By Dr. Mercola
If you’re among the one in three American adults who have hypertension (high blood pressure), one of the first pieces of advice your physician likely gave you was to reduce the amount of sodium in your diet.
While it's certainly beneficial to cut out processed salt—the type found in processed foods and regular table salt—limiting sodium is not the hypertension cure that many think it is.
There are actually many other strategies that are equally, and oftentimes more, important for maintaining healthy blood pressure levels, and a new study highlighted one of them: balancing your gut flora.
If your gut flora is unhealthy, your risk is much greater for heart disease, as well as many other chronic health problems, so it makes sense that the new research found probiotics, also known as beneficial bacteria, may improve blood pressure control.
New Study: Probiotics May Improve Blood Pressure
The new study, a systematic review and meat analysis of nine randomized, controlled studies (considered to be the “gold standard” in research), found significant benefits among people with high blood pressure who consumed probiotics in products like yogurt and milk.1
On average, compared to a placebo, the probiotic consumption lowered systolic blood pressure (the top number) by 3.56 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by 2.38 mm Hg.
It appeared that at least 100 billion colony-forming units of probiotics a day was necessary to trigger such improvements, and the benefit was only seen in those who consumed probiotics for eight weeks or more. According to the researchers:
“The present meta-analysis suggests that consuming probiotics may improve BP by a modest degree, with a potentially greater effect when baseline BP is elevated, multiple species of probiotics are consumed, the duration of intervention is ≥8 weeks, or daily consumption dose is ≥1011 [100 billion] colony-forming units.”
Waste Product from Gut Bacteria Linked to Heart Disease
Increasing research is showing the bacteria in your gut have connections to your heart health in more ways than you might think. For instance, human gut bacteria can metabolize L-carnitine, a substance found in red meat, eggs, and other foods, and in so doing produce a byproduct called trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO).
TMAO is thought to encourage fatty plaque deposits to form within arteries (atherosclerosis), and therefore, the more TMAO you have in your blood the greater your risk of heart disease might be.
Interestingly, people with diets high in L-carnitine, i.e. meat eaters, had a gut microbe composition that was more prone to forming TMAO, while vegetarians and vegans did not. Even after consuming large amounts of L-carnitine in a steak or supplement, the vegetarians and vegans in the study did not produce significant amounts of TMAO.
This, the authors of one study believe, means that eating red meat alters your gut flora in a way that predisposes your body toward TMAO production, and subsequently, heart disease.2 This was confirmed by giving the omnivores a course of antibiotics, after which they did not produce TMAO. Stanley Hazen, MD, PhD, the study’s lead author, said in a statement:3
“The bacteria living in our digestive tracts are dictated by our long-term dietary patterns… A diet high in carnitine actually shifts our gut microbe composition to those that like carnitine, making meat eaters even more susceptible to forming TMAO and its artery-clogging effects.”
Separate research suggests people with the highest TMAO levels may have twice the risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or premature death compared to those with the lowest levels.4 The researchers therefore suggested that altering the bacterial population in your gut could have tremendous implications for heart health:5
"Perhaps a probiotic approach that would involve the intentional ingestion of certain types of bacteria that might alter the population of bacteria in the gut to one that is beneficial [could help]."
What’s the Best Way to Optimize Your Gut Flora?
The best way to optimize your gut flora is by including some naturally fermented foods in your diet, but I’d caution against using most commercial yogurt and milk products as your primary source of probiotics, as they’re made from pasteurized dairy and often have sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, and other additives.
A better option is to make your own fermented foods at home. You can do this with raw milk to make homemade kefir, or you can easily make fermented vegetables using these simple steps.
For over a year now, we've been making two to three gallons of fermented vegetables every week in our Chicago office for the staff. We use a starter culture of the same probiotic strains that we sell as a supplement, which has been researched by our team to produce about 10 times the amount of vitamin K2 as any other starter culture.
When we had the vegetables tested, we found that in a four- to six-ounce serving there were literally 10 trillion beneficial bacteria, or about 100 times the amount of bacteria in a bottle of high-potency probiotics.
So clearly, you’re far better off using fermented foods, and ideally, those you make at home, to optimize your gut flora. For comparison, a leading probiotic yogurt brand only states it contains “billions” of Bifidus Regularis (probiotic) cultures, which is significantly less than you can get if you make your own fermented veggies at home.
An additional benefit of fermented foods is that some of them are excellent sources of vitamin K2, which is important for preventing arterial plaque buildup and heart disease.
The Underlying Cause of High Blood Pressure
In order to effectively treat and recover from high blood pressure, it’s important to understand its underlying cause, which is often related to your body producing too much insulin and leptin in response to a high-carbohydrate and processed food diet. As your insulin and leptin levels rise, it causes your blood pressure to increase. Eventually, you may become insulin or leptin resistant. As explained by Dr. Rosedale, insulin stores magnesium, but if your insulin receptors are blunted and your cells grow resistant to insulin, you can't store magnesium so it passes out of your body through urination.
Magnesium stored in your cells relaxes muscles. If your magnesium level is too low, your blood vessels will be unable to fully relax, and this constriction raises your blood pressure. Elevated uric acid levels are also significantly associated with hypertension, so any program adapted to address high blood pressure needs to help normalize both your insulin sensitivity and uric acid level. As it turns out, by eliminating excess sugar/fructose from your diet, you can address all three issues (insulin, leptin, and uric acid) in one fell swoop.
This is also one of the primary strategies necessary for optimizing your gut bacteria, which may have further benefits. In fact, if you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, dietary strategies will be crucial to controlling your levels. Avoiding processed foods (due to their being high in sugar/fructose, grains, trans fat, and other damaged fats) is my number one recommendation if you have high blood pressure. Instead, make whole, ideally organic, foods the focus of your diet. As you reduce processed foods, and other sources of non-vegetable carbs, from your diet, you’ll want to replace them with healthy fat. Sources of healthy fats to add to your diet include:
||Butter made from raw, grass-fed organic milk
||Organic pastured egg yolks
|Coconuts and coconut oil (coconut oil actually shows promise as an effective Alzheimer's treatment in and of itself)
||Unheated organic nut oils
||Raw nuts, such as pecans and macadamia, which are low in protein and high in healthy fats
||Grass-fed meats or pasture raised poultry
Exercise Outdoors (and Take Off Your Shoes)
It’s not only your diet that matters for healthy blood pressure… a comprehensive fitness program is another strategy that can improve your blood pressure and heart health on multiple levels (such as improving your insulin sensitivity). To reap the greatest rewards, I strongly suggest including high-intensity interval exercises in your routine. If you are insulin resistant, you'll also want to include weight training. When you work individual muscle groups, you increase blood flow to those muscles, and good blood flow will increase your insulin sensitivity.
If you want to kill several birds with one stone, exercise barefoot outdoors on sunny days. Not only will you get much-needed sunshine to promote production of heart-healthy vitamin D, but bright daylight sun exposure will also help maintain a healthy circadian clock, which will help you sleep better. Poor sleep is yet another oft-ignored factor that can cause resistant hypertension. Going barefoot, meanwhile, will help you ground to the earth. Experiments show that walking barefoot outside—also referred to as Earthing or grounding—improves blood viscosity and blood flow, which help regulate blood pressure.
So, do yourself a favor and ditch your shoes now and then. Grounding also calms your sympathetic nervous system, which supports your heart rate variability. And, when you support heart rate variability, this promotes homeostasis, or balance, in your autonomic nervous system. In essence, anytime you improve heart rate variability, you're improving the entire organism—in this case, your entire body and all its functions. On a side note, I recommend training yourself to breathe through your nose when exercising, as mouth breathing during exercise can raise your heart rate and blood pressure, sometimes resulting in fatigue and dizziness. To learn more about this, please refer to my previous article on the Buteyko breathing method.
8 Simple Steps to Help Normalize Your Blood Pressure
I’ve recently compiled my full list of strategies to prevent hypertension. However, below you’ll find some of the highlights. In most cases, this is a condition that can be managed and oftentimes reversed with natural lifestyle changes, including not only optimizing your gut flora but also the tips that follow:
- Skip breakfast: Research shows that intermittent fasting helps fight obesity and type 2 diabetes, both of which are risk factors for high blood pressure. Your body is most sensitive to insulin and leptin after a period of fasting. While there are many types of fasting regimens, one of the easiest to comply with is an eating schedule where you limit your eating to a specific, narrow window of time each day. I typically recommend starting out by skipping breakfast, and making lunch your first meal of the day.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels: Arterial stiffness (atherosclerosis) is a driving factor for high blood pressure. As your blood travels from your heart, cells in the wall of your aorta, called baroreceptors, sense the pressure load, and signal your nervous system to either raise or lower the pressure. However, the stiffer your arteries are, the more insensitive your baroreceptors become, and the less efficient they become at sending the appropriate signals. Vitamin D deficiency is, in turn, linked to stiff arteries, which is why optimizing your levels is so important.
- Address your stress: The link between stress and hypertension is well documented. Suppressed negative emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness can severely limit your ability to cope with the unavoidable every day stresses of life. It's not the stressful events themselves that are harmful, but your lack of ability to cope. I recommend the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to transform your suppressed, negative emotions, and relieve stress.
- Normalize your omega 6:3 ratio: Most Americans get too much omega-6 in their diet and far too little omega-3. Consuming omega-3 fats will help re-sensitize your insulin receptors if you suffer from insulin resistance. Omega-6 fats are found in corn, soy, canola, safflower, and sunflower oil. If you're consuming a lot of these oils, you'll want to avoid or limit them. For omega-3s, your best bet is to find a safe source of fish, or if this proves too difficult or expensive, supplement with a high-quality krill oil, which has been found to be 48 times more potent than fish oil.
- Eliminate caffeine: The connection between coffee consumption and high blood pressure is not well understood, but there is ample evidence to indicate that if you have hypertension, coffee and other caffeinated drinks and foods can exacerbate your condition.
- Vitamins C and E: Studies indicate that vitamins C and E may be helpful in lowering blood pressure. If you're eating a whole food diet, you should be getting sufficient amounts of these nutrients through your diet alone. If you decide you need a supplement, make sure to take a natural (not synthetic) form of vitamin E. You can tell what you're buying by carefully reading the label. Natural vitamin E is always listed as the "d-" form (d-alpha-tocopherol, d-beta-tocopherol, etc.) Synthetic vitamin E is listed as "dl-" forms.
- Olive leaf extract: In one 2008 study, supplementing with 1,000 mg of olive leaf extract daily over eight weeks caused a significant dip in both blood pressure and LDL ("bad") cholesterol in people with borderline hypertension. If you want to incorporate olive leaves as a natural adjunct to a nutritionally sound diet, look for fresh leaf liquid extracts for maximum synergistic potency. You can also prepare your own olive leaf tea by placing a large teaspoon of dried olive leaves in a tea ball or herb sack. Place it in about two quarts of boiling water and let it steep for three to 10 minutes. The tea should be a medium amber color when done.
- Quick tricks: Increasing nitric oxide in your blood can open constricted blood vessels and lower your blood pressure. Methods for increasing the compound include taking a warm bath, breathing in and out through one nostril (close off the other nostril and your mouth), and eating bitter melon, rich in amino acids and vitamin C.