THE BLOG
07/24/2013 11:07 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

Off the Cuff -- Which Alternative Blood Pressure Treatments Really Work?

Blood pressure levels are on the rise. By recent estimates, approximately 73 million American adults -- one in three -- are living with hypertension (high blood pressure), whether they realize it or not. With numbers that high, chances are you either know someone with hypertension (or its precursor, pre-hypertension), you have it, or both.

Blood Pressure Basics
Blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of the arteries as it circulates in the body. High blood pressure occurs when blood vessels become narrow or stiff, forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood through the body. When the force of the blood against the artery walls becomes too high, it constitutes high blood pressure.

An optimal blood pressure reading is 120/80 (or lower). Since blood pressure fluctuates, a diagnosis of high blood pressure must be confirmed during three or more visits to your doctor or clinic. For healthy adults age 18 and older, blood pressure that stays at 140/90 or higher is considered high. Because people often don't experience physical symptoms when they have high blood pressure, it's easy to dismiss the disease as "no big deal," but in reality, it's quite serious.

High blood pressure is a major health problem and a leading cause of kidney disease, placing millions at risk for kidney damage and ultimately kidney failure. Even pre-hypertension can damage kidneys and other organs, so it's important to take it seriously.

Beyond the diagnosis, what are the treatments? Laughter may be the best medicine for some ailments, but in the case of high blood pressure (for the most part), pills are paramount. Because high blood pressure is often hereditary, physicians usually prescribe medications to control it. Often physicians will also recommend healthy lifestyle changes in conjunction with these medications. If someone receives a diagnosis of pre-hypertension or borderline high blood pressure, a clinician may encourage alternative (non-pharmacological) treatment methods as a first line of defense, especially if patients are initially reluctant to take medications.

Which blood pressure treatments come out on top when it comes to alternative treatment therapies?
A new report evaluating the latest evidence and research offers pretty mixed results. Get the verdict with this breakdown of 10 common alternative high blood pressure treatment methods.

  • 1. Yoga: Most of the research on yoga as a treatment for hypertension has focused on practices designed to achieve a "contemplative state." Some benefits of yoga include improved balance and flexibility.
  • The verdict: Sorry, yogis. The current evidence doesn't bend toward yoga lowering high blood pressure.

  • 2. Diet: The The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet emphasizes a diet high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and low-fat dairy, while low in salt, sugar, red meat and other sources of saturated fat.
    The verdict: As you may have guessed from its name, following the DASH diet and making other dietary modifications, such as drinking alcohol only in moderation, and limiting sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams (1 teaspoon of salt) per day have on average been proven to lower high blood pressure by approximately 4-8 mm of mercury. Remember that sodium content can be high even if foods don't taste "salty," so it's important to always read nutrition labels. Don't be shy when it comes to your health. At restaurants, you can ask for foods to be prepared without added salt.

  • 3. Aerobic exercise: From Jazzercise to jogging (or even Prancercising!), no matter the approach, increased physical activity that gets your heart pumping, has lasting effects on your health. Aim for 30 minutes per day, most days of the week, to achieve a total of about 150 minutes per week.
  • The verdict: There's good reason that the benefits of aerobics have been hyped for years. There is solid evidence to support the impact it has on lowering high blood pressure.

  • 4. Acupuncture. Using needles to stimulate various points in the body has been shown to help with pain management.
  • The verdict: When it comes to lowering high blood pressure, the science doesn't stick. Acupuncture hasn't been shown to make a difference.

  • 5. Meditation: There aren't really any downsides to meditation. Most people feel more relaxed, grounded or "Zen" after meditating.
  • The verdict: Only one type, Transcendental Meditation (TM), has some evidence to support its calming effect on lowering high blood pressure. That said, the evidence is weak.

  • 6. Biofeedback techniques: This approach typically involves being connected to electrical sensors that interpret information about the body. The idea is that if people are given feedback about what's going on in their bodies (such as a rapid heart rate or tensed muscles) they can make physical changes by modifying their breathing or moving their muscles.
  • The verdict: Certain biofeedback products are specifically marketed to treat high blood pressure, but the evidence to support this treatment method is weak.

  • 7. Relaxation and stress reduction: We've all heard the old adage, "mind over matter." Can relaxation and stress reduction methods take the load off high blood pressure?
  • The verdict: A relaxed mind has its benefits (and many of them!), but unfortunately lowering high blood pressure doesn't happen to be one.

  • 8. Device-Guided Slow Breathing: This method relies on using a machine to monitor breathing rate. The machine provides feedback so that people can slow their breathing, often to match the pace of a song.
  • The verdict: The evidence isn't strong and further study is necessary, but it is reasonable to say that if used during 15-minute sessions at least three to four times a week, this technique can be an effective treatment for lowering high blood pressure.

  • 9. Weight loss: In case you missed it, obesity was recently given its own diagnosis by the American Medical Association. That means obesity is now considered a disease, elevating its status from an issue sometimes weighed down by vanity to a serious health condition.
  • The verdict: Losing weight has many positive impacts on health, including reducing high blood pressure and the physical pressure on bones and joints.

  • 10. Resistance exercise: Debating whether to pick up those weights or add circuit training to your routine?
  • The verdict: According to the research, dynamic resistance exercise or exercises that rely on "an opposing force" and "purposeful movement of joints and large muscle groups," to form muscle contractions (shortening and lengthening), has a positive impact on lowering high blood pressure. The impact isn't as significant as aerobic exercise, but don't let that stop you from pumping iron and building muscle. Try combining these two types of exercise.
  • While the scientific jury is still out on some alternative treatments, it's never too late to start eating right, exercising and losing weight. For more information about high blood pressure and kidney disease, visit the National Kidney Foundation's website.

    Have you tried to lower your high blood pressure in a non-traditional way? Share your story in the comments!

    For more from Leslie Spry, M.D., FACP, click here.

    For more on personal health, click here.