01.06.2009 Naturopathy

Ready to Pop

Jeremy Hill offers a compelling case for keeping your blood pressure under control

Life giving blood is pumped by that tireless worker, the heart, in rhythmically coursing red rivers, transferring nutrients and wastes, hormones and neurotransmitters, oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from our cells. This is all contained within the marvellously consistent circulatory system, which consists of the heart, the arteries that take blood from the heart, the veins that take it back and the smaller capillaries in between that diffuse the goods back and forth. Pretty important stuff to say the least, which is why looking after your circulatory system should be right up at the top of your list of priorities.

Yet it doesn't appear to have been a priority for a good many people, with at least three million Australian adults already having developed a dangerous increase in blood pressure.

Hypertension drastically increases your risks for having a stroke, a heart attack, dementia, kidney disease, impotence and loss of sight - all excellent reasons to do whatever it takes to keep your blood pressure under control.

Hypertension often starts with chronic inflammation of some kind, which damages the flexible circulatory vessels. Collagen is subsequently deposited in the vessels as a supportive response, which restricts the normal expansion of blood vessels whenever the heart pumps. The blood is still pushed through the vessels at the same rate, but without the expansion of the vessels, the pressure goes up. This stresses the vessels further, and more collagen is laid down to further strengthen the vessels.

Tougher blood vessels might sound like a good idea, but it's anything but. As the kidneys struggle to filter the waste from the blood, the 80km of kidney nephron tubules harden. The kidneys activate the rennin angiotensin hormone pathway to induce a constriction of blood vessels to push up the pressure and force the filtration process to occur. The cycle continues with slowly elevating pressure, hardening vessels, causing sodium accumulation, fluid retention and heart enlargement.

Kidney filtering function at age 70 has generally dropped to about half that of age 40.

The double hit of an inactive lifestyle and a high calorie, highly refined diet is widespread, leading to inflammation and chronic ill health. This can quietly leave a trail of damage throughout unsuspecting circulatory systems with an elevation in blood pressure just one of the life threatening consequences. Chronic infections can also induce enough inflammation to cause hypertension, with the toxins released by the infection starting the cascade.

A secondary circulatory complication from inflammation can occur when the elevated levels of acute phase proteins induced during inflammation bind to minerals crucial for circulatory health, such as zinc, magnesium and others, leading to their excretion.

Interestingly, alcohol can both elevate and lower blood pressure. Excessive alcohol will put blood pressure up by inducing inflammation and it doesn't take many drinks do this. Blood pressure generally starts to rise at just two drinks a day. But one drink a day may even be better than none, with some research published in the journal Circulation in 2003, finding that, compared to non drinkers, 5 to 7 drinks a week caused the level of C-Reactive Protein (a blood marker for inflammation) to drop from 2.6mg/L to 1.6mg/L.

Unwanted weight gain due to unhealthy lifestyle habits certainly plays a big role in pushing up blood pressure, but thinner people can't rest easy either.

There are many svelte individuals who, maintaining their weight by nothing more than good genes, have packed a few secret kilograms of fat neatly into their seemingly trim torso. These people have much to be wary of and they usually don't have a clue. At least those with a big belly get a good reminder of their risks every time they look in the mirror, look down, tuck in their shirt, or loosen their belt.

Exercise is a great tool when it comes to lowering blood pressure, although the reason for the beneficial effect tends not to be through weight loss.

Exercise is often a less than effective weight loss tool, with the fuel burnt off being counteracted by an exercise-induced increase in appetite.

Instead, blood pressure is lowered by the greater insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation and stress that all result from exercise. Scarily, just two days after stopping exercise, insulin sensitivity starts to decrease.

There are numerous possible causes of hypertension - from the obvious smoking, stress, inactivity, obesity, too much alcohol and salt, to the less obvious insulin resistance, heavy metal exposure, various medications, deficiencies and sleep apnoea.

Primary Aldosteronism is another category of hypertension worth mentioning as it's responsible for up to 10% of cases. Resistant to standard treatment and caused in a third of cases by an adrenal tumour and the other two thirds by actual adrenal gland problems, this is a cause of hypertension that often goes undiagnosed and requires very specific treatment.

Up to 50% of patients stop their hypertension medication within the first year due to side effects. This leaves them at significant risk, but they are perhaps a little luckier than the many undiagnosed people who don't even know they have this silent killer.

Diagnosing is easily done at any check up, but treating hypertension effectively requires a holistic approach to healthcare, which is where your Naturopath can help.

Good Health

Jeremy Hill

Jeremy Hill AdvDipNutMed, AdvDipWHM, NDAdv is a Perth-based naturopath