Call to arms to reverse high blood pressure, once and for all
By David Dunaief, M.D.
Hypertension (high blood pressure) and COVID-19 are intertwined. Those who have hypertension are more susceptible to COVID-19 and are more likely to get a severe form and experience complications from the virus. A study done in China captured the statistics: of 1099 patients infected, 15 percent had hypertension, and of those with severe cases, 23.7 percent had hypertension (1). Ultimately, those with hypertension are at higher risk, but we don’t at this point understand the specifics of why.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent study showed that the number of deaths from hypertension had increased a whopping 26 percent overall from 2007 to 2017 (2).
What about medications to blunt the association? There is a THEORY, not a study, that angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) may be harmful by increasing ACE2 in the lungs, which is a receptor that COVID-19 binds to; however, there is also a case for these medications having benefits (3). Do not stop or change your hypertension medications without talking to your doctor. Remember, this is just a theory, and theories are very dangerous; we don’t have research to support them, by definition (4).
I view this as a call to arms to control and, even more importantly, treat and reverse hypertension. Presently, only 54 percent of hypertension patients are controlled with medication (5).
Potential to control and reverse hypertension through diet
We have the capability to treat and reverse hypertension with lifestyle modifications, including diet, exercise, sleep and stress management. We are going to focus on diet.
A whole foods plant-based diet (WFPBD) that is dark green leafy vegetable-rich has been shown to help prevent, control and possibly reverse hypertension. I call this the LIFE diet, which stands for Low Inflammatory Foods Everyday. The most researched type of WFPBD is the DASH (dietary approach to stopping hypertension) diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains and reductions in saturated fats and total fat. DASH was the first randomized control trial to show that a predominantly whole food plant-based approach reduces blood pressure (6).
Why does diet have an effect? There are several factors, including inflammation; electrolytes, specifically sodium and potassium; and phytochemicals (plant nutrients and fiber content).
Why is inflammation so important?
Inflammation is a culprit in most chronic diseases, including hypertension. It also plays a crucial role in the severity of COVID-19. Those who take a turn for the worse in COVID-19 have high inflammation. On the news, an ER doctor noted that while COVID-19 patients may come in stable, they need to be watched carefully; in 3-24 hours, they could show high inflammation and fluid in their lungs and need to be on a ventilator.
There are several studies that show a direct relationship between high sensitivity C-reactive protein, one of the most well-studied biomarkers for inflammation, and hypertension in both men and women (7)(8). In the Physicians Health Study, those men who had high hsCRP (>3 mg/L) and hypertension had a 40 percent increased risk of stroke compared to those without hypertension and with hsCRP <1, which is optimal. Not to leave women out, the CARDIA study found that premenopausal women with elevated hsCRP were significantly more likely to have hypertension.
How can we decrease inflammation?
Anti-inflammatory drugs, including NSAIDS like ibuprofen, may suppress the immune system and make patients more susceptible to COVID-19. They also worsen hypertension and may increase the risk for cardiovascular events, such as a heart attack. In fact, prescription NSAIDS carry an FDA black box warning about this dangerous side effect. Anti-inflammatory drugs should not be the “go-to” solution.
Fortunately, a WFPBD is associated with reduction in inflammation, specifically hsCRP. We recently published a study showing that the LIFE diet has an inverse relationship between blood levels of beta carotene, a phytonutrient, and hsCRP (9). As you increase the intake of dark green leafy vegetables, the higher the beta carotene and the lower the hsCRP. There was a 75 percent reduction in inflammation with those that increased their beta carotene over the normal level compared to those who were non-adherent. The DASH diet also emphasizes an increased intake of vegetables.
There are studies to suggest that, as we lower animal protein intake, we are able to better reduce blood pressure. In the EPIC study, those who at who reduced animal protein to none had the biggest impact on blood pressure. This study compared meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans (10).
Electrolytes – sodium and potassium
The optimal approach for these electrolytes is to have a sodium to potassium ratio that is less than one. For most, this means consuming less sodium and more potassium (11). The American Heart Association emphasizes low sodium, less than 1500 mg of sodium per day and higher potassium intake (12).
What I find in my practice is that blood levels that are south of 140 mmol/L are better and that the bottom of the range is ideal; the range is between 135-145 mmol/L. This way, whether you are sodium-sensitive or not, you can either help control blood pressure or rule it out as a factor. Potassium should be 4.5 (units) or higher. These electrolytes should come from vegetables, especially dark green leafy vegetables, which have a natural balance of potassium and sodium. Other good sources of potassium are beans and nuts.
Ultimately, the power is in your hands. By changing your diet to one that is more plant-based and vegetable-rich, you can reduce inflammation, strengthen your immune system, possibly reduce or even get off anti-hypertension medications, reverse the trend of dying from hypertension, and reduce your susceptibility to severe COVID-19.
(1) N Engl J Med. Online Feb 28, 2020. (2) J Am Coll Cardiol. Online March 19, 2020). (3) Nephron. Online Mar 23, 2020.) (4) Nature. Feb 2020, 579:270–273. (5) Circulation. 2016;133:e38–e360. (6) N Engl J Med. 1997 Apr 17; 336(16):1117-24. (7) JAMA.2015 Sep:4(9):e002073 (8) Menopause. 2016 Jun; 23(6):662. (9) AJLM Online. Dec. 21, 2019. (10) Oybkuc Gektg Bytr, 2002 Oct; 5(5):645-54. (11) Circulation Online. Oct 11 2017. (12) heart.org.
Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.