High blood pressure (hypertension) is called the “silent killer” for good reason. It has no symptoms, but it’s a major risk for heart disease and stroke. And these are the leading causes of death in the United States (1). About 1 in 3 American adults has high blood pressure (2).
Your blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury, abbreviated mmHg. There are two numbers involved:
- the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats (systolic blood pressure, the top number)
- the pressure in your blood vessels between beats, when your heart is resting (diastolic blood pressure, the bottom number)
Your blood pressure depends on how much blood your heart is pumping, and how much resistance there is to blood flow in your arteries. The narrower your arteries are, the higher your blood pressure.
Blood pressure that’s less than 120/80 mmHg is considered normal. Blood pressure that’s 140/90 mmHg or more is considered high. If your numbers are above normal but under 140/90 mmHg, you fall into the category of what’s called prehypertension. This means that you’re at risk for high blood pressure (2).
The good news about high blood pressure is that lifestyle changes can reduce your numbers and lower your risk — without taking drugs.
Here are 17 effective ways to lower your blood pressure levels:
1. Increase your activity level and exercise more
Sedentary older adults who participated in aerobic exercise training lowered their blood pressure by an average by 3.9 percent systolic to 4.5 percent diastolic (4). This is as good as some blood pressure medications.
As you increase your heart and breathing rates, your heart gets stronger and pumps with less effort. This puts less pressure on your arteries, and lowers your blood pressure.
How much activity? A 2013 report by the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association advises moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity three to four sessions weekly, 40 minutes each (5).
The American College of Sports Medicine makes similar recommendations (6).
But you don’t have to run marathons. Increasing your activity level can be as simple as using the stairs, walking instead of driving, doing household chores, gardening, going for a bike ride, or playing a sport. Just do it regularly and work up to at least half an hour per day of moderate activity.
An example of moderate activity with big results is tai chi. One study found that 12 weeks of tai chi training for 40 minutes three times a week produced a 8.8-15.6 mmHg decrease in blood pressure (7).
A 2014 review of studies on exercise and lowering blood pressure found that there are many exercise combinations that lower blood pressure. Aerobic exercise, resistance training, high intensity interval training, short bouts of exercise over the day, or walking 10,000 steps a day all lowered blood pressure (3).
Another review found that low- to moderate-intensity exercise training is as effective as higher-intensity exercise training in lowering blood pressure (8).
2. Lose weight if you’re overweight
If you’re overweight, losing even 5 to 10 pounds can reduce your blood pressure. Plus, you’ll lower your risk of other medical problems.
3. Cut back on sugar and refined carbohydrates
A 2010 study compared a low-carb diet to a low-fat diet. The low-fat diet included a diet drug. Both diets produced weight loss, but the low-carb diet did much better in lowering blood pressure. The low-carb diet lowered blood pressure by 4.5-5.9 mmHg. The diet of low fat plus the diet drug lowered blood pressure by only 0.4-1.5 mmHg (11).
A 2012 analysis of 17 studies of low-carb diets and heart disease risk found that these diets lowered blood pressure by an average of 3.10-4.81 mmHg (12).
4. Eat less sodium, more potassium
Cutting back on salt and increasing your potassium intake can lower your blood pressure (13).
Potassium is a double winner: It lessens the effect of salt in your system, and also eases tension in your blood vessels.
It’s easy to increase your intake of potassium — so many foods are naturally high in potassium. Here are a few:
- dairy foods (milk, yogurt)
- fruits (bananas, apricots, oranges)
- vegetables (sweet potato, potato, tomato, greens, spinach)
Note that individuals respond to salt differently. Some people are salt-sensitive: A higher salt intake increases their blood pressure. Others are salt-insensitive. They can have a high salt intake, and excrete it in their urine without raising their blood pressure (14).
Reducing salt intake using the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is recommended by the National Institutes of Health (15). The DASH diet emphasizes low sodium, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, and fewer sweets and red meats.
5. Eat less processed food
Most of the extra salt in our diet comes from processed foods and restaurant food, not your salt shaker at home (16). Popular high-salt items include deli meats, canned soup, pizza, chips, and other snacks.
Foods labeled “low fat” are usually high in salt and sugar to compensate for the loss of fat. Fat is what gives food taste and makes you feel full.
Cutting down on (or even better, cutting out) processed food will give you less salt, less sugar, and fewer refined carbohydrates. All of this results in lower blood pressure.
Make it a practice to check labels. Sodium that’s listed as 5 percent or less on the label of a food item is considered low. Twenty percent or more is considered high, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (16).
6. Stop smoking
In the long term, the chemicals in tobacco can increase your blood pressure by damaging your blood vessel walls and narrowing your arteries. The hardened arteries cause higher blood pressure. The chemicals in tobacco can affect your blood vessels even if you’re around secondhand smoke. Children around secondhand smoke had higher blood pressure than a control group (18).
7. Reduce excess stress
We live in stressful times. Workplace and family demands, national and international politics — they all contribute to stress. Finding ways to reduce your own stress is important for your health and your blood pressure.
Relieving stress starts with recognizing your stress triggers and your relaxation inducers. Practice deep breathing, take a walk, watch a comedy, listen to relaxing music. These are some of the ways people successfully relieve stress.
Music has been successfully used as a therapy to reduce blood pressure (19). Regular sauna use is also proven to reduce stress and blood pressure (20). And acupuncture has been shown to reduce blood pressure (21).
8. Try meditation or yoga
Mindfulness and meditation, including transcendental meditation, have long been used (and studied) as a method to reduce stress. A 2012 study notes that one university program in Massachusetts has helped more than 19,000 people using a meditation and mindfulness program (22).
Yoga, which involves breathing control, posture, and meditation techniques, can also be effective in reducing stress and blood pressure. A 2013 review of 17 studies of yoga and blood pressure found an average blood pressure decrease of 3.62-4.17 mmHg. Some types of yoga were nearly twice as effective as the average (23).
9. Eat some dark chocolate
Yes, chocolate lovers: Dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure.
But the dark chocolate should be 60 to 70 percent cacao. A Harvard Medical School study found that eating one square of dark chocolate helped lower blood pressure. The benefits are thought to come from the flavonoids present in unsweetened chocolate, which help dilate, or widen, your blood vessels (24).
A 2010 study of 14,310 people found that higher dark chocolate consumption led to a significant decrease in blood pressure (25).
10. Try these medicinal herbs
Herbal medicines have long been used in many cultures to treat a variety of ailments.
Always check with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before taking herbal supplements. They may interfere with your prescription medications.
Here’s a partial list of herbs whose effects in lowering blood pressure have been studied in human beings:
- black bean (Castanospermum australe)
- cat’s claw (Uncaria rhynchophylla)
- celery juice (Apium graveolens)
- Chinese hawthorn (Crataegus pinnatifida)
- coffee weed (Cassia occidentalis)
- ginger root
- giant dodder (Cuscuta reflexa)
- Indian plantago (blond psyllium)
- maritime pine bark (Pinus pinaster)
- river lily (Crinum glaucum)
- roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)
- sesame oil (Sesamum indicum)
- tomato extract (Lycopersicon esculentum)
- tea (Camellia sinensis), especially green tea and oolong tea
- umbrella tree bark (Musanga cecropioides)
11. Make sure to get good, restful sleep
Your blood pressure dips down when you’re sleeping. If you don’t sleep well, it can affect your blood pressure. People whose sleep is disturbed, especially the middle-aged, have an increased risk of high blood pressure (27).
For some people getting a good sleep isn’t easy. There are many ways to help you get good sleep. Try setting a regular sleep schedule, relaxing, exercising during the day, avoiding daytime naps, and making your bedroom comfortable (28).
The national Sleep Heart Health Study found that sleeping below 7 hours a night and more than 8 hours a night was associated with an increased prevalence of hypertension. Sleeping less than six hours a night was linked to the highest risk of hypertension (29).
12. Eat garlic or take garlic extract supplements
According to one clinical study, a time-release garlic extract preparation may have a greater effect than regular garlic powder tablets (31).
One 2012 review noted a study of 89 people with high blood pressure that found a reduction of 6-12 mmHg, compared with a control group (32).
13. Eat healthy high-protein foods
A long-term study concluded in 2014 found that people who ate more protein had a lower risk of having high blood pressure. For those who ate an average of 100 grams per day of protein, there was a 40 percent lower risk of having high blood pressure (33).
It’s not hard to consume 100 grams of protein daily on most types of diet.
High protein foods include:
- fish (3 ounces of salmon = 22 grams; canned tuna in water, 1 cup = 39 grams)
- eggs (1 egg = 6 grams)
- poultry (3 ounces of chicken breast = 27 grams)
- beef (3 ounces of lean beef = 22 grams)
- beans (kidney beans, 1/2 cup cooked = 7.6 grams; lentils, 1/2 cup cooked = 9 grams)
- nuts (peanut butter, 2 tablespoons = 8 grams)
- chickpeas (1/2 cup cooked = 7.3 grams)
- cheese (1 ounce of cheddar = 6.5 grams)
14. Take these blood pressure lowering supplements
These supplements are readily available and have had a track record for lowering blood pressure:
- Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (fish oil): A meta-analysis of fish oil and blood pressure found a mean blood pressure reduction of 0.99-1.52 mmHg (34).
- Whey protein: This protein complex derived from milk has been found to have many health benefits, in addition to lowering blood pressure (35).
- Magnesium: Magnesium deficiency is related to higher blood pressure. A meta-analysis found a small reduction in blood pressure with magnesium supplementation (36).
- Coenzyme Q10: This antioxidant lowered blood pressure by up to 10-17 mmHg in several clinical studies (37).
- Citrulline: Oral L-citrulline is a precursor of L-arginine in the body. It’s shown to lower blood pressure (38).
15. Drink less alcohol
Alcohol can raise your blood pressure, even if you’re healthy.
Moderate drinking is up to one drink a day for women and two drinks per day for men (40).
What constitutes a drink? One 12-ounce beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (41).
16. Consider cutting back on caffeine
Caffeine raises your blood pressure, but the effect is temporary and the reaction varies from individual to individual (42).
Some people may be more sensitive to caffeine. If you’re caffeine-sensitive, you may want to cut back on your coffee consumption, or try decaffeinated coffee.
Research on caffeine, including its health benefits, is in the news a lot. The choice of whether to cut back depends on many individual factors.
Indications from one study are that caffeine’s effect on raising blood pressure is greater if your blood pressure is already high. This same study, however, called for more research on the subject (42).
17. Take prescription medication
If your blood pressure is very high or doesn’t decrease when you make lifestyle changes, consider taking prescription drugs. They work and will improve your long-term outcome, especially if you have other risk factors (43).
Talk with your doctor about the medication possibilities and what might work best for you.