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What Causes High Blood Pressure?

unhealthy diet

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cases of high blood pressure can be divided into two categories based on their causes
  • Consult your doctor to determine the type of hypertension you have and the ways to properly treat it

High blood pressure, with its asymptomatic nature, is already hard enough to control as it is. However, not knowing the cause behind this condition can make it even more difficult to manage, since you run the risk of not getting the proper treatment for your needs.

Cases of high blood pressure can be divided into two categories based on their causes. The first category is known as essential high blood pressure and the second one is secondary high blood pressure.1 Consult your doctor to determine the type of hypertension you have and the ways to properly treat it.

Potential Risk Factors for Essential Hypertension

Also known as primary or idiopathic hypertension, essential high blood pressure is a condition wherein the exact cause behind elevated blood pressure levels is unknown — meaning there is no specific medical condition that can be pinpointed as causing the hypertension.2 Approximately 95 percent of people with high blood pressure fall under this category.3

While this type of hypertension may not be caused by an underlying medical condition, there are several modifiable risk factors that you can look into to get a better idea of what could’ve possibly triggered your high blood pressure:4

Unhealthy diet — A diet that consists of processed food, trans fat, excessive sugar and too much salt may increase your risk of developing high blood pressure over time.

Sedentary lifestyle — Lack of physical activity may increase your risk for hypertension by weakening your heart, which contributes to weight gain and higher stress levels.5

Smoking Cigarette smoking damages the artery walls and contributes to arterial stiffness, ultimately increasing your risk of developing high blood pressure.6 Even exposure to secondhand smoke may put nonsmokers at risk of hypertension.7

Excessive alcohol intake — Regularly consuming excessive amounts of alcohol can significantly increase blood pressure levels. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology, drinking 10 grams (0.35 ounces) of alcohol may increase blood pressure levels by up to 1 mmHg.8

Stress, anxiety and depression These negative emotions may contribute to the development of hypertension by causing repeated short-term blood pressure spikes and encouraging habits that are bad for the heart, such as drinking alcohol or eating too much.9,10,11,12

Aside from the modifiable risk factors mentioned above, sleep deprivation13 and chronic dehydration14 may also put you at risk of high blood pressure, so be sure to stay hydrated and get enough high-quality sleep. Sudden high blood pressure may also occur due to acute pain, medications and overuse of stimulating drinks.15

Possible Causes of Secondary Hypertension

Only a small number of high blood pressure cases are considered secondary hypertension.16 This condition is usually caused by other medical problems that affect the kidneys, arteries, heart and endocrine system.17 As with primary high blood pressure, secondary hypertension also has no obvious symptoms. Make sure that you monitor your blood pressure levels if you’re diagnosed with any of the following medical conditions:18


Sleep apnea 


Polycystic kidney disease

Cushing syndrome

Thyroid problems

Coarctation of the aorta


Glomerular disease

Renovascular hypertension

People who are diagnosed with secondary hypertension may be able to bring their blood pressure levels back to normal if they follow the proper treatment method for their underlying medical condition.

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Other Intrinsic Factors That May Increase Your Risk for Hypertension

There are several hereditary and physical factors that may increase your susceptibility to hypertension. These include:19

Family history — If you have close relatives who are diagnosed with high blood pressure, then you may have the genetic predisposition for this condition, too.

Age — Your blood pressure tends to go higher as you age, since the blood vessels lose their elasticity.

Gender — Until the age of 64 years old, men are at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure than women. However, by the age of 65 years old, women's risk for hypertension becomes higher than men. Menopause and pregnancy also increase a woman's susceptibility to high blood pressure.20,21

Race — African-Americans are more likely to develop high blood pressure than other racial or ethnic groups. Studies show that this may be due to genetic predisposition and environmental factors.22


High Blood Pressure: Introduction

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