If you are reading this article, it is very likely that either you or someone you know is suffering from High Blood Pressure (Hypertension). Hypertension (HTN) is one of the most common conditions nowadays. It is described as having systolic blood pressure greater than 130 and diastolic above 90. HTN increases the risk of heart, brain, kidney and other serious conditions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) approx. 1.36 billion people on planet earth have Hypertension and among those 46% are unaware that they have HTN. Most of the time if you go to your primary doctor and get diagnosed with hypertension it is very likely that the doctor may give you a “Pill” for better control of your blood pressure. You will have to take this “pill” for the rest of your life with no cheat day and chances are that the numbers of “pills” that you have to take are going to increase as the time passes by. Every doctor will admit that all pills have some side effects and writing a prescription involves weighing potential benefits over those side effects. This is the time when you have to ask yourself a question, is “Pill” the only way to control the blood pressure?
Studies have shown that a plant-based diet can have as much of an effect of lowering your pressure as a pill can have. But plants don’t have any negative side effects like pills have. In Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, a dose response relationship was found between plant food intake and lower incidence of hypertension. In contrast, red meat and processed meat intake was directly associated with a higher incidence of elevated blood pressure. Those with high amounts of meat consumption had a higher risk of hypertension. Thus consuming lower amounts of plant based foods and high amounts of meat per day is a perfect recipe for Hypertension. Similarly Nurses’ Health Study-1 (NHS-1), Nurses’ Health Study-2 (NHS-2), and Health Professional Follow up Study (HPFS) showed an association between consumption of red meat, processed meat, poultry, and seafood. If you can stop your meat intake, it will greatly improve your quality of life.
It is without a doubt that whole plant-based foods form the core of this dietary approach. A Whole food plant- based diet is rich in fiber, potassium, magnesium, and low in fats. Plants not only help in control of blood pressure, but they also prevent weight gain, heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer, stroke and diabetes because of the high quotient of antioxidants these foods provide.
The tendency of whole plant-based foods to lower blood pressure can be related to different mechanisms
Weight: Body weight is directly associated with high blood pressure in some trials. Obesity or metabolic syndrome puts extra stress on most of your organs including your kidneys causing your kidneys to lose regulation of blood pressure. Those who consume less meat and more plants are found to have low BMIs.
Sodium: Plant based diets are low in sodium i-e if extra sodium is not added to preserve them or during processing. The more sodium you take in a day, the more your kidneys will have to work to excrete all this sodium. If you consume large amounts of salts for a prolonged period of time your kidneys will eventually burn out causing your blood pressure to increase. Vegetarian diets are as a whole low in sodium.
Potassium: It has been well recognized for almost a century that higher potassium intake improves blood pressure. The more potassium you eat, the more sodium you lose through urine. Potassium also helps to ease tension in your blood vessel walls, which helps further lower blood pressure. Increasing potassium through diet is recommended in adults with blood pressure above 120/80 who are otherwise healthy. Plant based diets are rich in potassium.
Maillard Reaction: This is the underlying principle behind Aromas which are produced during cooking meat. Everyone loves the smell of cooking meat. It is what increases one’s appetite, but not many people know that the reaction responsible for producing Aromas is also responsible for raising your blood pressure. The Maillard reaction occurs as food is cooked. During the cooking process, amino acids and certain simple sugars in the food form new molecules, which join together in chains. These new molecules are called Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs). These molecules induce vasoconstriction and have anti natriuretic properties, thus causing rise in BP.
Microbiome: Microbiome refers to endogenous populations of microbes in our gut lumen. In a recent study researchers fed high molecular weight beta-glucan, a major soluble fiber found in oat and barley, to participants to examine changes in microbiome and cardiovascular risk. Consumption of this molecule produced a favorable shift in Firmicutes/Bacteroidetes ratio ( a high ratio has been correlated with obesity and other disease) and reduction in cardiovascular risk and blood pressure. Thus, plants promote our intestinal microbiota which further leads to blood pressure reduction, supplies vitamins, and helps in excretion of excess cholesterol from body.
Plant protein: Nitric oxide-NO is an endogenous vasodilator which helps to relax blood vessels and decrease blood pressure. It is produced by the endothelial lining of blood vessels. Due to the antioxidant properties of plants, the production of nitric oxide is increased. Some of the vegetables such as leafy greens and beets are rich in natural nitrates thus promoting relaxation of blood vessels.
Whole food plant-based diets have long been used in management of hypertension and reduces the risk of many other serious conditions originating from high blood pressure. In order to live a healthy life one should start thinking about eating habits. Bad eating practices can reduce your quality of health and lifespan. Instead of investing on pills in the future, start investing in plant based dietary plans today.
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Author: Muhammad Talha Waseem, MBBS