This story has been updated since it was originally posted in March 2022 to include more expert insight
Heart related illness is incredibly common in the United States—and high blood pressure is one condition that’s at the forefront. Your blood requires a certain amount of pressure to effectively pump through your body, but when that pressure gets too high, it can do a significant amount of damage to your arteries and blood vessels. When you have chronically high blood pressure, it can put a lot of force and friction on your blood vessels and lead to plaque collecting on their walls. The more plaque that forms, the more narrow your blood vessels become, which makes it increasingly more difficult for blood to pump efficiently.
“In the US, 47% of the population is diagnosed with hypertension (meaning likely more have it but are yet diagnosed),” says Dr. Rand McClain, Chief Medical Officer of LCR Health. It’s important to get ahead of high blood pressure before the symptoms start—while uncontrollable things like genetics can make you predisposed, the best way to prevent high blood pressure is through leading a healthy lifestyle. “Obesity, diabetes, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, excess alcohol consumption, tobacco use, and one’s choice of parents (genetics) contribute to risk of hypertension.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about high blood pressure is that it’s possible you won’t have any “signs” of it at all. High blood pressure is often known as the silent killer for this reason. However, there are some things you should look out for, including shortness of breath.
Shortness of breath and other signs of high blood pressure
"High blood pressure often has no symptoms, but some warning signs can alert you to the possibility of having it," says Sony Sherpa, MD from Nature's Rise. Among these warning signs, she lists headaches, chest pain, nosebleeds, dizziness, blurred vision, and shortness of breath.
Shortness of breath can especially be a telling sign if you are an otherwise physically fit person: “It may surprise some to note that despite being relatively physically fit, one can experience shortness of breath because of hypertension,” Dr. McClain says. If you find that you consistently have shortness of breath, it may be worth talking to your doctor and asking about next steps to explore what could be the cause.
Preventing high blood pressure
When it comes to ways you can lower your risk, things like exercising regularly and eating well are key, as mentioned previously. But are there any foods that are particularly heart healthy that you should prioritize getting on your plate? According to Lisa Young, PhD, RD, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, eating fiber regularly is crucial. “Fiber has so many benefits,” she says, “It helps keep you regular, prevents disease including colon cancer, lowers cholesterol, and keeps you full—perfect for managing your weight.” Fiber also slows the absorption of sugar in your bloodstream, which means it can lower high blood pressure and reduce inflammation. Although the general recommendation is 20-35 grams of fiber daily, Young suggests that you aim for at least 25 grams, especially starting out.
High blood pressure is something you should take very seriously—while it’s scary that you could potentially have no signs, paying attention to what’s normal for your body, and noticing when it’s out of the ordinary, is key. Something you can particularly stay vigilant of is your breathing—if you notice that you’re getting short of breath easier than normal, you should consult with your doctor to make sure nothing more serious is at play. Additionally, eating a balanced diet rich in fiber is another way you can invest in your long term heart health on a preventative level.