Blood pressure and stress

Updated: Jun 19, 2019

Stress has long been known to have an impact on the body, and more specifically the blood pressure of individuals. In this article, we explore blood pressure further and look closer at the mechanisms and risks which come with having high blood pressure, as well as things you can do to improve your blood pressure readings.

Blood pressure is the pressure of the blood moving through the circulatory system, and is responsible for the transport of blood to areas where nutrients and waste products are delivered and removed. Blood pressure, in a normal individual, is variable to many things, including temperature, exercise status, sleep, caffeine and other parameters. The heart is responsible for the generation of the pressure of the blood and is the force at which the left ventricle of the heart discharges blood out of major arteries to respiring organs. The walls of our vessels are responsive to hormones which dictate the dilation or constriction of the vessel, which (rather like a hosepipe) increases or decreases the diameter of the vessel, subsequently increasing or reducing the pressure at which blood flows through.

When measuring blood pressure manually or automatically, we get certain numbers which give us information about the cardiac cycle and how the heart is working. We hear of the ‘top’ number and ‘bottom’ number in relation to blood pressure – such as 121/79 – the top number being the systolic, and bottom number representing diastolic blood pressure. Systolic blood pressure is the pressure of the blood in the arteries during a heartbeat, whilst diastolic blood pressure reflects the pressure in the vessels during relaxation of the heart. Since the early 20th century, doctors have reported blood pressure in individuals and began to piece together the puzzle of how our blood pressure affect mortality, prevalence and risk of diseases, as well as the affect this has on our everyday health.

What is a normal blood pressure? A commonly accepted classification for blood pressure is that below 120/80mmHg is a normal, health blood pressure for individuals over the age of 18. There are also classifications of higher blood pressure described as ‘hypertension’, which exist in stage 1 hypertension and stage 2 hypertension, all of which give risk status for the development of disease and cardiac events such as heart attacks and strokes.

· Elevated blood pressure: 120-129/<80 mm Hg

· Stage I hypertension: 130-139/80-89 mm Hg

· Stage 2 hypetension: 140>/90> mm Hg

As blood pressure changes all the time and even on a minute basis, it is a good idea to know your blood pressure and measure perhaps in the morning, lunchtime and evening, and get an average of these readings. This will give you a better idea of where your blood pressure average actually sits at.

Even small increases of blood pressure of around 10mmHg systolic or diastolic can potentially double your risk for developing serious cardiovascular disease, as well significantly increasing your risk of a heart attack or stroke. At the earlier stages, doctors recommend lifestyle changes and the addition of an anti-hypertensive drug such as ACE inhibitors or angiotensin IIa inhibitors. These medicines work to reduce the action of enzymes which change the diameter of your vessels and normally adversely increase blood pressure in your circulatory system. A significant risk of high blood pressure is the rupturing of deposits on the wall of your vessels, causing things called atheromas (fat and cholesterol build ups in arteries and arterioles, a natural process of aging), which cause blockages and strokes. This is a common mechanism contributing towards catastrophic conditions like coronary heart attacks.

It is important to regularly check your blood pressure, as the government invests further in prevention techniques. You should also be aware of steps you can take to reduce your blood pressure if you have a higher than expected reading, something which can be achieved in a variety of ways;

· Exercise and physical activity – even modest amounts of aerobic exercise such as walking can reduce systolic and diastolic blood pressure by as much as 3-5mmHg in as little as 8 weeks – a greatly effective method for non-pharmacological intervention.

· Stress management – being aware of work stress levels and planning for stressful situations is a great way to manage your blood pressure – a rise in the level of stress hormones such as cortisol raises your blood pressure and can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

· Diet – managing the amount of lipids and fats you consume in your diet is also a key part of staying in a healthy range, as well as reducing your risk for coronary artery disease. Make a conscious effort to increase the amount of healthy fats you consume, as well as taking on good, complex carbohydrates, green cruciferous vegetables and to reduce the intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.

· Weight management – there is a strong correlation between body weight and blood pressure, particularly as body mass places strain on the body and heart, as well as increasing the chance of occlusion of arteries and vessels in the lower limbs. Even modest weight loss can greatly improve your blood pressure readings, along with reducing your changes for other non-communicable diseases such as metabolic disease and diabetes.

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