People who watch their blood pressure are generally familiar with the more common factors that can cause their numbers to spike — salt and stress, for example.
But a handful of unsuspecting foods, habits and health issues can play a role, too, and sabotage well-intentioned efforts to lower high blood pressure, or hypertension, a condition that affects nearly half of U.S. adults.
Here are 12 surprising things that can send your numbers soaring.
1. Sleep apnea
Why is high blood pressure dangerous?
High blood pressure — also known as hypertension and called the “silent killer” because it often comes with no symptoms — can wreak havoc on the body, causing damage to the blood vessels, heart, brain, kidneys, eyes and more. If left undetected or uncontrolled it can lead to:
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
- Kidney disease
- Vision loss
- Sexual dysfunction
- Peripheral artery disease
It’s estimated that nearly half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure; only about 1 in 4 adults with hypertension have it under control.
Source: American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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., chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and former president of the American Heart Association. 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. An unpredictable sleep schedule
It’s not just apnea during your sleep cycle that can cause your blood pressure to go through the roof. “People who don’t get six to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep can have elevated blood pressure,” says Luke Laffin, M.D., codirector of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at the Cleveland Clinic.
Several studies have found that sleepless nights raise blood pressure not only throughout the night, but the next day as well.
For quality sleep, go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, avoid drinking and eating 90 minutes before bed, and don’t watch television in bed. If you wake up and are unable to get back to sleep in 20 minutes, get up and do something else, Laffin says.
3. Holding it when you have to go
When you have a full bladder but wait to urinate until the next rest stop or commercial break, your body increases your blood pressure. “A full bladder raises blood pressure about 10 to 15 points,” Laffin explains. That’s why he and his colleagues encourage people to urinate before they measure their blood pressure, particularly if they’re doing so to monitor the medications they’re taking at home.
“It’s fine to hold your urine if you’re in a situation where you cannot urinate freely. But if you have to urinate and can use the restroom, then you shouldn’t necessarily delay,” he says.
Speaking of urination, getting up frequently at night to relieve yourself may be a sign of hypertension. “If your blood pressure is elevated, that causes the body to say, ‘I need to lower my blood pressure.’ One way to do that is to urinate,” Laffin says.
4. 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.