Sunday, November 18, 2012

Reduce your blood pressure with what?

Chocolate: Recent studies have shown that compounds in cocoa, called flavanols, reduce blood pressure via the formation of nitric oxide (NO) in the body.  NO is a signaling molecule in the body, which causes blood vessels to relax and open wider.  The people living on San Blas Island off Central America drink cocoa every day, as their main beverage, and have normal blood pressure regardless of age. Cocoa or chocolate has more protective flavanols if it has not been ‘Dutch processed’, so read labels carefully, and buy unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed) or a dark chocolate bar with 70% cacao content.  You can sweeten the cocoa powder with xylitol, and do a favor to your teeth.  (Xylitol is a sweetener derived from plants that prevents bacteria from sticking to the teeth.) A recent report from the University of L’Aquila in Italy showed that elderly people with mild cognitive impairment showed improvement with cocoa flavanols, as well as reductions in their blood pressure.

Beets and beet juice:  numerous recent studies have shown that drinking beet juice lowers blood pressure and improves athletic performance.  The nitrates in beets (also found in leafy green vegetables) are translated into nitric oxide in the body.  Blood vessels widen, allowing for more blood flow.  In addition, beet juice reduces the amount of oxygen needed by muscles during activity.  For example, test subjects used less oxygen while walking, reducing the effort it took to walk by 12%.  This could be helpful for the elderly, and those recovering from heart and lung problems.  When competitive male cyclists were given beet juice before a timed trial, they were able to improve their racing times by 3%. Since in the world of elite sports a 3% improvement is big, athletes are turning to beet juice, as well as tart cherry juice, with enthusiasm.  Beet juice and freeze-dried beet juice powder are widely available on the Internet – although fairly costly. 

Celery and celery seed:  these foods have a long history in Indian Ayurvedic medicine to treat fluid retention, arthritis, gout and other problems. Chinese medicine also recommends celery to treat high blood pressure.  A substance called phthalide in celery acts as a diuretic, and apparently causes an equal loss of both sodium and potassium, which is helpful in maintaining sodium-potassium balance in the blood.  It also works by relaxing smooth muscles lining blood vessel walls.  A study done at the University of Chicago in the 1990s showed that a celery extract given to laboratory rats lowered their blood pressure 12-14%. In humans, a comparable daily ‘dose’ of celery would be about 4 stalks.  There are numerous individual reports of people using celery for blood pressure, but no further studies on this question.  Perhaps this is because it is hard to get funding for natural substances.   Celery seed, used as a spice, comes from a different plant related to edible celery.  Like celery, it acts as a diuretic, promoting loss of excess fluid in the body.  It is also used as an anti-inflammatory food. Chefs suggest that you add celery seeds to soups, tomato dishes, salads and eggs.   Light toasting brings out a sweet flavor. 

If you take medicines to bring down your blood pressure, don’t stop them.  Chocolate, beet juice and celery may help, but should be factored in gradually.  Daily exercise and the DASH Diet are also essential.  Talk to your doctor about your plans!

Sadja Greenwood, MD    back issues on this blog