Most people equate fasting with weight management. But research is beginning to show other health benefits—like lower blood pressure.
How long do you usually go from your last bite of food at night to your first bite the next day? Probably between eight and 10 hours, right?
If you push that “no food” window closer to 16 hours, you enter the realm of intermittent fasting: a diet regimen that cycles between regular periods of limited or no eating followed by periods of unrestricted eating.
The interest surrounding intermittent fasting is increasing as research into its benefits accumulates—including how it could help bring down high blood pressure.
What does intermittent fasting do to the body?
When we engage in intermittent fasting, several physiological changes relevant to blood pressure take place. Scientists believe that one such change is the increased production of a protein known as BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
BDNF stimulates brain cells to release a compound called acetylcholine, which has two blood pressure-related effects on the body: reducing heart rate and expanding blood vessels. Together, these changes help lower blood pressure as part of the nervous system’s parasympathetic or “relaxation” response.
Researchers are increasingly intrigued by intermittent fasting as a potential mechanism to prevent hypertension in the broader population. A recent study of 60 people living with hypertension found that intermittent fasting could contribute to lower blood pressure scores throughout the day.
While this study alone doesn’t prove that fasting should be a primary treatment for hypertension, it contributes valuable insight into what will continue to be a closely followed area of study.
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is the leading modifiable risk factor for death worldwide. Approximately one
in three Americans is living with high blood pressure, which is often called the “silent killer” because of its pervasiveness and lack of obvious symptoms.
What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure is a measure of how forcefully the blood flowing through the body presses against the veins and arteries that carry it. When this force remains chronically high, the blood vessels are more likely to be damaged, which contributes to an increased risk of death and disease.
A healthy blood pressure reading is 120/80, but what do those numbers mean?
Systolic blood pressure
The top number, known as systolic blood pressure, is a measure of the force exerted by blood when the heart muscles are contracting (beating).
Diastolic blood pressure
The bottom number, known as diastolic blood pressure, is a measure of the force exerted by blood when the heart muscles are relaxing (between beats).
When is it hypertension?
Although it’s up to a medical professional to formally diagnose hypertension, generally a blood pressure reading creeping toward 140/90 will be enough to get you there.
Causes of high blood pressure
High blood pressure is caused by several factors, including genetics, stress, and dietary choices. Excessive sodium intake is responsible for nearly one-third of hypertension cases. (See “Sodium in the American diet” below)
Taking charge of hypertension
Dietary changes, supplements, and novel approaches like intermittent fasting all have potentially important roles to play in the prevention and management of high blood pressure.
The supervision and advice of your health care professional should always be respected. High blood pressure is a serious health concern, and in some people, medication may be necessary for the short or long term.
The natural approach
Many Americans are interested in alternative or complementary means of blood pressure management. Dietary changes and intermittent fasting are both promising options, and many people also turn to natural health products as the third prong in their fight against hypertension.
Cod liver oil is known for its potent anti-inflammatory effects due to high omega-3 fatty acid content.
Garlic contains protective organic sulfur-based compounds not found in many other foods. Aged garlic extract (AGE) supplements are a convenient way to get a concentrated dose.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a naturally occurring coenzyme with potential cardiovascular benefits.
Sodium in the American diet
Sodium reduction is a key step toward preventing and managing hypertension. According to CDC data, top sodium sources in the American diet include:
- breads and rolls
- cold cuts and cured meats
- burritos and tacos
- savory snacks (chips, popcorn, pretzels, snack mixes, and crackers)
- eggs and omelets
With this list of sodium sources in mind, checking nutrition labels to compare sodium content across products is a wise way to lower daily sodium consumption to less than 2,300 mg a day.
Fasting and you
If you take medication or have a medical condition that relies on regular food intake, fasting may not be for you.
For those who are otherwise healthy, here are a few things to consider when deciding on a fasting regimen.
How often should I fast?
Every day? Every other day? Only on weekends? There’s no right or wrong answer to this question—it depends on what works for you.
How do I fast?
There are two options—both involve going without food for upwards of 16 hours, although it may be helpful to ease into it by starting with a shorter time period.
Option #1: Early faster
The early faster takes their first bite close to waking up and takes their last within eight hours of that point. For example, if the first meal was at 8 a.m., the last meal should be no later than 4 p.m. Early fasting may not always be practical.
Option #2: Late faster
The late faster may not start eating until the afternoon and will also take their last bite some eight hours later. If the last meal was at 8 p.m., they would eat again no earlier than noon. For most people, late fasting is the more practical route.