Health Matters

High Blood Pressure? Shake the Salt Habit

Dec. 9, 2013
Next time you reach for the salt shaker, stop and think: How much salt do you really need? Sure, it’s tasty and plays a part in your nutrition. But too much salt can not only ruin a dish, it may raise your blood pressure and harm your health.
Dr. John Chad Teeters shares some tips for avoiding high blood pressure (hypertension), a common condition that often comes with age. 
Blood pressure is the force of blood pressing against the walls of your arteries. When it's too high, it raises the heart's workload and can cause serious damage to the arteries. Over time, uncontrolled high blood pressure increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. 
nurse taking man's blood pressure
One in five Americans has high blood pressure and doesn’t know it. You don’t feel differently when you have high blood pressure, despite the damage it does to your heart and other organs. 
So, it’s important to monitor your blood pressure and understand the results.
Understand Your Numbers
Your blood pressure reading is given in two numbers. The first number is the systolic pressure, when the heart is pumping. The second is the diastolic blood pressure, when the heart is relaxed between beats. Both numbers are important.
A reading below 120/80 is normal. If your top number is 120 to 139, or your bottom number is 80 to 89, you have prehypertension. That means you probably need to make some lifestyle changes to prevent becoming hypertensive.
If your top number is 140 or above and your bottom number is 90 or above, you have high blood pressure. The higher the numbers are, the greater your health risks. Your doctor will likely recommend a combination of lifestyle changes and medication to lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke. 
You can take these steps to maintain safe blood pressure levels:
  • avoid alcohol and tobacco,  
  • choose a low-fat diet and maintain a healthy weight,
  • exercise 30 minutes or more, five or six times a week,
  • keep your salt (sodium) intake under 4 grams a day. 
Be Salt Savvy
Think about this: Soup and a sandwich for lunch could use up half of your day’s recommended sodium intake. If you eat a bowl of soup, that's a gram of sodium. Add a sandwich with deli meat and that's another gram. Top the sandwich off with cheese and that's yet another gram. And if you’re eating at a restaurant, it’s likely higher still. A better choice is a salad with light dressing.
Also, consider enjoying a few small bites of dark chocolate, which scientists say can help lower your blood pressure. As delicious as it sounds, it won’t do the whole job. Combine it with a nutritious diet and exercise to get results.
If you follow these lifestyle changes, you will likely reduce your blood pressure reading by 10 to 20 points. If you’re overweight, choose to exercise and you’ll see your blood pressure drop as you lose pounds. 
If your doctor prescribes medication to lower your blood pressure, take it every day. And keep track of your blood pressure using the monitors available at supermarkets and drug stores.  
These simple steps can help you avoid some serious health issues. 
If you have questions about your blood pressure levels, talk with your primary care doctor.  
Don’t have a doctor? Click here for help finding one.
John Chat Teeters, MD