An estimated 45% of Americans live with high blood pressure, and only 24% of those with high blood pressure are making the changes necessary to remain healthy. Monitoring blood pressure is vital to ensuring that your heart is healthy, but many aren’t sure how to do this, and if you have essential hypertension, you may not even know what’s causing your high blood pressure.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is when the pressure of blood is too heavy on your arteries that supply your heart. Prolonged high blood pressure can cause serious health problems and even lead to heart disease. Essential hypertension is a trickier form of high blood pressure because it doesn’t have known causes.
This article breaks down the basics of essential hypertension and what you need to know about it! If you do have high blood pressure, there are resources to help and ways to keep your heart healthy.
What is Essential Hypertension
To understand essential hypertension, let’s review the basics of high blood pressure.
High Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is determined by two factors. The first is how much blood is circulating through the body, which is also known as blood volume. Blood volume is the amount of blood in your arteries. Your blood volume is affected by how much water you drink, your body’s sodium levels, and how effectively your kidneys filter sodium and solutes out through urine output.
The second factor that affects blood pressure is known as system vascular resistance. This is simply the resistance to blood flow in your arteries. Think of it this way: an artery with a larger passage (or lower resistance) allows for more blood flow to flow through and thus lower blood pressure to be exerted on the blood vessel walls. An artery that has higher resistance has a more constricted, narrower passage, and thus allows less blood to flow through, resulting in higher pressure exerted on the walls.
Two Types of Hypertension
Understanding the basics of blood pressure is important to understand the two types of high blood pressure or hypertension.
- Essential Hypertension
This form of high blood pressure is also known as primary hypertension. This type is characterized by having high blood pressure that has no known cause. It typically develops over the span of many years and may go unnoticed. There is no identifiable condition or cause for essential hypertension.
- Secondary hypertension
Secondary hypertension is high blood pressure that does have an identifiable cause or underlying health condition. For example, hypertension may be caused by kidney disease, sleep apnea, tumors in the adrenal gland, thyroid conditions, congenital defects that impair the blood vessels, medications, or drug use. Unlike essential hypertension, this form of high blood pressure is usually noticed immediately and leads to higher pressure readings.
How to Recognize Essential Hypertension
It’s harder to notice essential hypertension than secondary hypertension as there are no presentable symptoms. However, there are a few ways you can keep up with your blood pressure to look out for it.
Blood Pressure Checks
Checking your blood pressure regularly is an easy way to watch out for essential hypertension and recognize it. Here are a few guidelines for taking your own blood pressure and understanding what the numbers mean!
Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) and is reported in two numbers.
- The top number represents your systolic blood pressure. Systolic blood pressure is the amount of pressure exerted on your arteries during a heartbeat.
- The bottom number or the second number in a blood pressure reading is called the diastolic pressure. This is the amount of pressure exerted on your arteries in between heartbeats.
Healthy blood pressure
A normal or healthy blood pressure reading is any number less than 120/80 mm Hg. If your blood pressure is elevated due to exercise or physical activity, it may read anywhere from 120-129 mmHg. The top number may reach up to 129 while the bottom number stays less than 80 mm Hg.
Blood pressure reading for stage one hypertension can be anywhere from 130 to 139 mm Hg for systolic pressure (the top number) while the bottom may be anywhere from 80 to 89 mm Hg. Stage two hypertension is any reading of systolic pressure that’s over 140 mmHg and diastolic pressure over 90 mm Hg.
Blood pressure readings can be different during different activities or at different times of the day. For example, if you just went on a run or exercised, your blood pressure may be higher because your body is pumping more blood to your heart. During rest or while you're sleeping, blood pressure tends to be lower as our heart doesn’t need to pump blood as fast.
By learning to recognize blood pressure that is too high, you can watch out for essential hypertension.
Monitoring Blood Pressure from Home
The best way to monitor your blood pressure from home is to purchase a monitor. This is especially vital if you’re at risk for hypertension and need to monitor your pressure regularly. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends finding a monitor that is automatic and wraps around your upper arm. Other types of monitors tend to be less effective and offer less reliable pressure readings. You can also ask your local pharmacist or general care physician for recommendations.
The AHA also offers a few guidelines to effectively using a home monitoring system to measure blood pressure! By following the guidelines below, you can be sure to get accurate readings.
- Take your blood pressure at the same time each day. This would ideally be in the morning or the evening.
- Don’t smoke, drink caffeine, or exercise within 30 minutes of taking your blood pressure to ensure accurate results.
- Try to rest for five minutes before you measure the reading and empty your bladder beforehand too.
- You should sit with your back upright and your feet flat on the ground. Your monitor may come with an image of how to sit or instructions, so be sure to check and follow these.
- Take more than one blood pressure reading for extra accuracy!
- Wear short sleeves while taking measurements as clothes can tamper with the reading.
Who is at Risk?
While there are no symptoms or signs for essential hypertension, there are certain groups that are more at risk than others. Here are the most common risk factors.
- Genetic risk factors. If someone in your family has high blood pressure or essential hypertension, your risk of getting it is increased.
- Poor diet or lacking nutritious foods.
- High levels of stress, especially if left unmanaged for long periods of time.
- Low physical activity.
- Obesity is also a risk factor for essential hypertension.
If you have any of these risk factors, it’s important to monitor your blood pressure regularly and speak to your doctor about lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of getting essential hypertension.
Hypertension can pose serious health risks for those of any age and lead to heart disease and severe complications. For example, undiagnosed hypertension can result in heart failure, heart attack, stroke, kidney damage, nerve damage, and atherosclerosis from high cholesterol levels.
Luckily, treatments for essential hypertension can be relatively simple and accessible! While there’s no cure for the condition, there are two ways to treat and prevent it.
The first way to treat and prevent essential hypertension is to change your lifestyle. These include diet, exercise, and quitting some habits that can result in high blood pressure.
The general recommendation for exercise is to participate in 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week. However, if you have essential or secondary hypertension, this amount moves up to 30 minutes of exercise per day.
If you’re overweight, it’s also vital in order to lose weight through diet and exercise as obesity increases the risk and the complications of hypertension. While aerobic exercise is ideal, there are other forms of exercise that promote heart health. Consider performing yoga or strength training exercises along with aerobic exercise and cardio.
Controlling what you put into your body is another way to treat and prevent essential hypertension. It’s important to eat foods that are low in cholesterol and fats. One way you can do this is to increase the number of vegetables and fruits you incorporate into your weekly meals. Stock up on leafy greens, beets, low-fat dairy, bananas, fish with omega-3s, and focus on lowering your sodium and fat intake.
Other lifestyle changes to make include reducing stress and limiting alcohol intake to one drink a day. It’s also important to quit smoking as this can increase the risk of high blood pressure.
There are also medications that can help treat essential hypertension, but it’s likely that your doctor will encourage lifestyle changes first. Talk to your doctor about essential hypertension and possible medications to take to help treat it.
High blood pressure can result in serious declines in health and in some cases life threatening. The risks are increased with essential hypertension as it can be difficult to recognize and go unnoticed for years.
For this reason, it’s important to make regular doctor’s visits to check your blood pressure and incorporate healthy living into your day-to-day life now so you can promote your health and prevent hypertension in the future.