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By James Templeton
I recently did a search for “high blood pressure” and got over 78 million results. It’s one of the most researched health issues on the internet today and according to the American Heart Association, almost 50 percent of all adults in the US currently have it. The good news is that the first line of treatment is not medication – it’s lifestyle changes. But is medication the only option when lifestyle changes don’t do the job?
Since my early twenties my blood pressure has been high at the doctor’s office. I have what’s called “white coat hypertension” which is a fancy term for “I get nervous around doctors.” But I took it seriously because of how I lost my father and grandfather. Sudden Cardiac Death – these 3 words will put the fear in you, and it’s in my genes.
Since then, I’ve done my best to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. Back in my twenties, the owners of the health club I joined got me into running and it wasn’t long before I was back at my high school weight, running 5 miles a day. Based on what I read in running magazines, I ate mostly vegetarian – a lot of salads and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and very little meat. And even though I felt like I was doing everything right, my blood pressure was still high at the doctor’s office.
It turns out that lifestyle changes to lower blood pressure aren’t a one-size-fits-all prescription. I’ve had to think outside the box when it comes to solving this puzzle in my own life, and I’d like to share the biggest piece of the puzzle I’ve found that doesn’t fit into our current conventional way of thinking – the role of chronic stress and subsequent “sympathetic dominance” in causing high blood pressure.
There is a balance in your autonomic nervous system between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation. Put simply, your parasympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest” response, when your cells are able to repair and restore themselves and healing and rest happens. Nutrients are absorbed optimally during this state; you rest easily, feel calm, and heal well.
The sympathetic nervous system is your “fight or flight” response and gets activated by any type of stress. Whether you just got bad news or you’re running from a bear, your body activates the same response system. Everything you would need to be able to fight or run is activated in your body. Think about it – you become more alert and your heart rate and blood pressure go up as adrenaline surges and gets you ready to respond to imminent danger.
In the balancing act between these two states, one is usually dominant over the other. For this reason, I like to think of them as two sides of the same switch; either the parasympathetic is “switched on” or the sympathetic is – they can’t both be dominant at once.
In a normal, healthy person, the switch is going back and forth pretty regularly. But in a person with sympathetic dominance, the switch is “stuck” in the sympathetic mode. Their bodies rarely switch out of that sympathetic mode into the parasympathetic so they can rest and heal.
People who are prone to sympathetic dominance are the ones who push themselves too hard, are prone to worrying, or live in a constantly stressful situation of some type. Symptoms that come from chronic stress and being stuck in fight or flight mode include high blood pressure (hypertension), high heart rate (tachycardia), insomnia, anxiety, and digestive issues. Because we live in such a fast-paced society where everything is hectic and rushed, many of us are constantly stressed and stuck in sympathetic dominance. While we can’t always change the amount of stress we have in our lives, we can change our relationship to it.
There are simple things you can do to flip the switch from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest.” The first is exercise that gets your heart rate up. This fulfills the “fight or flight” in the same physiological way that running from that bear would do, and your body believes it can rest now so you go into parasympathetic mode to heal and rest. This is why people sleep better after moderate exercise.
In my case, I overdid the exercise, and over-exercising is another way to put yourself into sympathetic dominance. Not only did it put me into a state of “high alert,” it also depleted the nutrients I needed to get back into a state of rest. I got so depleted that if I wasn’t exercising I felt down and depressed. Even though I felt like I was eating healthy, I wasn’t getting enough healthy fats to produce the “feel good” neurotransmitters, so I lived off the endorphins that give you a “natural high” from exercising. And with all that exercising, I was burning through nutrients faster than I could replace them through my limited diet.
If you’ve been in sympathetic dominance for any amount of time, I recommend supplementing with magnesium and Omega 3 fats first, and a good salt rich in trace minerals second. For magnesium, I recommend our Mag-Key. It’s the most digestible formulation I’ve found, and when digestion is impaired from being stuck in sympathetic mode for too long, you need something that absorbs quickly and easily to build up your nutrient stores again. If you aren’t sleeping well, feel anxious, have tight muscles, or suffer from constipation, then you are likely deficient in magnesium and need to supplement.
Next, I recommend our Super-EPA for the Omega-3 fats you need to nourish your nervous system and promote production of your “feel good” neurotransmitters. If you’re like me and fell for the “low fat” diet craze thinking it was heart healthy, you also need these fats to reduce inflammation in your arteries from the inflammatory grains we tend to eat when we lower our fat and protein intake. Once I learned the pitfalls of the low fat diet and over-exercising, I went on the Fat Flush Plan and started exercising in moderation, and even my most recent heart tests show 0% arterial plaque! My doctor has been amazed to see me beat my genetics and have such good heart health in my sixties.
Next I recommend Real Salt, from Redmond, Utah. It’s brown in color because it’s rich in trace minerals that your adrenal glands need to be able to produce the hormones your sympathetic nervous system needs to be able to keep functioning properly. I know current conventional wisdom is that salt causes high blood pressure, but recent large studies have been done that show people who eat more salt are less likely to die from heart attack or stroke. In fact, in doing the research for this article, I found that only 25 percent of people with high blood pressure mightbe salt sensitive, and within that group the primary issue is kidney health. So if your kidneys are healthy, salt should actually be good for you. I’m not talking about going crazy and salting the daylights out of everything – moderation is still the key here. It’s reasonable to aim for anywhere from ½ teaspoon to 2 teaspoons of salt daily, depending on how depleted (and fatigued) you are, your stress level, and how much you sweat.
Lastly, if you feel you’ve been stuck in sympathetic dominance for any length of time, I encourage you to get a TMA (Tissue Mineral Analysis) done and test your mineral levels with a hair sample, then do a saliva cortisol test (Adrenal Stress Panel) and check your stress hormone levels. These 2 tests can get a good picture of what chronic stress has done to not just raise your blood pressure but to your overall health. It’s also a good idea to nourish your adrenals with an Adrenal Stress Formula to support healthy stress hormone production.