Anyone with high blood pressure, of course, should consult with a physician before starting to use alternative remedies. Happily, though, most people with readings from 130/85 (high normal blood pressure) to 159/99 (the upper range of mild high blood pressure) can safely be treated with alternative methods, says Chris Meletis, dean of the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon. (Although they, too, should periodically check in with a doctor.)
Many non-drug therapies, whether taken singly or in combination, work just as well or even better—without the troublesome side effects. Here’s a look at the best of what the alternative world has to offer.
Try a Vessel-Relaxing Herb
In a recent study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, 36 people with mild high blood pressure took either 500 milligrams (mg) of an extract of the herb hawthorn, 600 mg of magnesium (a mineral that relaxes arteries), a combination of the two, or a dummy pill. The hawthorn group showed the biggest decrease in blood pressure. Hawthorn is rich in flavonoids, biochemicals that relax the musculature of the vessels, decreasing blood pressure.
Eat a Low-Fat diet
You’ve doubtless heard this advice before, but it needs to be repeated because the evidence for it is so impressive. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, volunteers followed the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Control Hypertension, an eating plan low in cholesterol and saturated fats, and rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products) and reduced their salt intake. (Salt increases the volume of blood, requiring higher pressure to pump it through the arteries.) After just 30 days, their systolic pressure dropped by 11.5 points. For long-lasting results, the researchers say, you need to stick with the diet.
Make Friends with Garlic
This remedy hasn’t been proven beyond a doubt, but the circumstantial evidence for it is strong. Garlic has a wide range of positive effects on circulation, thinning blood and dissolving blood fats. It may have a direct effect on blood pressure by affecting mineral metabolism in arterial muscles, relaxing them. As a matter of fact, studies have proven that people who eat lots of garlic-rich meals have lower blood pressure than those who don’t. As for garlic supplements, an article reviewing the results of eight small studies showed that they, too, can bring pressure down.
Give Needles a try
Physican Randall Zusman and his colleagues are studying a group of 192 patients who have been divided into three groups. One group received 12 weeks of acupuncture sessions with the needles moved from point to point according to the diagnostic criteria of traditional Chinese medicine; one got a protocol considered less effective, with the needles kept in a consistent position; and one got “sham” acupuncture, where the needles were placed in areas not involved in high blood pressure treatment.
Several supplements are particularly effective in reducing hypertension. Omega-3 fatty acids, for starters. These thin the blood, easing its passage through the arteries. In a study published in Thrombosis Research, people with mild high blood pressure were given either the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (epa) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or a placebo. After four months, those on the omega-3 fatty acid regimen had an average decrease in systolic pressure six points below that of the placebo group. The recommended dose is 1.8 grams per day.
Here’s good news for people who like their exercise daily. When researchers at the University of Western Ontario in Canada reviewed 39 studies on the impact of physical activity on high blood pressure, they found that moderate levels of activity were actually best at lowering blood pressure. Ten weeks of low-intensity walking or jogging reduced systolic pressure by an average of 13 points; any exercise beyond that point brought no added benefit.
Soothe your stress
It’s no secret that stress reduction techniques, like yoga, deep breathing, progressive relaxation, and meditation can lower blood pressure. Little you know is that these methods are likely to yield even better results if you also talk to a counselor about what’s bothering you.
A review of stress-busting techniques in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that the average drop in pressure they brought was three to four systolic points. But when counseling was added, the change was even greater—ten points, on average.
Consider water fasting
A study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics in June 2001 looked at 174 people with high blood pressure who had been through a program of medically supervised water fasting at TrueNorth Health in Penngrove, California.
The program contains few days of pre-fasting, in which patients eat fresh raw fruits and vegetables and steamed vegetables; water-only fasting for 4 to 28 days; and a post-fasting “refeeding” period, starting with juices, then raw fruits and vegetables, then adding cooked vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and a few raw unsalted nuts and seeds.