolls, lunch meats, cheese, potato chips, pretzels, and popcorn.
Taking Certain Medications
There's no end to the number of medications that list increased blood pressure as a possible side effect. Among the most commonly used ones are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, decongestants, certain antidepressants, and hormonal birth control. Some medications raise blood pressure by causing you to retain water, while others simply cause your blood vessels to constrict.
If you have high blood pressure, talk to your doc about how your current medications (both prescription and OTC) could potentially affect your ticker. Always discuss possible side effects before popping anything for a cold or sinus infection—these medications can significantly elevate blood pressure levels in some women or even reduce the effectiveness of any medications you are taking to reduce your blood pressure.
By putting your nervous system's pedal to the metal, stress causes your adrenal glands to pump out blood pressure-increasing hormones. Plus, your body's natural fight-or-flight response causes your blood vessels to contract. That's a good way to prevent blood loss if you're a cave woman who just had a close call with a lion. But it's less than helpful when you're keyed up at work over a tyrannical boss and looming deadlines. The longer you spend in this stressed-out state, the more strain you put on your heart.
Take a chill pill. While everyone gets stressed from time to time, it's important to find a way to keep little flare-ups from snowballing into chronic, long-term stress. For some it's meditation, for others it's exercise, or even a hobby.
Having a Family History of Hypertension
If your parents have high blood pressure, your chances of having it are a lot higher. High blood pressure and heart disease definitely have a genetic component.
You can't change your genetics. But you can talk to your doctor about your family history of high blood pressure to help make sure that you stop any spikes before they become a problem, as well as discuss whether you need to take blood pressure-lowering medications. If you don't already know your family history of hypertension, ask your parents, siblings, and grandparents about their levels.
Smoking (Even Occasionally)
Even if you don't consider yourself a smoker, the occasional cigarette every now and then can add up to high blood pressure. The nicotine from just one cig can cause your blood vessels to temporarily narrow, and tobacco smoke itself physically damages the cells that make up your blood vessels. The result: Stiff, inflexible blood vessels, and an ever-increasing risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
Whatever your history with cigarettes, any steps to reduce your exposure to smoking can help reduce your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Talk to your doctor, friends, and family about your desire to quit. You don't have to do it by yourself.
Not Eating Fruits and Vegetables
Sodium aside, overall poor diets can contribute to high blood pressure levels. While weight gain is a definite link between unhealthy diets and hypertension, other mechanisms might be at play. For instance, researchers at the University of Houston are currently studying how antioxidants may help treat high blood pressure.
Focus on a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats, and Mediterranean-type diets is associated with a healthier heart.
Besides the obvious downsides of not breathing throughout the night, sleep apnoea can shoot up your blood pressure levels. Why? Because when you're not breathing and your body's oxygen levels fall, your brain responds by telling your blood vessels to constrict and prioritize oxygen flow to your heart and brain over the rest of your organs as well as your skeletal muscles. The effects can continue long after the sun comes up.
Are you a snorer—and not just when you have a cold? Then you might benefit from visiting a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnoea, such as a pulmonary, sleep, or ENT doctor.
There's no getting out of this one: Age ups your risk of high blood pressure. Readings tend to rise with age and do so exponentially after the age of 30. By the age of 75 almost 95 percent of people have high blood pressure. While changes in your blood vessels and heart are a natural part of the aging process and may up your blood pressure levels, hypertension in older adults most often goes back to all the other risk factors we already discussed. After all, 70 years of stress, sedentary living, and noshing on French fries is going to do far more damage to your blood pressure than 20 years of unhealthy living.
You can't turn back the clock, so just focus on decreasing your other risk factors. Make sure to get your blood pressure checked regularly. Most people should get theirs checked at every doctor visit, or at least every two years, according to the CDC. But if you have high blood pressure or are at risk for developing hypertension, you might benefit from taking even more regular readings at home.