We hear so, so much about high blood pressure, and how we need to stop consuming so much salt in order to make an impact on our risk factors for it. However, I noticed that we never hear as much about what high blood pressure is and how, specifically, our daily diet impacts it.
In a conversation with my mother—better known as The Champ—about her health, we started talking about blood pressure and why she was being put on more medication to manage it. I asked her whether or not her doctor had ever advised her about altering her diet in order to help manage it.
“No, not that I can recall. I guess maybe he figured it was easier for me to just take the medications.”
The reality of health care and nutrition, today, is that doctors don’t always have the time—or knowledge, for that matter—to sit down with patients to discuss their daily diet and how it impacts their bodies. It’s not always about weight—blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease are all conditions that are directly impacted by the way you eat. What’s more, taking medication for one of these conditions, because of the way they function in your body, can inadvertently bring about or negatively impact one of the other conditions I mentioned.
Your blood pressure is literally a measure of how hard your heart has to work in order to pump blood, oxygen, and the important nutrients you consume throughout your veins and arteries to the rest of your body. If you cannot get enough blood to your outer limbs on a consistent enough basis, you develop gangrene, and that’s pretty serious.
The way you eat has a dramatic impact on your heart’s ability to pump blood—remember, blood that carries oxygen and all the nutrients you consume—throughout your body.
We talk a lot about salt impacting blood pressure, but people rarely understand why. Sodium, found in table salt and salts generally used for cooking and preserving foods like MSG, has a unique effect on the human body when it’s not in balance with potassium, an essential nutrient often found in your dark and leafy greens, bananas, or potatoes. Consumption of excess sodium forces thirst—think of how thirsty you become after you eat a batch of fries or, ironically, after drinking a soda—because your body is looking for ways to wash the sodium out of your system.
This is also known as “bloating,” and it’s why so many people swear by saunas and sauna suits for reducing water weight gain.
Your body is looking to neutralize the amount of salt in your system because salt can do damage to your internal organs, namely your kidneys—hello, kidney disease—and brain, so you wind up drinking tons of water to help soften the blow of all the salt you consumed. This limits the initial damage, but now the increased amount of water in your body puts pressure on your veins and arteries, making it harder for your heart to pump the essentials throughout your body.
Think of your veins and arteries like straws. Veins carry blood to your heart, and arteries carry blood away from the heart throughout your body. Imagine you’re holding a straw between your fingers, and it represents an artery. If you were sipping your favorite drink through that straw, and then started to squeeze that straw in the middle, that makes it much more difficult for you to drink your drink, right? That’s a lot like what excess water weight caused by eating lots of sodium does to your arteries, which impacts the health of your outer limbs, toes, fingers, brain.
Except, the body has a failsafe… well, sort of.
Your arteries will harden in response to the pressure from the outside, to try to stop the squeezing. The hardening makes the arterial wall expand from the inside, which is a lot like taking your straw, and lining the inside with toothpaste and letting it harden. Your body is trying to stop the water weight from preventing any blood from flowing through, because that’d cause a heart attack. But now, with the hardened arteries, it’s still hard to pump blood through your arteries, but for different reasons.
This is why it’s so important to talk to people about how the way they eat contributes directly to the way they feel. But, because so many doctors don’t actually have the time to sit with patients and discuss this, and so many doctors know that many may still not change the way they eat, it’s easier to simply prescribe something. Blood thinners help, but so does simply changing the way you eat.
Potato chips, condiments, sodapop, canned soups, fast food, crackers, breads, sauces, salad dressings, are all the top places where salt can hide without you really knowing it, especially the sweeter ones. Because water is present in just about all foods, adding salt to something naturally makes you crave sources of water, which is likely to be whatever food you’re consuming. This is why many people use way more pasta sauce than they actually need—they’re essentially drinking it because they’re so thirsty. This is also why people with “addictions to sodapop” can’t seem to escape that cycle—drink the sodapop, get the sugar high, get the salt, become thirsty again around the same time the sugar high crashes, drink another soda.
Processed foods are laden with salt for this very reason—it makes you consume more of whatever item is in question. Salt is a necessary ingredient, but consuming too much has dire consequences. What’s worse, the cheaper versions of processed food contain an additional component—monosodium glutamate, b.k.a. “MSG”—that is often used in large quantities to provide savory, meaty flavors to foods where the manufacturers are too cheap to add real flavor. MSG has the same effects as table salt, here—it is part sodium, after all.
It’s also worth mentioning that, when it comes to processed food, the excess salt is also found in items packed with other artery-stiffening ingredients that make it difficult for the heart to do its job. When doctors tell you to cut foods that are high in salt, you’re also very likely to cut these other ingredients as well, which results in a double win.
You might also notice that, when I make my recipes, I always talk about “a pinch of salt.” Sometimes, I get comments that ask, “do you mean a pinch of salt on each piece? “You mean a pinch of salt, and the pinch is more like a half a teaspoon, right?” No, I literally mean a pinch of salt, amounting to no more than an eighth of a teaspoon, and I use kosher salt. There’s nothing wrong with iodized salt—salt has been infused with iodine for a long time to help stave off certain kinds of illness—and, make no mistake about it, you need some salt, especially if you’re a very active person. I know that some people are big on sea salt because of the “antioxidants,” but there’s nothing in sea salt that you couldn’t get from a handful of grapes or an extra leaf or two of collard greens or even simply using fresh herbs in your cooking. And, personally, I like kosher salt better—the bigger flakes allow me to get some of the taste without all of the amount of salt. (Also, the overwhelming majority of recipes on the web use kosher salt.)
There is skepticism about the impact that salt actually has on blood pressure. Scientific American posted a really insightful article about ending “the war on salt,” and I thought it brought up important points regarding research that has been used to condemn salt. I also submit, however, that when I listen to people talk about the way they actually eat, I learn that not only do people underreport or mis-report the way they eat out of embarrassment, but we don’t look enough at who is eating and what they’re eating.
People who are more pinched financially are likely to eat foods that are high in salt, and do so more frequently. The foods are cheaper, largely because the manufacturers know they can dilute the flavor with filler, and make it more appealing. A constant onslaught of salt makes a huge difference. The dosage makes the difference, and far too many people are getting too much.
I cannot stress enough that you need salt, and can die from trying to cut it entirely. Some fresh produce has a little salt in it here or there, but it’s not enough. Hence, my “pinch” of kosher salt.
It’s not my place to say “stop taking your medications and do it the natural way,” and I certainly didn’t tell my mother that. Many people simply can’t. Sometimes, conditions—like diabetes and high blood pressure—require the guidance of your doctor to wean you off medications and, especially in the case of diabetes, sometimes you might’ve had the condition for so long that reversal isn’t easy or even possible because of the damage done to your vital organs. You need the guidance of a specialist to help you determine that.
Can exercise help? Absolutely, but that’s for another post. Can reducing the amount of salt you eat each day, by way of changing what you eat each day, make a difference? You bet. But that requires a lot of effort and commitment on the part of the patient.
But we’re okay with that around here, right?
For more on salt:
- The Cleveland Clinic’s Information on Blood Pressure
- The Realities Of Cooking With Salt
- BloodPressureUK’s information on salt’s impact on the body
- If You Have High Blood Pressure, Salt Still Matters
- Recent Studies Challenge Anti-Salt Thinking
- 5 Things You Need to Know About Salt