Last time I shared new research that has identified that natural salt that we add to our food does not deserve the bad reputation it has been handed, and that it is our reliance on industrially produced food with its added sodium and an imbalance of nutrients that is causing us issues with our blood pressure.
This week I would like to share the other nutrients that keep our blood vessels supple so that our blood flows freely around the body carrying nutrients and oxygen where they need to be.
As we get older we tend to start taking foods out of our diet rather than adding them in. Food is not just to satisfy our hunger pangs or our cravings. The right foods containing the correct balance of healthy nutrients that have nourished them in their growth cycle are absolutely essential to maintain our own health.
The miles of blood vessels in our body need to be maintained, kept flexible and capable of pumping blood to major organs 24 hours a day for our lifespan.. you have to meet your body half way on this and provide it with what it needs to do the job right!
In the last post I mentioned that being at a healthy weight, taking moderate exercise, avoiding industrially produced foods with added sodium helped to maintain a healthy BP. Today I share at some foods that can also, eaten in moderation, help maintain that balance. They belong primarily to two groups – nitrate rich and those containing potassium.
Nitrate rich foods
Plants absorb naturally occurring nitrate in soil through their roots and it is essential to their healthy growth and development. However it has to go through some chemical adaptation to enable the plant to use efficiently and it goes through various stages to end up as amino acids and chlorophyll. We as humans can reuse those amino acids in the plants that we eat and therefore obtain these second hand benefits ourselves. There are other chemical and bacterial processes that are in play but fundamentally the end result is an easy and efficient way for us to obtain a critically important component in our essential nutrient bundle.
Nitrates are called vasodilators which mean that they dilate or widen the blood vessels in the body. This allows for a healthy blood flow which in turn provides oxygen rich blood to the heart muscle. It is effective for both arteries and veins and regulates blood flow to the heart reducing the work load on the muscle. You will find that many prescribed medications for conditions such as Angina are nitrate based.
This is why as we get into middle age it is so important to include a high quantity of high quality, raw and low processed vegetables and fruit in our diet. Five portions are simply not enough and is the minimum. Ideally I suggest that you have at least Six portions of vegetables a day and Two of fruit.
There are many nitrate vegetables and fruits in the fresh produce aisle in the supermarket or in our own gardens but these are the ones that I include in my diet regularly.
Beetroot – 250ml daily contains 0.2g of dietary nitrate and in studies has been shown to result in an average ten point decrease in blood pressure levels. Beetroot juice is not for the faint hearted, I don’t find the taste too bad but please do not be alarmed by the side effects. You will find that after about 24 hours you will pee and poo pink – and sometimes red!
I make a smoothie with beetroot, celery and banana two or three times a week.. Takes a little getting used to but certainly a nitrate and potassium punch. One 8oz serving is enough but you need to make on the day rather than store as the banana turns it a rather disgusting colour after an hour or so. You can add any of the following to either a savoury smoothie or a slightly sweeter one..
I find beetroot more palatable than eating the alternative of two bowls of dark green lettuce a day to obtain the same amount of dietary nitrate however if you include some of these nitrate rich foods regularly the accumulative effect will contribute to a healthier BP.
I eat an onion a day (cooked and consume the odd breath mint) and also garlic regularly and find that the combined effect is beneficial.
Here are others to include:- Broccoli, cabbage and kale, celery, rocket lettuce, string beans, pumpkins, avocados, bananas, strawberries, tomatoes and grapes.
Potassium (K) is the most essential cation (positively charged electrolyte.) It reacts with sodium and chloride to maintain a perfect working environment in and around each cell.
It is necessary for normal kidney function and it also plays a part in heart and bone health with a particular role in smooth muscle contraction. The heart muscle must maintain a smooth and regular heartbeat and correct levels of potassium in the body will help regulate this.
Some studies are indicating that low dietary potassium intake is linked to high blood pressure and that combined with calcium and magnesium rich foods can go a long way to preventing this condition from developing.
A balance of potassium, calcium and magnesium is essential to maintain bone mass and a deficiency is linked to osteoporosis.
Who might be deficient in Potassium?
With a normal healthy and balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables there should be no reason for a person to be deficient in potassium.
- The elderly are more at risk, as total body potassium levels deplete with age.
- Also anyone who is taking certain prescribed medication may find their potassium levels dropping, particularly if they are taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) or ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure.
- There may be a deficit of potassium in people who store iron in excess amounts such as in the disease hemochromatosis (iron is stored in the liver and builds up causing a number of serious health conditions.
- Taking over the counter medication such as antacids or laxatives can also cause a loss of too much potassium.
- Insulin is another drug that can cause a decrease in potassium and therefore diabetics must watch their diet carefully to ensure that they are receiving sufficient.
- There are occasional problems that might deplete the mineral’s stores such as a stomach upsets with diarrhoea and vomiting, excessive exercise resulting in heavy sweating, crash dieting and taking diuretics.
- Drinking lots of tea and coffee can also increase the amount of potassium excreted in the urine.
- It is also important that you take in sufficient amounts of magnesium rich foods to balance the levels of potassium in the body.
What happens when levels of Potassium are out of balance in the body.
If you have too much potassium in your blood it is called hyperkalemia and too little is called hypokalemia.
Hyperkalemia might be caused by a number of factors including suffering severe burns, undergoing chemotherapy or severe muscle loss through illness. There are a number of conditions that inhibit the normal excretion of potassium in the urine and these include kidney failure and a problem with the adrenal glands.
The adrenal gland makes a hormone called aldosterone that signals the body to excrete or conserve potassium based on the bodies needs and in hyperkalemia there may be less hormone produced or excreted.
Symptoms of too much potassium in your blood might be tingling in fingers and toes, muscle weakness and numbness. It can lead to irregular heartbeats and further heart problems if not treated.
Hypokalemia is more common as this is often dietary related. It can also be a result of a problem in the adrenal glands but in this case it is when the hormone aldosterone is retained causing the kidneys to conserve the potassium instead of excreting it.
The symptoms of too little potassium would include muscle pain, irritability, weakness and possibly paralysis.
There are some studies that are linking deficiency of potassium to a number of medical conditions including increased risk of stroke. Certainly in patients who already have elevated blood pressure, including dietary potassium seems to reduce the risk of stroke, but not apparently if it is given in supplementation form.
Another condition, which can result in potassium deficiency, is Inflammatory Bowel disease such as colitis or Crohn’s disease. In this case it is usual to supplement with the mineral, but only under medical supervision. A diet high in potassium will help, as foods like bananas are also very soothing for intestinal problems.
Other studies show that children who suffer from asthma and therefore have poor lung function may have diets that are too low in potassium, and there may be an improvement by increasing the amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables and fish in their diet.
If you feel that you might be suffering from a potassium deficiency a simple blood test and examination will identify the problem. It is treated with a combination of diet and supplementation but these should only be taken under medical supervision to ensure the correct dosage is given and that there are no interactions with any medications.
If you are currently taking NSAIDs such as ibuprofen you should not take potassium supplements without medical advice. This applies to ACE inhibitors (elevated blood pressure), diuretics, Heparin (blood clots), Cyclosporine (anti-rejection drug) Trimethoprim (anti-biotic) and Beta Blockers (high blood pressure). All these drugs can increase the levels of potassium in your blood leading to potential health issues.
Potassium rich foods to include in your diet.
Coconut water used to be considered a fad, but a now it is evident from several research studies that the potassium and the hydration it offers may make a difference to blood pressure. I have done my own experimentation taking my blood pressure first thing in the morning and the drinking a glass. When I measure my blood pressure half an hour later there is usually at least a small drop in both the dystolic and systolic measurement.
It also contains other essential electrolytes like Magnesium, Calcium, Sodium, and Phosphorous. It is believed that not only does it hydrate and lower blood pressure but also may have a beneficial impact on unhealthy cholesterol levels, the health of the eyes, heart health and balances pH levels.
Bananas – I would have great fun with my clients, and after all a good laugh is better than most medicines, when they would pronounce that they did not eat bananas because they were fattening! In my heyday I could demolish a tub of Haagen Daz Ice cream at 2000 calories and not blink and having seen my client’s food diaries they had similar tastes so making a banana the bad guy is hilarious.
For me the banana is one of nature’s gifts in a small but delicious package. Already wrapped it is easy to take with you anywhere, and comes from a family with 300 varieties and is the fourth most important staple food due to its high nutritional content. It can be eaten at any age and easily digested and has protein, B vitamins and the banana contains potassium.
I covered the need for sodium in our diet when writing about salt, but we also need potassium because it reacts with sodium and chloride to maintain a perfect environment in and around each of our cells. It is the main Cation (positively charged electrolyte) and it allows the transmission of nerve impulses and helps maintain the correct fluid balance in the body as well as helping regulate the levels of acidity and alkalinity in the body. Potassium is required for carbohydrate and protein metabolism, is connected to normal heart rhythms and without the correct balance of sodium and potassium our muscles would not work correctly and this includes our heart muscle.
With elevated blood pressure or when diets contain too much salt, potassium rich foods such as bananas help counteract the affect by dilating the blood vessels, enhancing the excretion of water and excess sodium from the body and suppressing the hormones that cause elevations in BP. You will also see from the section on nitrates that the banana also contains these too.
The banana itself has some great health benefits and appears to improve stress levels, heartburn, ulcers, PMS and at around 150 calories for a large banana is a great snack.
Other potassium rich foods to include in your diet on a regular basis are potatoes, green vegetables of all kinds especially spinach. Also mushrooms, tomatoes, oranges, prunes, apricots, fish such as halibut and tuna – yogurts etc.
Do not overcook your green vegetables and steaming retains most of the nutrients or eat raw and add to smoothies.. If you do cook in a pot blanch for under five minutes and freeze and then reheat for a few minutes in the microwave.. This way the greens stay a lovely colour and also do not lose their nutrients such as their nitrate component into the water that just gets thrown away. You can keep the water to add to homemade chicken stock for a rich gravy so that you waste nothing.
Ensure that you are eating sufficient foods containing calcium and magnesium to ensure you are getting the most out of your potassium..
- Calcium – dairy, sardines, canned salmon, green leafy vegetables.
- Magnesium –dairy, seafood, apples, apricots, avocado, brown rice, spinach.
Keeping the blood vessels clear of obstacles and blood flowing smoothly.
As well as fresh fruit and vegetables there is another key element of our diets that can help to maintain the health of our blood vessels and also the blood flow. That is wholegrains.
Once we are past the growing phase of our bodies (upward not outward!) we do not need as many carbohydrates but we need enough to offer us the correct fuel mix for our activity levels. There is a great deal of press about giving them up to lose weight, or impress our gut bacteria etc…etc.
However in my opinion this is a dangerous strategy as our bodies require the elements from the right carbohydrates to provide essential vitamins and minerals and to give us the energy to get through each day.
Fibre is a component that removes waste from the body which includes toxins. It also is a little like a vacuum cleaner in as much as it removes unwanted clumps of debris that are collecting in various places in the body.. This allows for smooth passage of fluids such as blood increasing blood flow and reducing blood pressure.
Here is an article on one of my favourite carbohydrates that I include every other day which may be the key to a healthy life: Harvard Study indicates that a bowl of porridge is key to a healthy life.
©Sally Cronin Just Food for Health 1998 – 2021
I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty-three years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines, radio programmes and posts here on Smorgasbord.
If you would like to browse my health books and fiction you can find them here::Sally’s books and reviews
Thanks for visiting and I am always delighted to receive your feedback.. stay safe Sally.