The Pressure’s On

After three months reducing my salt, I went triumphantly back to the doctor to check my blood pressure, sure that my elimination of kim chee, olives and anchovies and my new snacking regiment of walnuts would’ve done the trick. I hoped my blood pressure wouldn’t now be too low!

“Still the same,” she said. “I guess you’re not that sensitive to salt.”

The Omron 10 Series

The Omron 10 Series

How could this be? And then she broke the bad news: She wanted to try putting me on a low dose of blood pressure-reducing medicine.

I was crestfallen. Had I been in my 60s or 70s, sure — but here I was an otherwise healthy, slim, active 40-something. And I knew that once you got on the BP meds, it was a lifetime sentence. She also wanted me to get an electric blood pressure monitor to take readings myself at home to see if the meds were helping.

Freshly home from Target with my new digital monitor and bottle of blood pressure pills, I gave it a shot — and recoiled in horror as my blood pressure read some 20 points higher than what the doctor had gotten in her office. I tried it again, and it was 12 points lower than what she had gotten. Maybe my monitor was a lemon.

As fortune would have it, we were leaving later that week for Mexico with our friends Nat and Shirley — a doctor and nurse, respectively. I popped up to their place to have Shirley check my pressure manually, and she got a reading 5 points lower than what the doctor had gotten.

“Don’t start the meds yet,” she suggested. “Let’s bring the cuff to Mexico and measure you a few times a day down there and see what we get.”

The number that had concerned the doctor was the “diastolic” or lower number (the number after the slash), which had measured 90. Normal is in the 70 – 85 range, 85-89 is pre-hypertensive (meaning you need to watch it), 90 and above is hypertension.

Sitting around the pool with a margarita in Mexico, I chatted with Nat and Shirley about my dilemma. Nat — a fitness and nutrition nut — brought up exercise. I cited my vigorous 10-minute strolls up the mountain three times a week after walking my kids to school, and he shook his head dismissively.

“I’m sorry man, I can’t give you that,” he said. “You need to do serious cardio. Come on!”

And he proceeded to march me eight times up and down a set of 206 stairs just down the beach from our house. I could barely walk for two days.

In Mexico, my diastolic readings were ranging from the low 80s up to about 88. We didn’t get any 90 readings at all. I wondered aloud if perhaps I should cut down on my drinking. But the lowest reading we got on the whole trip — 80 — was taken after I’d had four margaritas. Maybe I had this thing all wrong.

“Maybe I don’t need to drink less,” I pondered, “Maybe I need to drink more!”

Nat made me go up and down the stairs another eight times a couple days later, and then I did it once by myself while Nat was off surfing. And this all raised a troubling specter — maybe it wasn’t about drinking or meds, maybe I actually needed to exercise more.

I used to go to the YMCA when I was in my 20s and early 30s and ride the stationary bike. I’d ride a few times a week, 20 or 30 minutes at a time, while listening to music and looking at all the other people exercising. But in the years since, my exercise regime had consisted of strolling about, sometimes in the state park, sometimes up hill. My wife had recently taken up jogging.

“You should try it,” she kept prodding me, even before the blood pressure issue came up. Nat pointed to my oversized calves enviously, “You’re a born runner!”

My new running shoes

My new running shoes

“I only run if something is chasing me,” I was fond of saying — words that would come back to haunt me, repeated tauntingly by my wife and others as I took up the run.

Of course, there’s also the parenting issue. I ran into my friend Markian, who has four kids, and told him my blood pressure was elevated.

“Oh, you think??” he said.

Now, as I weave my way 5 to 10 miles at a time through the mountains, I fear running into people I know, who would ask what was chasing me. But now I had a good answer: “The doctor and her medicines!”

*    *    *

Another part of my blood pressure reduction regimen would involve diet. More the reason I am writing about it on my food blog.

Nutrition Nut Nat, who avoids gluten and eats bowls full of flax seed and chia for breakfast, prodded me about diet too. He said I should do the DASH diet, which was created specifically to lower blood pressure. His wife Shirley talked about how delicious raw food can be.

“You’re only saying that because you’ve lost perspective and that stuff now tastes good to you,” my wife countered, defending both her husband and the world of good taste.

Nat brought up Mark Bittman and his “Vegan Before Six” approach to eating. Bittman, a New York Times food critic and author, was overweight, had high cholesterol and high blood sugar. One doctor told him he needed surgery and medications, another told him he needed to become a vegan. He wanted to do neither. But he wanted to do the former even less than he wanted to do the latter. Bittman, a food lover and pragmatist, is not strict about it. As he said, “There’s a lot of room for cheating involved here. I really mean this: The idea is to change the proportion of stuff in your diet.” To eat more vegetables, fruits and grains. He did that during the day, and then would have whatever he wanted for dinner. And he lost nearly 40 pounds, wrote a best-selling book and stayed off medication.

Fast forward to the completion of a month of running and (mostly) vegan-before-sixing, and I’ve lost 5 or 10 pounds (which I didn’t really need to do) and my diastolic blood pressure has stabilized at an average in the low to mid 80s. I’m hoping after another few months, it will be even lower. The bottle of pills sits in the medicine cabinet, unopened.

While we were still in Mexico, talking about the vegan-before-six thing, Nat suggested I write a blog post about all of this. “But you probably wouldn’t do that, would you?”

“Of course I would,” I replied. “I blog about everything having to do with what I’m eating and why.”

“You could do a whole blog about healthy eating!” he offered.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

21 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa
    Nov 12, 2013 @ 00:41:40

    Ha! Then you’d be a Skinny Boy & No Mayonnaise!


  2. rachelocal
    Nov 12, 2013 @ 01:02:45

    I like the ending. 🙂

    Vegan before six? I feel like I don’t even know you.

    (But I’m glad you don’t have to take meds.)


  3. linnetmoss
    Nov 12, 2013 @ 13:05:38

    Facing almost exactly the same problem, diastolic high, systolic maybe borderline, different readings wherever I go. Cutting back on salt (only for the last week, admittedly) doesn’t seem to make a difference. BUT I already exercise 40 minutes a day on the rowing machine. And I’m a vegetarian. I’m deathly afraid that the next thing I’ll have to cut back is wine. Arrrrghhh!


    • scolgin
      Nov 12, 2013 @ 14:55:05

      Wine!??? Don’t do anything rash!!! 😉 Actually, I’ve cut back quite a bit on my wine (drinking two glasses instead of a bottle, for example). The salt thing might take a little longer to make a difference. My doctor said three months. So try that for awhile. They also say that meds aren’t that effective for borderline people or those with mild hypertension. I figure I’m gonna try to control it for as long as I can through moderate lifestyle adaptations… and then if I have to go on meds eventually, so be it. There’s a BIG genetic/aging component that we can’t really control through lifestyle. Thanks for sharing!


      • linnetmoss
        Nov 12, 2013 @ 15:45:10

        Yeah, I am used to having half a bottle. Probably that’s overkill, but I hate what happens to an open bottle the next day. Box wine takes care of that problem, but it’s hard to find really good ones.

      • scolgin
        Nov 12, 2013 @ 16:48:36

        I’m usually okay with the wine the next day… maybe my palate’s just not that sensitive. And I have a drinking wife, as well, so we’re more likely to drink the whole bottle. Or a bottle and a half, same problem! 😉

      • linnetmoss
        Nov 12, 2013 @ 17:30:01

        A bottle and a half? Get ye behind me, Satan!

  4. Andrea Thompson
    Nov 12, 2013 @ 13:51:52

    Do you make your own Kim chee or buy it? Kim chee is super good for your gut like any fermented food and I love it when it’s good. I’ve never been able to make OR buy one I love….just love what I get at Korean restaurants.

    I have white coat syndrome….high blood pressure reading when I’m at the doctor….. so I have to take mine at home all the time too. I think your buddy is right….cardio is key.

    Sent from Andrea’s iPad 480-223-3228


    • scolgin
      Nov 12, 2013 @ 14:56:32

      I made kim chee once and it was good. (I’ve got the recipe somewhere on the blog, I think.) Mostly I buy it, there’s a brand here that I like. Of course, now it’s just a little nibble here or there. My BP is definitely higher at the doctor, but still elevated at home. But it seems to be coming down w/ the running.


  5. russianmartini
    Nov 12, 2013 @ 14:59:45

    I’m glad you posted this – more people need to become aware of how many positive health changes can be achieved by changing one’s diet and lifestyle, avoiding the snowball of side effects that inevitably result from taking drugs.


    • scolgin
      Nov 12, 2013 @ 15:32:09

      It was sort of a fitting postscript to my post on Charlie Trotter, which gives you an idea what happens if you don’t take care of yourself. And he WAS on fistfuls of medications anyway. Thanks Yuliya!


  6. Jessamine in PDX
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 05:02:35

    The reason I know we were meant to be blogging buddies? “Maybe I need to drink more!” That right there is exactly what I would have said. But good for you to get to a place where you never needed to pop those pills. I’m toasting a beer to your good health! =)


  7. glennis
    Nov 14, 2013 @ 03:43:59

    I had perfect blood pressure until just after I turned 50. Then it started going up. I resisted my doctor’s advice to go on medication for a couple of years, saying I’d lose weight, and I DID lose weight, but it didn’t make any difference. I finally had to accept it. If you have high blood pressure, it’s better to be on meds than not.

    Sometimes it’s just hereditary. I think that’s my situation, since my tiny little mom has high blood pressure, too.


    • scolgin
      Nov 14, 2013 @ 14:15:33

      Yeah, I figured I’d try to bring it down without meds if I could — especially since it was only borderline. But I know the bigger components are genetics and aging… so if at some point my lifestyle adjustments aren’t enough, so be it…


  8. Benjamin J Thompson (@ThompsonBenjami)
    Nov 15, 2013 @ 17:28:17

    I’ve been dealing with this for years, I’m doomed by my genetics. There is a bit of research out that is beginning to point towards the potassium/sodium ratio in our system, not simply gross sodium levels. Also, some people use garlic pills as a nutritional supplement to address mild hypertension levels. One can never have enough garlic!


    • scolgin
      Nov 15, 2013 @ 22:18:36

      That sucks. My unreasonable running schedule has gotten in somewhat in check… at least for now. But I fear my genetics has it in for me, too. I think garlic is the key.


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