Sugar and High Blood Pressure
You might have seen the headlines in the papers a week or so ago: “quickest way to lower blood pressure”, shouts the Daily Express (UK) and so on.
So what’s the secret? Well, it’s simple. It’s sugar.
Or rather it’s avoiding sugar that’s key to lowering your blood pressure – at least if you’re getting too much sugar which most of us are.
Sugar and high blood pressure: the evidence
Since when has there been a link between sugar and high blood pressure? you might ask. Surely salt’s the one to cut down on. Well, many studies are now showing that sugar is far worse for your blood pressure – and pretty much every other aspect of your health – than salt. Which is not to say don’t be careful with salt but be very very careful with sugar.
Easier said than done though, but we’ll come to that shortly. First of all, what’s the evidence relating to sugar and high blood pressure?
The study that recent newspaper headlines (including the one picture above) have been reporting was conducted in San Francisco on obese children. 43 obese kids with high blood pressure were put on a different diet which contained much less sugar but the same amount overall of calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrates (sugar was replaced with starch products).
The researchers found that the kids’ blood pressure dropped, their weight dropped, their cholesterol levels dropped, their blood sugar levels dropped; in fact all kinds of unhealthy ‘levels’ fell – in just nine days – !
This is quite stunning stuff. Not only for the size of the results (blood pressure dropped on average by 5 points, comparable with the effects of blood pressure medications) but for the speed at which they occurred; and for the fact that this proves that it’s the reduction in sugar itself which was responsible.
Why is there a link between sugar and high blood pressure?
Up until now, we’ve tended to think that sugar can be bad for our health and blood pressure because it’s high-calorie and therefore can lead to weight gain, which is known to be bad for blood pressure.
However, scientists have lately been unpicking the effects of sugar and discovering that sugar is the problem directly – not indirectly via weight gain.
““This study definitively shows that sugar is metabolically harmful not because of its calories or its effects on weight; rather sugar is metabolically harmful because it’s sugar,” said lead author Robert Lustig, MD, at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco.
It’s not just that one study though. Many studies have now found a significant association between sugar and high blood pressure – the more sugar you have, the higher your blood pressure.
Scientists now think that sugar can cause an increase in heart rate and blood vessel constriction, increasing blood pressure. Too much sugar in your system also leads to a condition called ‘insulin resistance’ which – through various processes – increases blood pressure (and which often also develops into type 2 diabetes).
Recent research also indicates that high sugar consumption does more to increase bad cholesterol levels (and reduce good cholesterol) than saturated fats! So there are many, many reasons to seriously reduce the amount of sugar you’re getting.
How to reduce sugar and high blood pressure
So what to do about it? You don’t have to cut out sugar completely. As with salt, this is an issue of scale and amount. Our bodies need some sugar – our cells basically run on it – but almost all of us are getting too much, more than our bodies can healthily process.
The reason is that most of the sugar most of us consume is ‘hidden’ – added as a preservative or flavour enhancer to almost all the processed food we buy, which means we’re eating and drinking far more sugar than we realise.
Even if you don’t actually eat a lot of sweet things you might be surprised by how much sugar your diet contains.
Even so-called healthy products may contain added sugar, e.g., some yoghurts, most breakfast cereals, many sauces and dressings.
Added sugar is also often found in low-fat products, for example, low-fat mayonnaise usually contains hefty amounts of added sugar.
(The healthiness of a low-fat diet is in doubt now anyway – see this post for details – but what’s now very clear is that it’s far more important to reduce sugar than to reduce fat.)
As a result, it’s not so much the sugar you might add to your tea or coffee that’s bumping up your sugar intake – although you’d be wise to cut that down – but the sugar you’re getting without realising.
Coincidentally, it’s also these added sugars which are the worst for you, such as added fructose (including ‘high fructose corn syrup’). Natural sugars, such as those found in fruit, don’t have nearly such bad effects.
Tips on cutting down on sugar
First of all, if you’re finding it hard to eat less sugar-containing foods, don’t give up. Studies show that whatever reductions you make will make a difference to your blood pressure and your health in general.
And don’t give yourself a hard time either. Sugar has been found to be more addictive than cocaine in rats and probably in humans too (watch out for those white crystals!) so it’s okay if you need to ‘come off it’ gradually.
To avoid sugar in processed food, you have to read the labels, and even then it’s not always easy to spot added sugar as it goes by many different names. One clue is that many of them end in ‘ose’ (glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, etc.), and anything calling itself ‘syrup’ is sugar.
However, the simplest way is to eat less processed food altogether and make more of your meals from scratch with fresh ingredients as far as possible.
Think about what you drink too. One thing you should absolutely avoid is soft drinks and sodas – they contain huge amounts of the worst added sugar of all and are exceptionally bad for your blood pressure and general health.
Don’t bother with ‘low-sugar’ / ‘no-sugar’ substitutes either as many of these are really bad for you (aspartame is linked with cancer, for example). Instead, if you really need some sweetness, go for naturally sweet foods – honey, maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, fruit and dried fruit. They contain other nutrients which balance the effects of the sugar so are less harmful.
One other thing – exercise
One other thing to keep in mind is that getting too much sugar is not just an issue of diet, It’s also an issue of lifestyle because, however much sugar we eat, if we’re not exercising enough to use it up effectively then it’s still ‘too much’ for our body.
Exercise is hugely beneficial for lowering blood pressure anyway – so do yourself a favour and get moving more.
Sugar and high blood pressure: conclusion
There’s a lot more I could say about sugar and high blood pressure, including a lot more tips on how to reduce the amount of added sugars you’re getting and how to make your favourite foods and drinks with less sugar.
If you want to know more, then have a look at our book: Lowering Your Blood Pressure Naturally – The Complete 9 Step Guide.
It is – as the title suggests – a nine-step guide to lowering your blood pressure naturally. Each step looks at different aspects of your lifestyle: what you eat and drink, how active you are, and your habits and tendencies to do with stress and relaxation.
Step 8 looks in detail at sugar and high blood pressure. However, there are many things you can do to help lower your blood pressure without resorting to blood pressure-lowering medications.
For example, there are different ways you can exercise without ever going to a gym or aerobics class, there are different ways you can change your daily routine to make your life more relaxing and less stressed, and there are a huge variety of good, tasty foods and drinks you can indulge in for super health benefits.
Lowering your blood pressure doesn’t have to be about denial. It can be about genuinely improving your life to better suit you, and our step-by-step guide enjoyably leads you through the process.
Click here for more details (and for a free sample chapter): Lower Your Blood Pressure Naturally.
Post by Alison.
Image credits: Mike Mozart, Steve Rotman, tomates and friends, Tharrin, yaybiscuits123 on Flickr.com