Halting Holiday Hypertension

We are now well into the hectic holiday season. Our calendars are filled with parties, decorations are hung, shopping is in full swing and your patience may already be wearing thin.

The in-laws struck a nerve at Thanksgiving, the kids are leaving snowy boots and mittens all over the foyer and each time your sock soaks in a fresh lump of snow on the floor, your blood boils a little bit hotter. It’s enough to make anyone’s blood pressure rise just a smidge.

Back in February of 2018, the American Heart Association released new blood pressure guidelines. A blood pressure of 130/80 suddenly went from being normal, to qualifying as stage 1 hypertension. Because of the new guidelines, 31 million more Americans have been diagnosed with hypertension, and this is their first holiday season managing it. Those who never considered their heart health during the holidays before, are now faced with new and challenging decisions.

Hypertension and high blood pressure are interchangeable terms, and the condition has often been called the silent killer. Most people don’t recognize they have it since there are generally no symptoms or warning signs. Physicians at Michigan Medicine’s Frankel Cardiovascular Center describe blood pressure as a measure of how hard the blood pushes against the walls of your arteries as it moves through your body. It’s normal for blood pressure to go up and down throughout the day, but if it stays up, that’s a problem. Blood pressure that’s too high starts to damage blood vessels, the heart and the kidneys, which could lead to a heart attack or stroke. It’s estimated that one in three adults has high blood pressure and, most of the time, the cause is unknown.

In a worst-case scenario, those with high blood pressure are at risk of a Christmas coronary. Stress combined with eating fatty foods, drinking alcohol and less exercise is a recipe for a heart attack. Studies show a five percent increase in heart-related deaths in December and January, many of those occurring on Christmas and New Year’s Day.

“The good news is, hypertension is treatable,” said Dr. Eric Walchak, the Director of Metro Health – University of Michigan Health’s Hypertension Clinic. “Not only are there steps you can take to prevent hypertension, but you can potentially reverse the diagnosis if you implement certain lifestyle changes.”

If you’re a smoker, the most immediate positive changes to your health occur after you quit. According to the American Heart Association, every time you smoke, it causes a temporary increase in blood pressure. Smoking and secondhand smoke also increase the risk of plaque buildup inside the arteries.

Dr. Walchak emphasizes that a healthy, well-balanced diet is extremely important for managing blood pressure. “Aim for a diet that is rich in foods like fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, skinless poultry, and fish and nuts. Limit your intake of alcohol, salt, red meat and saturated and trans fats.”

Additionally, physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight help control hypertension. Exercise strengthens the heart and lowers stress, which is good for your emotional health and your blood pressure.

If you are already taking high blood pressure medication, Dr. Walchak underscores, it is imperative that you take those medications properly and consult with your physician to integrate lifestyle changes as well. “Work together with your physician to determine the best methods to reach your individual goals and improve your health.”

Finally, know your blood pressure numbers. Educate yourself about healthy and unhealthy blood pressure ranges, and check your numbers regularly. The American Heart Association offers a helpful tool on its website that explains exactly what your numbers mean.

“Lifestyle changes are not always easy,” Dr. Walchak explained. “But they are effective. Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States. Earlier and better treatment of high blood pressure play key roles in decreasing that risk.”

Whether you’re hypertensive or not, the holidays can make us all a little hot under the collar once in a while. And just like we try to manage our health the rest of the year, the holidays should be no different. Manage your stress, make healthier choices and, for goodness’ sake, find a place for the kids to put their snowy boots.