Diabetes is very much like a numbers game, isn’t it? At Joslin Diabetes Center, where I work, we pretty much drill into people the importance of “knowing their numbers”, including A1C, blood pressure, cholesterol, and microalbumin. Also, let’s not overlook the necessity to not only check blood glucose levels but also look at the numbers (again) for trends and patterns.
While many people focus on A1C as a marker of diabetes control, a number that’s sometimes overlooked, or at least not given the attention it deserves, is blood pressure. We all get our blood pressures measured at the doctor’s office (hopefully), and we may or may not be told the results. Many of you are likely taking medicine for blood pressure. From 2005 to 2008, 67% of adults 20 and older with diabetes had a blood pressure greater than 140/90 or were taking medicine to control their blood pressure. Remember that the blood pressure goal for most people with diabetes is less than 130/80. How are you measuring up?
The big deal about blood pressure is that if it’s too high, it greatly increases your chances of diabetic eye disease, kidney disease, heart failure, heart attack, and stroke. So, while you should pay attention to your daily blood glucose readings and your A1C levels, it’s wise to also keep tabs on your blood pressure.
Getting It Down
Most people with high blood pressure need to or will need to take medicine to help control it, much like people with diabetes eventually need medicine to help control blood glucose levels. Many people even need two or three medicines to help get blood pressure into a safe range. However, there are some people who may be able to get by with lifestyle measures. And even if you do take blood pressure meds, lifestyle measures can and do help to lower your blood pressure, too. Medicine and lifestyle go hand in hand.
But apart from cutting back on sodium (important to do) and shedding a few pounds (also important to do), what else helps to lower blood pressure? You should always work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan for your blood pressure, and if you take blood pressure medicine, don’t stop it on your own. In the meantime, take a look at some of the steps below and see if any of these may help you more easily achieve your goal:
Get moving. For many people, exercise is truly the best medicine for a whole host of things. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Don’t worry if you can’t do all 30 minutes at once: break it up into three 10-minute segments, if you need to. You’ll still reap the benefits. And choose something that you like to do.
Get your “ohm” on. It sounds so New Agey, but meditation has been proven to lower systolic blood pressure (the top number) by 4.7 mmHg and the diastolic (bottom number) by 3.2 mmHg. These are significant drops, and the good thing is that there are no side effects, like you might get from medicine. Plus, meditation helps alleviate stress, depression, and anxiety.
Power up with potassium. Potassium, which is a mineral, can help to lower the amount of sodium in the blood and literally take the pressure off of artery walls. Foods rich in potassium include oranges, cantaloupe, kidney beans, peas, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and milk. If you have kidney disease, however, talk with your doctor or dietitian before eating high-potassium foods.
Imbibe (just a little). Alcohol is a tricky thing in terms of health benefits. Too much obviously isn’t good, but some studies now show that a little alcohol may actually be better than none at all. Researchers found that light drinking (1/4 to 1/2 a drink per day for women) lowers blood pressure more than not drinking at all. (A drink is considered to be 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits.) And alcohol, in moderate amounts, may help protect against heart disease. If you don’t drink alcohol, it probably doesn’t make sense to start. But talk with your doctor about what a safe amount might be for you.
Go for the grain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Whole-grain foods are good for you. Among other things, whole-grain foods, such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, and oatmeal can help lower blood pressure, likely thanks to their fiber, vitamin, and mineral content. When you watch your portions, whole-grain foods shouldn’t send your blood glucose levels sky high, either. And eating a bowl of oatmeal means you probably won’t be chowing down on a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich.
Indulge (a little bit). Good news for chocolate fans: Eating dark chocolate may drop your blood pressure. The catch? You likely have to eat dark chocolate, not milk chocolate. Dark chocolate contains more flavanols, which are phytonutrients, than milk chocolate, and it’s these flavanols that seem to lower blood pressure. Also, yes, you need to watch the portion. We’re not talking about a one-pound Hershey Bar. More like one quarter to one ounce per day, or one square. Finally, the chocolate should contain at least 70% cocoa in order to do its job.
Sip on this. If you like tea, you might give hibiscus tea a try. In one study, subjects who drank three cups of hibiscus tea each day for six weeks had a 7.2 point drop in their systolic blood pressure compared to folks who drank a placebo tea. Hisbiscus tea is a ruby red colored herbal tea, with a fruity flavor. It’s full of antioxidants that are likely protective against heart disease.