About one out of every three US adults has high blood pressure-and around 25 percent of them don't even know it. In most cases, the exact cause isn't known, but it's generally agreed that dietary sodium is one of the villains. "People concentrate on sodium," says Mark Houston, MD, director of the Hypertension Institute in Nashville. "But it's also important to look at the ratio of sodium to potassium. Even if you have a high sodium intake, you could negate some of that by having a high intake of potassium. A diet high in potassium-as well as magnesium, another important nutrient-may improve blood pressure and reduce coronary artery disease and stroke."
And what foods are highest in potassium and magnesium? Fruits and vegetables of course. Here are some of the best:
Swiss chard: One of the best-kept secrets in the vegetable world, this nutrient heavyweight delivers 961 mg of potassium and 150 mg of magnesium per cup.
Bananas: One medium banana contains about 422 mg of potassium and 32 mg of magnesium. Added bonus: that same banana has more than 3 g of fiber.
Spinach: One cup of this nutrient-rich superfood contains 839 mg of potassium and more than 150 mg of magnesium.
Orange juice: One cup of orange juice features 496 mg of potassium (more than a whole banana).
Dried apricots: Dried apricots contain 1,100 mg of potassium per half cup. But don't overdo. They're high in calories.
Yams: A cup of cubed, cooked yams has 911 mg of potassium, making it one of the best vegetable sources available.
Avocados: Don't avoid these gems because of the fat, most of which is the same heart-healthy type found in olive oil. A single avocado contains between 690 mg (for the California variety) and 1,067 mg (for the Florida variety) of potassium.
Cantaloupe: One quarter of a medium cantaloupe contains 368 mg of potassium, not to mention a significant amount of vitamin A and beta-carotene.
Figs: A half-cup of figs delivers 381 mg of potassium. Bonus: they're also high in fiber (more than 5 g per half cup).
Peaches: One large peach contains about 322 mg of potassium.
Beans: Beans are bursting with potassium, and it almost doesn't matter which kind you get. Per cup, kidney beans contain 717 mg (with 74 mg of magnesium), black beans have 611 mg (and 120 mg of magnesium), chickpeas have 477 mg (with 79 mg of magnesium), and the less well-known azuki beans top the list with a whopping 1,224 mg of potassium (and 120 mg of magnesium).
Kale: One cup of chopped raw kale contains only 34 calories, yet it delivers 299 mg of potassium (as well as 80 mg of vitamin C).
While this list represents an all-star group of blood-pressure lowering foods, there are plenty of others that can help get you to your ideal goal of 4,700 mg of potassium per day. Three pitted prunes, one kiwi, or a cup of broccoli each deliver about 250 mg of potassium; a medium apple provides 195 mg; and even a small 1.5-ounce box of raisins chips in 322 mg.
Some foods help lower blood pressure through mechanisms other than their potassium content.
Celery has been recommended in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to treat high blood pressure, and experimental evidence has confirmed its usefulness. In one University of Chicago Medical Center study, lab animals injected with an extract equivalent to 4 stalks of celery had a decrease in blood pressure of 12-14 percent.
Garlic also has a positive effect on blood pressure. A number of analyses have concluded that garlic can modestly reduce blood pressure by 2-7 percent after four weeks, and a review article in The Journal of Clinical Hypertension called garlic "an agent with some evidence of benefit" in reducing high blood pressure.
Beet juice contains nitrate, a gas that is converted into nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide, in turn, relaxes muscles in the walls of the blood vessels, and this causes the blood vessels to dilate, which allows for increased blood flow. Research conducted at Queen Mary University of London found that high blood pressure returned to normal levels when test subjects were given 2 cups of beet juice per day.
Studies have shown that compounds in brown rice protect against hypertension by blocking an enzyme (angiotensin ll) that increases blood pressure. Whey protein powder has also been found to lower blood pressure in those with hypertension (but to have no effect on those with normal blood pressure).
In addition to diet, patients at the Hypertension Institute in Nashville take a range of supplements. Though all are important, Mark Houston, MD, emphasizes three:
- Vitamin D. "Vitamin D is very important in blood pressure control due to its effect on renin, a hormone that controls blood pressure. If vitamin D is low, renin is increased and this causes the arteries to constrict and increase the blood pressure."
- Omega-3 fatty acids: "They increase nitric oxide, a substance that opens up blood vessels-and they improve the elasticity of the arteries." Take 5 g per day from flax oil or 1,000 mg EPA from fish oil per day.
- Resveratrol: "Resveratrol also increases nitric oxide. Plus, it lowers arterial stiffness and slows vascular aging." Take 100-200 mg per day.
The full supplement program from the Hypertension Institute is outlined in Houston's excellent book, What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Hypertension.
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