What is Hypertension?

High blood pressure (hypertension) is a fairly common health condition, especially as you grow older. Hypertension is defined as high blood pressure, even when at rest.

Normally, your blood pressure can raise or lower slightly throughout the day, depending on what you are doing. Blood pressure rises when you engage in physical activity – think of feeling your blood pumping when you have finished a run. In hypertension, this higher rate is your baseline!

What is Considered High Blood Pressure?

As your heart beats, it pumps blood around your body, providing oxygen and essential nutrients to your tissues. As blood passes through your blood vessels, they can relax, allowing blood to travel slower, or constrict, which increases the pressure of the liquid. This allows blood to travel faster, providing more oxygen to your muscles when you are engaged in physical activity.

Blood pressure is measured using two numbers – the systole (the outgoing pump of the heart) and the diastole (the relaxing of the heart to allow blood to fill it). This is commonly shown as systole/diastole – for example, optimal blood pressure would be shown as 120/80.

The following table will give you an idea of normal blood pressures, as well as those of people with high blood pressure;

Optimal BP 120 / 80
Normal BP 130 / 85
Stage 1 Hypertension 140-159 / 90-99
Stage 2 Hypertension 160-179 / 100-109
Severe Hypertension Anything over 180 / 110

Blood pressure readings are often taken with a pressure cuff; most doctors will perform these as a matter of course, and you can ask to have your blood pressure checked during any routine checkup.

What Causes Hypertension?

There can be a number of causes of hypertension symptoms. The most basic mechanism is some form of damage to your cardiovascular system, either through ill health or ageing. Your body can repair this damage, at the cost of losing flexibility in your blood vessels. As these tubes are less flexible, they will progressively tighten, causing your blood pressure to rise and putting more strain on your heart, as it has to work harder to push the blood around your body.

As your heart works harder to carry blood, so must your other tissues work harder. Blood flow is essential to carry oxygen, hormones, and nutrients required for everyday function, and strain on those systems can cause further damage to your body, making it harder for them to function.

Pulmonary hypertension is specifically caused by damage to the pulmonary arteries, blood vessels which provide blood to the lungs. This can lead to your body being less able to process oxygen efficiently.

Blood also carries toxins and waste products, to be processed into faeces, urine and even the breath you exhale! If your body is already taxed, even when resting, it may not be as efficient in removing these toxins, leading to further damage to your body.

What are the Symptoms of Hypertension?

Many people will present with few to no symptoms, until their blood pressure has climbed fairly high. The most common symptoms of hypertension are;

      • Severe headache
      • Shortness of breath
      • Nosebleed
      • Severe anxiety
      • Pulsation on the back of the neck or head (“throbbing” sensation)

Hypertension Treatment Options

The most significant risk factor for hypertension is obesity – around 13% of all deaths globally have been attributed to obesity-related hypertension. It can also increase your risks of heart failure, heart attacks and strokes; increased systolic pressure is associated with 51% of strokes and around 45% of coronary heart diseases.

Luckily, obesity is a factor that you can control yourself, and a dietitian can give you the advice and knowledge you need to make those changes.

A dietitian can discuss potential lifestyle and diet influences that can lead to hypertension, and can help modify these to lower your blood pressure. The most obvious one would be working with you to discuss obesity, and seeing what changes you can make to your lifestyles and eating habits to help you lose weight, which can reverse some of the effects of hypertension.

There are less obvious options as well – for instance, your salt intake. As you eat foods which contain salt, your body loses water to process it out of your system – ever had a really salty meal and instantly felt thirsty? Your body is telling you you need water to help handle the excess salt. Without external water, your body will use its own supply, which can cause your blood pressure to rise as your blood has less water content, making it harder to move through your blood vessels. By limiting your salt intake, you can make a massive difference to your hypertension; a dietitian can help you be more conscious of your salt intake.

Similarly, drinking alcohol uses your body’s water supplies to help remove it from your system (the dreaded hangover dry mouth is evidence enough of this). A dietitian can help you find a more disciplined approach to alcohol consumption, and ensure you are staying hydrated throughout your day.