Alternative Treatments for Hypertension

A spectrum of complementary and alternative medicine approaches are believed to be effective for treating hypertension. The current evidence indicates that — in addition to a diet that is low in saturated fat and salt, and rich in complex carbohydrates (vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruits)— increased physical activity and regular practice of relaxation techniques should become integral components of a healthy lifestyle aimed at treating hypertension. As for many popular herbs and supplements that are touted to be effective and safe at lowering blood pressure, the evidence is weak.

Physical activity

It is difficult to find people with chronic conditions (such as coronary artery disease, diabetes, and obesity) who would not benefit from increased physical activity, including people who have hypertension. A solid body of evidence shows that men and women of all age groups who are physically active have a decreased risk of developing hypertension. Findings from multiple randomized clinical trials indicate that exercise lowers blood pressure as much as do some drugs. People with mild and moderately elevated blood pressure who exercise 30 to 60 minutes three to four days per week (walking, jogging, cycling, or a combination) might be able to significantly decrease their blood pressure. Progressive resistance exercise, in which you gradually increase the difficulty of the exercise, also appears to be effective.

Breathing and stress management

Physical activity not only has positive effects on physical health, but it is a great way to improve mood and manage psychological stress. It is known that blood pressure increases when a person is under emotional stress and tension, but there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that psychological interventions aimed at stress reduction can decrease blood pressure in patients with hypertension.

Nevertheless, recent studies suggest that ancient relaxation methods that include controlled breathing and gentle physical activity — such as yoga, Qigong, and Tai Chi — are beneficial. People with mild hypertension who practiced these healing techniques daily for two to three months experienced significant decreases in their blood pressure, had lower levels of stress hormones, and were less anxious compared with subjects in control groups.

The results of a recent small study suggest that a daily practice of slow breathing (15 minutes a day for eight weeks) brought about a substantial reduction in blood pressure. These findings need to be confirmed in larger and better-designed studies before these ancient healing techniques are recommended as effective non-drug approaches to treating hypertension. The possible benefits, coupled with minimal risks, make these gentle practices an ideal first step to begin incorporating physical activity and relaxation techniques into a healthy lifestyle.

It is important that inactive older people or those with chronic health problems are evaluated by their doctors before starting a program of any physical activity, including Tai Chi, Qigong, or yoga classes.
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