Monday, March 26, 2012

Why Everyone Over the Age of 40 Should Have a Blood Pressure Monitor

Heart disease doesn't just come out of the blue. It is the result of day-to-day choices about diet, stress management and exercise. The decisions we make in our 30s become habits in our 40s, which set the stage for the health we have in our 60s and beyond. We all know what we should do. But how often do we put off exercise until we have more time; or eat on the run; or rely on alcohol or drugs to relax - always thinking that we'll have time to improve our habits later? Apparently, way too often. Heart disease is the leading health problem in the US.

But here's the good news. If you have a blood pressure monitor and use it often, you can get clear, immediate feedback about which of your habits are working for you and which ones are working against you. Taking your blood pressure can show you when your blood sugar is too low. It can also be an indicator that you aren't adequately hydrated. Monitoring your blood pressure will show you the effect exercise has on your body and how well stress reduction techniques work for you.

And here's more good news. Blood pressure monitors are inexpensive - you can get a good one for less than $60 US. Blood pressure monitoring is non-invasive. You don't have to wait for a doctor's appointment to find out if your pressure is high. And when you do see your doctor, the information you have about how your blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day can be helpful in determining whether there is anything serious going on. Furthermore, seeing normal healthy readings on a regular basis will give you peace of mind. It will let you see how, as you change your habits, you move the needle on your health-o-meter in the right direction.

Now you may be thinking - what's the big deal? Your reading was normal at your last checkup or when you checked it at the drug store recently. It might surprise you to know that these once-in-a-blue-moon readings don't tell you that much about your health. They are merely a snapshot of a moment in time - not the full picture.
This is the blood pressure monitor I use regularly, the
Omron HEM-711. 

You see, unlike your temperature, which varies by less than 2 degrees over a 24-hour period, your blood pressure can swing 20 to 30 points either way several times over the course of a day. It might be a healthy 115/75 when you get up in the morning. But by lunchtime, if you skip breakfast, have a stressful morning and consume caffeinated beverages (coffee, soda, tea), your blood pressure reading may be up to an unhealthy 150/90. Then, if you eat a good lunch and take a 20 minute walk, your pressure might be down to 130/80. By late afternoon, you might be back up in the danger zone again, or not, depending on various factors: what you ate for lunch, your level of activity or how stressed you are.

There's really no reliable way to know what is going on with your blood pressure - except to check it on a regular basis. It also matters when you monitor it during the day, which I will explain later in this post.

First, let's talk about monitors. I bought mine, pictured above, a few years ago. I paid close to $100 for it, which I thought was pretty reasonable. Omron has updated this monitor - Amazon carries the newer version - which has more features, for an even better price - less than $60. I've been very happy with my little machine. I rarely get error messages and when I do, it's often because I'm wearing a bulky shirt of some kind. (It's better to take a reading by wrapping the cuff on a bare arm or over the sleeve of a garment made of very thin fabric.) The monitor also shows heart rate and the newer version will detect irregular heartbeats. There is a memory function that stores previous readings. By setting the date and time on the monitor, you can compare readings over time.

I've never used that function on my monitor. When I had an episode of high blood pressure a while back, I kept a notebook nearby and wrote down readings and made notes about what I was doing at the time. My naturopath used that information to show me how I could get my pressure back to normal without having to take medication.

When you are on Amazon, you will see that there are many blood pressure monitors available. One of the great things about Amazon is the number of customer reviews you can find for products. I suggest that you look at several of these to see what other people have to say. One monitor that gets very good reviews is a wrist unit, also made by Omron.

This monitor would be ideal for travel, taking to work, going to the gym.

OK, you have your monitor, now what? 

First of all, I suggest you keep a journal for a while to develop a sense of how your body responds when you do, or don't do, various activities during the day. Note your pressure readings before and after. Also note how you feel if the reading is high: spacey, lightheaded, fatigued, slight headache, irritable, clumsy, etc. This will help you learn to recognize the subtle symptoms that indicate that your blood pressure is beginning to creep up.

Normal blood pressure readings range from 100/60 to 140/90. Anything over 140/90 on a consistent basis is considered high blood pressure. The higher number is the systolic measurement which indicates the pressure exerted when the heart muscle contracts. The lower number is the diastolic reading which measures the pressure when the muscle is relaxed between beats.

Here are times during the day when it is useful to check your blood pressure. Be sure to wait 20 -30 minutes after eating, bathing, or exercising before taking your reading to assure accuracy.

1. When you get up in the morning and before bedtime.
It is useful to know how you begin and end your day. If your pressure is high first thing in the morning, stop reading this and go see your doctor.

2. Before and after eating.
There is a correlation between blood pressure and blood sugar. When your blood sugar drops below a certain level, your blood pressure will begin to rise. This was very useful information for me when I was learning to manage my blood pressure. I was in the habit of skipping meals, especially breakfast. Once I got into the habit of eating breakfast and not going more than three hours without eating at least a snack, my pressure started stabilizing. Eating a little protein with each meal and snack is important. It keeps blood sugar from spiking and then dropping quickly, which would send blood pressure right back up again. Now I always keep foods like string cheese, walnuts, yogurt and leftover chicken on hand for quick snacks. A piece of cheese and half an apple is often all I need to tide me over until the next full meal. (This is a good strategy for lowering the risk of Type 2 diabetes, too.)

3. Before and after taking a shower.
Dehydration will cause blood pressure to go up. Many people have mild, chronic dehydration because they drink caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, soda) throughout the day and occasionally alcohol at night. All of these beverages have a diuretic effect. Plus, as we age, our thirst mechanism begins to fade - we don't feel thirsty, so we don't drink enough water. If there is a big difference in your readings before and after bathing, you might need to drink more water.

4. Before and after exercise.
How much difference does a 30 minute walk make? Well, could be quite a lot. When you see how regular physical activity, spread throughout your day, can keep your blood pressure in a good place, you may be inspired to stay with or add to your exercise program. Like eating a little bit of protein, even just 15 minutes of exercise has a residual calming effect that lasts.

5. After having a few drinks. 
Alcohol initially lowers blood pressure. But be aware that it has a rebound effect. After a few hours blood pressure will come back up, possibly higher than before, due to the dehydrating effects of alcohol.

6. When you are exposed to emotional triggers.
Something infuriating happens at work. Watching a political debate has you yelling at the TV. You have an argument with your teenager. How do these events affect your blood pressure at the time? How long before it comes back down? What can you do to minimize these stressors? It is good to explore this subject because things happen, and we all need strategies to handle them and maintain our health.

A very simple thing to try is this. When you can, sit alone quietly, and breathe deeply. Take deep breaths in through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Do this 8 times and then check your blood pressure again. You will probably see a significant drop in the reading. This little exercise shows you that you have the ability to lower your stress level. What other techniques have you used in the past to deal with stress? Try them and see what effect they have on your blood pressure.

Summing up...
Improving your health doesn't have to be a huge project. Adding little things to your day - a few minutes of walking or stretching, a healthy snack, doing some deep breathing - will keep your blood pressure at a normal level, reduce the strain on your heart and lower your risk of heart disease or stroke. Monitoring your blood pressure will show you what is working and point the way to other beneficial changes you can make.