For the 80 million Americans with high blood pressure, the hectic holiday crunch ’tis the season for a little extra caution.
Even people who usually eat healthy diets, exercise and take other precautions may run the risk of sabotaging their health during the holidays. It’s especially important to avoid self-sabotage because of just how dangerous high blood pressure is: It’s a leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke—two of the leading causes of death in the world—and usually has no outward symptoms.
So watch out for these five things the American Heart Association and numerous other health experts have identified as potential saboteurs to keeping your blood pressure measurements below 120/80.
1. Sodium can spell trouble. There’s no shortage of salty snacks this time of year. Too much sodium has been shown to increase blood pressure. Excessive sodium holds excess fluid in the body, placing an added burden on the heart.
Talk to your doctor about a low-sodium diet if you have high blood pressure. And think twice about those seasonal foods that you may not realize can be loaded with sodium: breads, cheeses and prepared meats.
2. Watch out for stress. Yes, it’s easier said than done, especially while fighting for that last parking spot within a mile of the mall, but it is important to find positive ways to avoid or relieve stress.
During stress, your body releases stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) into the blood that prepare the body for the “fight or flight response.” Your heart’s beating faster and constricting blood vessels, which raises blood pressure temporarily. Not all stress is bad.
Chronic stress can cause your body to go into high gear on and off for days or weeks at a time. And while it may not directly cause high blood pressure, chronic stress can lead to unhealthy lifestyle choices that can affect your blood pressure.
3. Take your medicine! If you’re on medicine to control your blood pressure, it’s quite literally sabotaging yourself when you don’t take it as prescribed. It can get confusing, but there are plenty of tools to keep track. There are apps for your mobile devices, or you could make good old-fashioned lists or mark up your calendar.
Your doctor may have other ideas to help you, too.
“Remember that you’re on blood pressure-lowering medicine for a reason,” said Raymond Townsend, M.D., director of the hypertension program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Stopping, skipping or taking them differently can increase your risk of debilitating or deadly consequences such as stroke or heart attack. If you think you need to do something differently, talk to your health-care provider first, before making a change that could change your life.”
4. Be careful with over-the-counter medicine. The AHA recommends people with high blood pressure understand that decongestants may raise blood pressure. Many over-the-counter cold and flu medicines contain decongestants such as oxymetazoline, phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine, which increase blood pressure.
5. Beware of sleep apnea. If you snore or have noticeable sleeping problems or daytime fatigue, you may have sleep apnea. This potentially life-threatening condition can increase your risk for high blood pressure as well as heart failure, stroke and diabetes.
When people have sleep apnea, tissues in the throat collapse during sleep and block the airway. The brain forces the person awake to cough or gulp air, often many times over the course of a night.
If you have sleep apnea, sticking to your prescribed treatment can help with your blood pressure. If you suspect you may have it, talk to your health-care provider.