This article is part of an ongoing series comparing prescription medication with a Paleo diet as a means of treating common diseases and health problem. Click here to read the other articles in the series.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is the most important risk factor for premature death, accounting for half of all deaths caused by cardiovascular disease and 13.5 percent of all deaths each year. It affects 26 percent of the population worldwide, and one-third of the population in the U.S. Nine in ten Americans are expected to develop high blood pressure by the age of sixty-five. With this in mind, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that keeping your blood pressure under control is one of the most important things you can do to extend your lifespan.
High blood pressure affects only one percent of hunter-gatherer populations following a traditional diet, but its prevalence increases when those cultures adopt a western diet and lifestyle that is characterized by processed and refined foods, sedentary behavior, chronic sleep deprivation, a lack of sun exposure and excess use of caffeine, alcohol and tobacco. (1)
Did you know that high blood pressure can often be improved or even reversed with simple diet and lifestyle changes? Find out more.
With this in mind, let’s compare conventional medications with a Paleo diet and lifestyle as treatments for high blood pressure.
Conventional Treatment for High Blood Pressure
Current guidelines in the U.S. and most industrialized countries recommend treatment of “prehypertension” (aka mild or borderline hypertension). However, a review of clinical trials by the prestigious Cochrane Collaboration found that treating mild hypertension with drugs did not reduce the risk of death or disease. (2) Unfortunately, the guidelines have not been revised and most physicians continue to prescribe medication for prehypertension despite the lack of evidence supporting this practice.
And I would argue that any treatment that does not address the underlying cause of a problem is ultimately ineffective.
What’s more, blood pressure medications are notorious for their side effects. These vary depending on the class of medication taken. For example:
- Diuretics flush extra water and sodium from the body. Their side effects include frequent urination; erectile dysfunction; weakness, leg cramps, or fatigue; and, gout.
- Beta-blockers make your heart beat more slowly and less forcefully. Their side effects include asthma symptoms, cold hands and feet, depression, erectile dysfunction, and insomnia and sleep problems.
- Angiotensin Converting Enzyme (ACE) inhibitors block formation of a hormone that causes blood vessels to narrow. Their side effects include a dry, hacking cough that won’t go away; skin rash; and, loss of taste.
- Calcium Channel Blockers (CCBs) keep calcium from entering the heart muscle and blood vessel cells. Their side effects include constipation, dizziness, headache, palpitations, and swollen ankles.
Unfortunately, in many cases more than one class of medications is used so the chance of experiencing several side effects increases significantly.
As you can see, using medication to treat high blood pressure is either ineffective (in the case of pre-hypertension), or plagued with the potential for side effects that can make life very unpleasant.
The Paleo Diet and Lifestyle for Reversing High Blood Pressure
Fortunately, high blood pressure can often be improved or even completely reversed by returning to a diet and lifestyle that is more consistent with our evolutionary heritage.
A Paleo diet and lifestyle is an excellent starting place for those wishing to embrace a natural approach to lowering blood pressure. We know this because hypertension is virtually unheard of in hunter-gatherer and pastoralist cultures. Moreover, clinical studies have found that the Paleo diet is effective in reducing blood pressure. (3, 4)
Here are some specific considerations to keep in mind:
Increased consumption of sugar—especially sugar-sweetened beverages like soda—is associated with high blood pressure, and reducing sugar intake has been shown to lower blood pressure. (5) Those with high blood pressure should be particularly mindful about reducing their consumption of added sugars.
High dietary intake of potassium is associated with lower blood pressure. In fact, many researchers believe that the protective effects of potassium are one of the major reasons why hunter-gatherers like the Kalahari Bushmen and traditional pygmies of Sub-Saharan Africa have such a low incidence of high blood pressure. In Paleolithic diets, the average daily intake of potassium was approximately 10,500 mg/d. In comparison, the average American consumes about 2,800 mg/d. (6)
In the U.S., increasing potassium intake alone would decrease the number of adults with high blood pressure by 17 percent, and increase life expectancy by five years for over 12 million Americans.
The highest sources of potassium in a Paleo-type diet are potatoes, halibut, plantains, rockfish, sweet potato, salmon, and beet greens.
A high dietary intake of magnesium has been shown to reduce blood pressure, though its effect is not as strong as what is observed with potassium. Nuts, seeds, spinach, beet greens, and chocolate are the highest food sources of magnesium on a Paleo diet.
We’ve been told for years that a high salt intake is one of the primary risk factors for high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, but it’s time to shake up the salt myth. Though some studies do suggest that restricting salt can lower blood pressure, the evidence supporting a connection between salt intake and cardiovascular disease is weak at best. What’s more, some evidence suggests that restricting salt too much may be harmful to our health. Click here to read my special report on salt and its relationship to blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
So far we’ve focused on diet, but lifestyle modification is equally important for regulating blood pressure. For example:
- Exercise and sitting less are both associated with lower blood pressure (7)
- Both short sleep duration and poor sleep quality increase the risk that you’ll develop high blood pressure. (8)
- Exposure to sunlight increases the production of a chemical in our bodies called nitric oxide, which in turn lowers blood pressure. (9)
- Several studies have shown that meditation can be effective for lowering blood pressure, possibly via its relaxing effects on the nervous system. (10)
All of these treatments are free of side effects (unless you call losing weight, having more energy, and looking better “side effects”), and unlike medications, they actually address the underlying cause of high blood pressure. And that explains why they can be so effective, as the following story sent in by reader Jeff Lines suggests:
In October 1991 I was admitted and spent several days in hospital for hypertension and high blood pressure and was placed on blood pressure medicine. In 2006 I had a sextuple bypass and was placed on statin drugs.
I’ve always researched more natural paths and my wife and I ate what was classified a healthy diet, but we have both struggled with weight and other conditions. I had read about Paleo diets, but as most diets go most of the articles and books where pretty strict about what you could eat. While researching Paleo, I came across an article by Chris and what I liked about it is the whole idea of customizing the diet to you. That article led me to ChrisKresser.com and the blog and that led me to buy his book.
That gave me the initiative to start the diet. By the time I went in to see the cardiologist a few weeks later my weight had dropped to 210 so I lost 15 pounds pretty quickly and I noticed my blood pressure had dropped. I started monitoring my blood pressure on a daily basis and noticed it was staying pretty low so I cut my blood pressure medicine in half. The cholesterol test came in about 75 points below my previous test several weeks earlier.
My next follow-up appointment with my cardiologist was about a month after the first. By then I’d lost another 10 pounds. I expressed elation over the drop in cholesterol and told him I had cut my blood pressure medicine in half.
I’m currently down to about 192 and have been off of blood pressure medicine since the end of June.
Jeff’s experience is not unusual. In fact, I see similar results in my work with patients every day.
So what will it be for you? Pills, or Paleo?
If your answer is Paleo, make sure to check out my book (just published in paperback with a new name: The Paleo Cure) for a detailed explanation of how to use Paleo to prevent and reverse disease and feel better than you have in years. And don’t miss the bonus chapter on addressing high blood pressure with diet, lifestyle, and supplements.
As always, check with your doctor before starting or stopping any new treatment plan—including what I’ve suggested in this article. This is not intended to be medical advice, and is not a substitute for being under the care of a physician.