High blood pressure is under-diagnosed and yet when it is diagnosed it is often over-treated. In most cases, however, it is a relatively simple problem and I know from the many letters I’ve received from readers that it can be treated very successfully without drugs.
There’s a good deal of confusion about blood pressure. But although it is a complicated process it’s actually simple to understand.
In order to survive and to thrive, the tissues and organs of the human body need regular supplies of fresh blood. It is blood that brings the oxygen and other essential foodstuffs without which the tissues would die, and it is blood that carries the many waste products that are made. To travel around the body, through a complicated network of arteries, veins and capillaries, blood has to be kept under pressure. It is, of course, the heart which maintains that pressure, and it does this by regular, rhythmic pumping.
Under normal circumstances several factors affect the pressure at which blood travels around the body. First, there is the heart pump itself. If it is beating unusually rapidly or with exceptional force then that will obviously increase the pressure on the blood. Second, there is the size of the blood vessels, and in particular the muscular walled arteries. If the bore of an artery has been narrowed by muscular contraction then obviously the blood will have to be put under greater pressure for it to travel through the artery. Third, there is the amount of blood in the body. If the amount of blood increases for some reason then the pressure will rise: if the amount of fluid falls then the pressure will fall.
Changes in the world around you can alter your blood pressure considerably. If, for example, you are being chased by a mugger then your body, recognising that your tissues need larger amounts of oxygen to cope with the crisis, will raise your blood pressure. This temporary variation will help you to stay alive. Once you have escaped from the mugger your blood pressure will go back to normal. Such a temporary change in blood pressure is acceptable and useful. It can, quite literally, help save your life.
Unfortunately, blood pressure sometimes goes up and stays up. And that can cause all sorts of problems. The tissues and organs around the body will be subjected to excessive pressures and there is a real risk that they will be damaged. If left unchecked, a persistent rise in blood pressure can kill. It is, for example, a major cause of heart disease and strokes. High blood pressure may not be an exciting, fashionable or dramatic disease and it may not attract much attention in the press or on television but it is one of the major causes of death in the Western world.
My revised and newly republished book High Blood Pressure is designed to tell you things you need to know about the causes of high blood pressure and about how you can help bring your blood pressure down. For, make no mistake about it, high blood pressure can usually be treated both safely and effectively. And you can buy a small machine (sphygmomanometer) from the pharmacy to help you measure your own blood pressure. Most important of all it can, in many cases, be controlled partly or even completely without the use of drugs.
When, in the 1970s, I first pointed out that high blood pressure could be brought down by learning to control stress – and the need for medication reduced – I was attacked quite viciously by some in the medical profession who felt that the only way to treat high blood pressure was with the aid of drugs. I believe that today most doctors would agree with me that lifestyle changes are a vital part of good blood pressure control. And there are a host of things that blood pressure sufferers can do to help themselves. Even if high blood pressure cannot be controlled completely without drugs it may be possible for your doctor to reduce the dose of the drugs required – and that is always a good thing! (But you should only stop or reduce prescribed pills with your doctor’s approval and help.)
Finally, remember: It is estimated that up to twenty per cent of the world's population have high blood pressure. Only fifty per cent know it. Only twenty-five per cent are being treated. Only twelve and a half per cent are being treated effectively.
High blood pressure is underdiagnosed, poorly treated and widely underestimated.