It’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives. One other thing that’s changed in many cases? Blood pressure levels.
Research published in the American Heart Association’s journal in December 2021 showed that many American adults saw an increase in their blood pressure over the last couple of years. The research study, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, looked at the blood pressure of participants in a workplace wellness program both before and during the pandemic.
Among the participants, both systolic (top number) and diastolic (bottom number) blood pressure increased slightly. While the increase might seem minimal, it’s an alarming trend, since even small increases in blood pressure can be dangerous over time.
That’s because your blood pressure is a measure of how forcefully your blood is hitting the walls of your blood vessels. When you have hypertension, which is elevated blood pressure, it can damage those arteries, which increases your risk for more serious conditions such as heart disease.
Read on as we answer a couple questions about why blood pressure numbers may have increased and how to lower it.
Q: What Made Blood Pressure Numbers Rise?
A: There’s no way to really tell for certain what drove this particular widespread increase in blood pressure. But we can definitely make an educated guess.
Many Americans either have high blood pressure or have risk factors for high blood pressure, such as other mitigating conditions or a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, nearly half of all American adults have high blood pressure.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people let basic health needs slip. In the first months of the pandemic, routine doctors’ appointments were often canceled while we were under stay-at-home orders and it was recommended that people limit interactions outside the home.
Even after doctors’ offices reopened, many people still chose to skip their checkups. That means that a lot of people who regularly visit the office to have their blood pressure checked and medications adjusted didn’t do so during this time.
In some cases, people may also not have had access to their normal medications. This lack of basic preventive care likely contributed to blood pressure rising for many people.
But there are other factors at play, too. While Americans spent more time at home, they were less likely to be physically active and more likely to indulge in unhealthy foods, like those packed with added sugar or sodium. These are both risk factors for high blood pressure.
On top of that, Americans became more stressed than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, for a number of reasons. It’s understandable. When your house becomes your workplace and the school and your work/life boundaries become blurred, stress increases.
That stress—and burnout, when applicable—can cause blood pressure to rise to dangerous levels.
Q: What Can I Do to Lower My Blood Pressure?
A: If your blood pressure has increased, even if you don’t officially have hypertension, you can take steps to lower it. In many cases, some simple lifestyle changes can make a big difference.
That’s because blood pressure is heavily impacted by the choices we make each day. While some risk factors for high blood pressure, like your age and your family medical history, aren’t controllable, most other factors are.
If you’re looking to decrease your blood pressure, start here:
- Get moving. Aim to become more physically active over time, gradually increasing your activity until you get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. That can include activities like walking, jogging, swimming, water aerobics, or riding a bike.
- Fuel your body with good food. Fill the majority of your plate with fruits and veggies, aiming to “eat the rainbow.” Each different hue of produce offers distinct nutrients. The other half of your plate should contain a serving of lean protein (like chicken or fish) and a serving of whole grains.
- Watch your salt intake. Decreasing the amount of sodium you get in the foods you eat can drop your blood pressure noticeably. Look for lower-sodium options in packaged and prepared foods, and flavor your food with herbs and spices instead of turning to the saltshaker.
- Consider BP-reducing foods. Want to take an extra step to lower your blood pressure? Eat up on foods containing vitamins C and E, potassium, and selenium. This includes citrus fruits, strawberries, peppers, broccoli, almonds, avocado, salmon, bananas, potatoes, tomatoes, and seafood. Dark chocolate is also on the list!
- Find ways to manage stress. We aren’t talking about turning to comfort foods or smoking! Build stress-busters into your routine, like exercise, meditation, hobbies, and other activities that help you relax.
- Limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol increases your blood pressure, so it’s best to moderate your consumption, if you drink it. Moderate intake is one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, though less is better.
- Don’t smoke. And if you do smoke, quit. Smoking affects your blood pressure in two distinct ways—it temporarily increases your blood pressure and the nicotine you’re exposed to damages your blood vessels over time.