Nutrition, Genetics, and Blood Pressure

Approximately one in four Canadians have high blood pressure, the number one risk factor for stroke and a major risk factor for heart disease. The bigger problem it often has no warning signs, requiring preventative action. Nutrition strategies are largely centred around the Mediterranean and/or DASH (Dietary approaches to stopping hypertension), which will be discussed below. But first, this month we will dive into the emerging field of “Nutrigenomics”, the study of genes and nutrition. Preventous has recently started offering genetic testing through the Company Nutrigenomix™, a company based out of the University of Toronto. This test is non-diagnostic of disease, but can give additional information regarding nutrition and lifestyle related risk factors. This information can be used to personalize a dietary and/or lifestyle strategy. Two of the 70-genes analyzed relate to sodium and caffeine intake and cardiometabolic health, including blood pressure. So, let’s start here:



Sodium and Genetics

Sodium is an essential micronutrient that regulates blood pressure and blood volume. It’s one of two minerals that make up table salt, the other being chloride. The vast majority of the population exceed the upper limit of what is recommended for dietary sodium. This is partly due to high availability of processed foods, increased consumer reliance on fast food or restaurants, food preservation (Ex. Pickled vegetables, cured meats), and the palatability of adding salt to foods, particularly bitter ones. Thus, limiting sodium is recommended to the entire population because it is very difficult unavoidable to consume more than your body needs.

But did you know some individuals have a genetic predisposition to tolerate sodium better? Depending on your genetic background, approximately 5-30% of people are less responsive to the blood pressure increases caused by excess sodium. For these individuals who do have high blood pressure, there may be better areas to focus dietary and lifestyle strategies.

Caffeine and Genetics

The genetics of caffeine metabolism is a great example of how nutrition science can be different for different people, and come across as confusing on the web, particularly when talking about coffee. Headlines say “it’s healthy”, others say “it’s dangerous”. Well, the answer is complex, but it may lie in your genes. Research shows that approximately 50% of the population are “slow metabolizers” of caffeine, and have a higher risk of adverse cardiac events when consuming more than 200mg of caffeine per day (I.e., two cups of regular strength coffee). In these individuals, if they also have high blood pressure, they have a significantly higher risk of kidney disease. In those who are “fast metabolizers”, we actually see a small cardioprotective benefit in coffee consumption. The hypothesis is that the antioxidants (not the caffeine) in coffee may provide beneficial effects.


Top Strategies to Lower Blood Pressure

In addition to moderating sodium and caffeine, here are eight evidence-based ways to help lower your blood pressure:

1. Decrease sodium – Try salt alternatives like Mrs. Dash, potassium salts, and herbs and spices. Herbs and spices are an amazing way to add flavour, but are also excellent sources of antioxidants known to benefit cardiovascular health and potentially reduce inflammation.

2. Increase potassium – Sodium and potassium are two minerals in your body that have complementary functions. But potassium is often low in people’s diets. You can find potassium in abundance in plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These foods are also typically rich in fibre, which also helps cardiovascular health.

3. Increase spices and herbs – Spices are well known as potent antioxidants, which can have many positive effects on cardiovascular health. Research shows spices like turmeric can significantly reduce blood pressure, but make sure you add black pepper as this enhances absorption!

4. Limit alcohol – You may have heard that red wine helps cardiovascular health. And while certain antioxidants in red wine specifically may have some protective cardiovascular benefits, by and large alcohol consumption is known to increase blood pressure and stroke risk. Try have a mocktail or jazz up an alcohol-free beverage. Making a homemade sugar free iced tea with added citrus fruits can be a nice one, especially if using antioxidant rich types such as Green tea or a herbal tea such as hibiscus or spearmint. One of my favourites is mixing a flavoured carbonated water with a splash of pomegranate juice or Kombucha. Mix and match and find a flavour you like!

5. Moderate caffeine – As discussed above, half the population are slow metabolizers of caffeine. Yet some caffeinated beverages like coffee and green tea contain antioxidants that benefit health. A safe bet is to consume less than 200mg per day.

6. Try mindful-based strategies – Stress management, breathing exercises and mindful-based activities such as meditation, yoga, Tai-Chi among others are also great strategies to help manage blood pressure. While not food related per se, these strategies support other nutrition goals people have such as weight management, improved digestive health, and blood sugar management. The best health outcomes involve a holistic approach to health, and one advocated for by the entire Preventous team.

7. DASH and Mediterranean Diet – The DASH (Dietary Approaches at Stopping Hypertension) is an evidence-based protocol for lowering blood pressure through diet. It overlaps well with the Mediterranean diet, both are heart healthy dietary approaches, plant forward, rich in fruits and vegetables, nuts, low fat and non-fat dairy, lean meats, fish, poultry, mostly whole grains, and heart healthy fats. Generally speaking, the DASH diet just puts added emphasis on lowering sodium, while increasing potassium, magnesium, and calcium. The Mediterranean diet puts more emphasis on high fibre foods and heart healthy fats like olive oil.

8. Be active – this will be discussed more by our other lifestyle team, but it is well known that living an active lifestyle can help lower blood pressure, and improve cardiovascular health.


Working together

Book in today to review how we can help action some of these strategies above. For those interested in Nutrigenomics – This is a saliva-based DNA test that is lifestyle focused, analyzing 70 genes with actionable recommendations in cardiometabolic health, weight management, physical activity, nutrient metabolism, and more. The test is not diagnostic of disease, but can assist motivated individuals develop a lifestyle plan based on information contained within their genetics. If you are curious to learn more before booking, you can schedule a 10-minute discovery phone call with myself to learn more. Please note, this service does come at an additional fee.

Or, if you would like to use your member appointments for assistance in managing blood pressure or any other health condition, book with myself or our other amazing dietitian Britney Lentz!


Daniel Neuman RD MSc

Registered Dietitian

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