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Life expectancy has gradually increased over the past 100 years. In the past, people had generally shorter lives because of a lack of effective medicine and poor sanitation. They often died from infections especially in early childhood. The discovery of antibiotics and use of childhood vaccinations has changed all that. Improved sanitation and waste disposal was also a major factor in reducing these types of infectious diseases. Modern healthcare with new medicines and surgical techniques means that we do not need to worry about these old causes of death and disease.
However, we now live in a new era of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Even HIV is now a chronic disease instead of the killer it used to be. We manage these conditions rather than cure them. That means life-long medicine for most people affected by them.
Many chronic diseases such as high blood pressure are caused by lifestyle choices which we discussed in the previous section. You can therefore manage them better by improving some of your habits.
However, what if you want to reverse these changes so that you no longer have the disease or need to take medicine? In that case, it follows that you will need to make more dramatic changes. This is because you are not trying to manage something but actually trying to undo all of the unfavourable changes in your body.
Dr Dean Ornish showed that you can reverse heart disease changes with the lifestyle heart trial and the intensive lifestyle trial. The principles he used can also be used to ‘cure’ your high blood pressure. He describes this really well in his book ‘Undo it’ in which he emphasises 4 things:
– Eat well
– Move more
– Stress less
– Love more
Arguably the most important of these is maintaining a healthy diet that is plant-based. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone thinking about making dramatic changes that can actually reverse disease processes.
In the previous section you read about the DASH diet. The DASH diet is based on the fact that vegetarian populations have generally better (lower) blood pressure than those consuming a standard Western diet. The DASH researchers assumed that people would not be able to make such a big change to their diet to become completely vegetarian. The DASH diet was therefore a compromise diet which contained elements of both. However, the main effect of the DASH diet is from the addition of fruits and vegetables, not the low fat or white meat.
Does that sound paternalistic? It should do, because that’s exactly what it is. Why not tell people that the best diet for blood pressure is a plant-based diet and then let people make up their own minds? They did not give people a choice.
There is no doubt that changing what you eat is one of the most difficult things you can do. However, it does not need to be done all at once and is easier if done gradually especially if you have been eating one way all your life. Your taste palate changes as you try different foods and become easier the longer that you do it.
Changing what you eat to a more plant-based diet is the most beneficial thing that you can do to improve your health. A number of studies have shown that you do not need a different type of diet for every type of disease. One of the most important of these was The China Study, the biggest nutritional study done in humans. Whether it is high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease or cancer; in all cases, a plant-based diet is best.
A plant-based diet is rich in vegetables and fruits, legumes (beans and pulses), whole grains and nuts/seeds.
Vegetarians and vegans are defined by what they exclude rather than what they include in their diets. A vegetarian does not eat meat or fish. A vegan does not, in addition, eat eggs and dairy products.
However, a plant-based diet is defined by what it includes. So you might be plant-based 60% of the time or 80% or 95%. The main thing is that you are trending in the right direction of eating healthier food. This is not only good for your blood pressure but also for virtually every other disease!
It is possible to reverse and cure high blood pressure just as it is with type 2 diabetes. I witnessed it myself 15 years ago when I saw the first patients undergo weight-loss surgery. As they lost weight, I had to reduce and stop their blood pressure and diabetes medicines as the underlying disease improved.
Now, I am not advocating that everyone with high blood pressure should have weight-reduction surgery. But it does proves a principle, that weight loss can aid in blood pressure control for those who are overweight.
Changing to an unprocessed, plant-based diet makes weight-loss much easier. That is because processed and animal foods are generally high in calories. You can lose weight without feeling hungry or calorie-counting on a plant-based diet.
Many people will advise you to eat this food or that supplement to help your blood pressure. However, occasionally eating certain foods or taking supplements is never going to undo the damage of a bad diet.
The main principle is to eat a healthy plant-based diet to begin with. Then, certain foods can act as the fine tuning to improve your blood pressure further. We have scientific evidence for the following foods.
Most people know about the harmful effects of sugar. However, fewer are aware that eating refined carbohydrates is almost just as bad. By this, I mean white bread, white rice and white pasta. Some people have made the switch to wholemeal/brown bread, but much fewer have made the switch to wholegrain rice or pasta.
Why is this important? It is because refining these starchy foods to their ‘white’ form removes all the fibre. Fibre helps to reduce the rate at which the carbohydrates are absorbed into your bloodstream as sugars making it more metabolically healthy.
We have sound evidence that eating 3 portions of whole grains per day reduces heart disease and stroke risk by lowering blood pressure. In fact, it reduces the risk by the same amount as taking blood pressure medicine. Making the switch to whole grain foods is a no-brainer!
Regular intake of flaxseeds has been shown in one study to improve blood pressure even better than some blood pressure medicines. That is powerful.
Make sure to take them in their ground form. You will need to take 2-4 tablespoons per day.
Hibiscus tea comes from the flower of the same name. It is bright red in colour and has a sharp taste like cranberry.
The beneficial effects of hibiscus tea are thought to come from its strong anti-oxidant content. Studies have shown improvements in cholesterol but the most powerful effect is on reducing blood pressure.
Nitrate medicines are used to open up blood vessels in the treatment of heart disease. However, nitrates are also found in common foods and have been shown in studies to have benefits in lowering blood pressure.
The most useful foods in this category and beetroot and greens.
Beetroot juice has been found to reduce blood pressure within hours and the effect lasts all day. Furthermore, drinking beetroot juice regularly has been shown to continuously improve blood pressure over a number of weeks. The right amount to drink seems to be 125ml per day.
However, beetroot juice might be difficult to find and adds up to quite a lot of beetroot. How about other foods that contain nitrates. It turns out that the leafy greens contain even more nitrates than beetroot with the most being found in rocket. That should not be surprising because we have known for a long time that eating greens reduces risk of heart disease.
For more information on proven natural remedies, I would recommend Dr Michael Greger’s book with the tongue-in-cheek title “How not to die”.
To reverse the changes in your body that have caused high blood pressure over many years, you will need to make a big effort. The most important thing is to change to a more plant-based diet. After that, certain foods can also help as much or even better than some blood pressure medicines.
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