Oriental medicine (OM) has a unique perspective on high blood pressure. In OM, it is believed that the body desires balance. A healthy body is our natural state and any illness or health issue is attributed to something in the body being out of balance. Oriental medicine strives to bring each patient back into balance in order to achieve health. High blood pressure can be deadly if not managed, but a more positive outlook is that high blood pressure is a warning sign that something in a person’s lifestyle needs to change.
In a recent Morbidity and Mortality Report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), it’s cited that nearly 1 in 3 Americans suffer from high blood pressure—and more than half don’t have it under control. Perhaps what’s more surprising is that most people with uncontrolled blood pressure are aware of it but their status remains the same. The CDC reported that the majority of people who were studied with high blood pressure (HBP) had actually seen their doctor twice over the past year, yet their condition remained unmanaged.
High blood pressure is defined as a reading of 140/90 mm Hg or higher. A healthy blood pressure reading is usually somewhere around 120/80 mm Hg. Also known as hypertension, blood pressure translates simply to the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood. If this pressure stays high or rises over time, it can cause damage to organs. High blood pressure is also an indicator that a person has a high risk for heart disease, stroke, or heart attacks.
Women, in particular, should pay close attention to moderating blood pressure, as heart disease is the number one cause of death for women in the United States. According to CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, hypertensive people are four times more likely to die from a stroke and three times more likely to die from heart disease than people with normal pressure. That is huge! The silver lining of these morbid statistics is that a patient’s blood pressure is something within the patient’s control.
The exact cause of hypertension is unknown, but there are several factors that contribute to high blood pressure. The first is stress. Diet, genetics, age, and lifestyle choices like smoking or how much exercise someone gets are also key players. The first steps to lowering blood pressure involve managing these factors. Be kind to yourself. Take time out from stressful situations, even if it’s just for five minutes of solitude or quiet time. The times of stress when it seems most impossible to take a minute to yourself are exactly the times when it’s most necessary that you do so. Invest in your health by putting yourself first.
Focusing on a healthy diet can also help reduce hypertension. “Reducing your intake of salt certainly can’t hurt,” says Dr. Greg Sperber, Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, San Diego clinic director. However, he notes that salt is only part of the big picture. There is conflicting evidence that sodium is a major factor in hypertension. Some studies suggest that about half of patients with high blood pressure are salt sensitive, while others show that the number of people affected by salt intake is much smaller, in the 10-20% range. “A more plant-based diet is a great place to start,” suggests Sperber.
Easing away from anything that’s very meat or carb heavy is a good idea. Dr. Mohammad Javaherian, LAc, MSOM, BSTCM (known around campus as “Dr. J”), a Pacific College faculty member, says that in addition to the common advice to avoid greasy, fried, or fatty foods, Oriental medicine offers specific diet suggestions. “In OM, the foods that lead to high blood pressure are what we call ‘hot, warm’ food—they are thought to create heat in the body.” Instead, Dr. J, suggests eating what in OM is called ‘cool’ foods such as greens, celery, cucumber, green apples, watermelon, and, in particular, the mung bean, which can be made into a hearty soup.
In addition to nutrition advice, Oriental medicine has a lot to offer a patient in terms of lowering hypertension. Diet changes can be accompanied by a Chinese herbal formula. “The herbs prescribed to a patient by an acupuncturist are always going to be different. They are based on a case-by-case basis, and each patient’s case is unique,” Dr. J explains. However, even though each patient would receive an individually prescribed herbal combination (known as a formula), there are several more general herbs well known to help lower symptoms of hypertension. “Shan zha, Luo Bu Ma Ye, Tian Ma, Xia Ku Cau, and Ju Hua are often used for hypertension, but the exact combination (both in quantity and in terms of which herbs) differs from case to case,” Dr. J explains.
Acupuncture can also help relieve high blood pressure. “One of the first things acupuncture can do for a patient is to help relax them, which will help relieve stress that is at the root of the condition,” says Dr. J. Acupuncture is the placement of hair-thin needles on specific points (known as “acupoints”) on the body that coincide with meridians. These meridians are the channels through which “qi”, a person’s life-force or innate energy, flows through the body. Any imbalance in the body is thought to be related to a blockage of qi. Acupuncture serves to open any blockages and restore a healthy flow of qi.
For hypertension, there are acupoints all over the body that might be used. In OM, high blood pressure is related to “Liver Yang Rising” (this is not the liver organ as it is known in Western medicine, but rather a type of qi), which is directly related to stress. The other OM condition associated with hypertension is “Kidney Yin deficiency” which is caused by an irregular lifestyle: whether it is an unhealthy diet or no exercise. “Acupoints that are commonly used to treat HBP can be found all over the body. There is one on the apex of the ear known as ER Jian, a good one above the knee is SP 10, and we also often use ST 44, which is found between your second and third toe,” Dr. J explains.
So how often would a HBP patient need to get acupuncture? “Someone with high blood pressure should come in at least once a week or so, and results may be noticed more quickly if they are using herbs in conjunction with their acupuncture treatments,” says Dr. J. In addition to acupuncture, Sperber adds, “There are several other East Asian activities that have been known to lower blood pressure. Tai Chi and Qi Gong are very calming. These slow, rhythmic exercises serve two purposes—they bring the patient to a calm, almost meditative state, which relieves stress, and they also serve to give the patient a little heart-healthy light exercise.” Oriental medicine strives to get to the root of each patient’s health issue, not just treat the symptoms. It would appear that stress (which can often lead to poor lifestyle choices like fast food or no exercise) is a significant factor in cases of hypertension. By incorporating natural calming techniques such as Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and seeking holistic healing like Chinese herbology and acupuncture, HBP patients can take their health into their own hands and watch it steadily improve.