1. Sleep apnea
Sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which a person stops and restarts breathing several times throughout the night, can cause a bump in blood pressure. And it’s becoming increasingly common in the U.S. as more Americans struggle with being overweight, says Donald Lloyd-Jones, M.D., president of the American Heart Association and chair of the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Excess weight is one of the foremost risk factors for developing sleep apnea; age is another big one.
When a person with sleep apnea stops breathing, the brain steps in and wakes the body up to take a breath; this can happen up to 30 times an hour. “And when we don’t get good quality sleep — and particularly if we’re not getting good quality sleep because our airway gets closed and our brain and our body have to maintain enough awareness to try to open up the airway — that is very, very hard on the vascular system,” Lloyd-Jones says.
All the stress and strain drives up blood pressure — “and not just when we’re asleep, but also when we’re awake for the rest of the day,” Lloyd-Jones says. It can cause a whole host of other health issues, too, including an increased risk for heart attack, type 2 diabetes and liver problems. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine found that severe sleep apnea in middle or old age can increase risk of premature death by up to 46 percent.
A common warning sign of sleep apnea is snoring, so if someone tells you that you snore loudly or gasp often during sleep, it may warrant a discussion with your health care provider. A number of devices and therapies can help to treat sleep apnea, and studies suggest that treatment with one of the more common options — a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine — may even improve blood pressure numbers.
2. Air pollution
Research reveals that exposure to both “fine particulate matter” air pollution (what you’d find from car exhaust and fuel burning, for example) and coarse particulate matter air pollution (like dust from roads and construction sites) can boost blood pressure in adults. The link has also been established in children.
One study led by researchers at the University of Michigan found that even short-term exposure to high levels of air pollution can impact the blood pressure of healthy adults. The change was typical of what a person might see if his weight increased by about 5 or 10 pounds, the researchers noted in a news release.
Another, also led by University of Michigan researchers, demonstrated that filtering the air can lower a person’s blood pressure, study coauthor and assistant professor of internal medicine J. Brian Byrd, M.D., told AARP. Exercise can also lower high blood pressure, even in places where pollution levels are high, a 2020 study found. In 2019, 99 percent of the global population lived in places where air quality did not meet World Health Organization guidelines.
In addition to the pollution from cars, traffic noise has been linked to an increased risk for high blood pressure.
3. Black licorice
No trick on this treat: Black licorice — we’re talking the real deal, not just licorice-flavored candy — can be a health hazard, and not just because of its sugar content. The candy contains the compound glycyrrhizin, derived from the licorice root, which can cause the body to hold on to lots of salt and water, thereby driving blood pressure up.
Consuming black licorice can also lead to low potassium levels and abnormal heart rhythms. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cautions against eating large amounts of black licorice at one time. Eating just 2 ounces a day for at least two weeks could land adults age 40 and older in the hospital, the agency says.
Although it’s often repeated that wine is good for the heart, alcohol can send blood pressure soaring, both in the short and long term. Lloyd-Jones explains that while alcohol initially relaxes the blood vessels, those vessels start to constrict once the liver metabolizes it. Blood pressure can remain at higher-than-normal levels the day after imbibing. And if drinking too much becomes a pattern, so will higher blood pressure numbers.
Heavy drinkers (more than three drinks a day for women, four for men) who cut back to moderate drinking (up to one drink a day for women, two for men) can lower the top number in their blood pressure reading by about 5.5 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury, a measurement for pressure) and their bottom number by about 4 mm Hg, according to the Mayo Clinic.