This month, as we learn to relax and breathe we have decided to look at blood pressure and cholesterol. Over the years, many guests have arrived at La Crisalida Retreats feeling stressed, with pale skin, bags under their eyes, shallow breathing and with high blood pressure (either on medication or about to be put onto medication). Others arrive with all these symptoms and high cholesterol to boot! In a few short days, their skin glows, the bags have gone and for many people their blood pressure has dropped. Their breathing is full and normal. A different person emerges.
In this article we will first look at what we mean by blood pressure and cholesterol. We will then look at how you can make changes at home, to your diet and lifestyle to reduce your blood pressure and / or cholesterol and bring your body back into balance.
What is “blood pressure”?
When the doctor measures your blood pressure, what he or she is actually measuring is the force your blood makes against the walls of your arteries (arteries are the channels in the body that carry the blood). When you have your blood pressure measured, you are given two measurements – one when you heart is contracting (it does this to push the blood around your body), this is the maximum pressure in your arteries and is called systolic blood pressure. The second measurement is when your heart relaxes as it fills with blood, this is the minimum pressure, also known as diastolic blood pressure.
“Normal” blood pressure
A healthy heart will pump the blood around your body easily, at low pressure. There are varying guidelines about what is “normal” blood pressure. Remembering that everyone is different, somewhere around or just below 120/80mm Hg is a good place to aim for (120 is systolic, 80 is diastolic).
High blood pressure
Sometimes, people have high blood pressure that remains consistently elevated, even when the body is relaxed. If you have high blood pressure, it means that your heart has to work harder to push the blood around your body. Over time, the extra work required to pump the blood means that the heart (a big muscle) becomes thicker and stiffer, and so becomes less able to do its job.
Blood pressure changes over time and across a day. Anytime you face danger, your blood pressure naturally increases – this is because the heart is sending more blood around your body, to your muscles and organs, so you are more able to move quickly in the face of danger! Stress is a modern perceived “danger”, where your body stays on high alert. Stress is also the time when our breathing reduces and becomes more shallow.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance found in the cells in your body and in your blood. It is produced by the liver and we can also obtain it from the food that we eat. You need cholesterol to be able to produce bile (which helps your body to digest fat), to produce hormones, vitamin D and it´s vital for neurological (brain) function. There are two main types that you might have heard of (i) low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, also called “bad” cholesterol and (ii) high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, also called “good” cholesterol. LDL carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells, whereas HDL carries cholesterol from the cells to the liver, to be broken down (where it can then be excreted from the body). Too much LDL (and not enough HDL) can cause a fatty build up in the artery walls, which can lead to blood clots or can block arteries to the heart. A fatty build-up in the arteries means that the heart has to work harder to pump the blood around the body. Scientific research is ongoing to what effect too much HDL has on the body. Most medical and health professionals advise is that you are looking for a balance of the two, with slightly higher HDL levels than LDL.
Foods high in saturated fats contribute to high cholesterol levels in the body. This includes animal products (particularly red meat) and dairy, some chocolate, deep fried foods and highly processed foods.
Links between high blood pressure and high cholesterol
People with high blood pressure often also have high cholesterol levels, and vice versa, although this is not true for everyone.
We think that high blood pressure and cholesterol levels are symptoms that your body is out of balance.
Western medicine tends to treat symptoms (e.g. your high blood pressure), rather than looking for the underlying cause and changing that. We believe that for many people high blood pressure or high cholesterol comes down to lifestyle, i.e. what we do (action or inaction) and what we eat. Many people have an acidic lifestyle. This means that in your daily life there is too much caffeine, alcohol, smoking, sugar, salt, heavy metals, pollution (air, noise, water), chemicals, stress, combined with lack of sleep and a lack of “free” time. Read more about acid-alkaline balance here.
What can I do to reduce LDL cholesterol and/or blood pressure?
If you think that high BP and cholesterol comes down to lifestyle choices that you have made in the past and are making now, then that means you can make changes to your lifestyle now, which should then positively influence your cholesterol and/or blood pressure levels.
Doctors will provide you with medication (tablets etc) for managing blood pressure and/or high cholesterol. You might wish to try a natural approach first or in combination with your medication. If you are on medication, we suggest that you speak to your health professional first, before making any changes.
CHANGE YOUR LIFESTYLE:
1. Eat a plant based diet
Things to include in your diet:
Eat more fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and natural products. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in saturated fat. (Note: if you are on medication, remember to check what foods you can or cannot eat, as people on some medications should not eat too much spinach, broccoli or grapefruit for example). Include a good helping of foods containing soluble fibre in your diet every day (things like oats, chickpeas, beans or lentils (see this months recipe for Chickpea, spinach and saffron stew). You can also try juicing (see this months juice recipe “Carroty lunch”). You also need to include a food source of good fats, if you´re not sure which fats to eat, read our earlier article “Fats for nutrition, health and weightloss”.
Things to avoid eating, or to keep to a low level:
Meat, particularly red meat
Some vegetable oils (like palm oil)
Deep fried foods
Highly processed foods
2. Decrease your alcohol intake
Alcohol can lead to increased blood pressure. It also contains a high amount of calories, which can contribute to weight gain, which can also increase blood pressure and cholesterol. Reduce the amount of alcohol you drink. Recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption vary. In the UK it is 14 units per week for men and women, which equates to around one drink per day. If you can have a few alcohol-free nights every week. Also remember, binge drinking (consuming all your weekly alcohol intake in one night) plays havoc with the body. Read our earlier article about how to relax and unwind without alcohol.
3. Exercise more
Some authors believe that inactivity prevents HDL. Certainly all the research indicates that moderate regular activity will help to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol in healthy limits. So, find an activity that you enjoy and want to do, be it dancing, walking, cycling, pilates, yoga, kick boxing… the list is endless. Find a friend to go with you and then commit to going regularly.
Rebounding, jumping on mini trampolines is great for heart health and also great for clearing your lymph system. Its also great fun! Laughter helps reduce stress and tension from the body, so have a go, laugh!
4. Stop smoking
There are indications in the scientific literature that smoking reduces HDL cholesterol. If you smoke, have high blood pressure and high total cholesterol you are more at risk of having a heart attack. Be kind to yourself. Cut it out.
5. Reduce stress
Stress can be caused by many things and is different for each person. Identify the main stressors in your life and start to make changes to reduce the stress: create more harmony in your relationships, consider a different journey to work, change your job, change your habits (read the two articles on changing your habits, part 1 and part 2)
Include more yoga and meditation in your life on a regular basis.
Practice deep tummy breathing (see this months article on yoga breathing)
Take regular breaks, holidays – come on retreat!
6. Sleep more (and better!)
Are you getting enough good quality sleep? Read how you can develop a healthy sleep routine to sleep soundly each night.
7. Lose weight
Being overweight can mean that you are more likely to have high blood pressure. Therefore losing weight can help to reduce your blood pressure. The actions taken to lose weight (changing diet, exercising more, decreasing alcohol intake) will also help to reduce cholesterol. Your heart will thank you!
If you need an incentive to lose weight, try visualizing the amount of weight you want to lose. Then create that weight and carry it around with you for a while: pick up a pack of flour or sugar (or two) and put them into a rucksack next time you go for a walk. Walk around for a while, then take off the rucksack. As you do, visualize letting go of the weight and notice how much lighter and freer your body feels.
8. Change your environment
Even if you cannot change everything immediately in your personal environment consider going on retreat for a period of time to give you a kick start. Then, when you return, start to make changes. Read more about our detox and weightloss retreats.
All of these changes to your lifestyle should start to reduce the work that your heart has to do, which should start to decrease your blood pressure. The change in diet should also start to decrease your total cholesterol levels (lower LDL and increase HDL). Best of luck with implementing your new lifestyle!
To your health and wellbeing
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).