When your head starts to spin

2010-04-15 00:00

OVER the past few weeks we have looked closely at heart disease and its associated risks. Last time we looked at high blood pressure, but today let’s go to the opposite end of the scale. What is low blood pressure and how does it affect our health?

Blood pressure is the force or pressure of your blood pushing against your artery walls. It is expressed as a higher number over a lower number (for example 120/80). With each beat your heart pumps blood into the arteries to be transported around the body. When your heart is contracting the pressure is the highest — this is referred to as systolic pressure. When your heart is at rest between beats, your blood pressure is the lowest. This is the diastolic pressure and is written as the second number in your reading. A blood pressure reading of 90/60 or lower is low blood pressure or hypotension.

Some people have low blood pressure all the time and don’t experience symptoms. This is not necessarily dangerous. However, there are two types of hypotension which frequently produce symptoms such as dizziness, weakness or fainting. These symptoms result from one or more of the body’s organs­ not receiving sufficient blood supply.

Postural Hypotension

Postural hypotension occurs when one stands up too quickly after­ sitting or lying down. It occurs­ within three minutes of standing as a result of blood collecting in the lower limbs and not returning fast enough to the brain and upper body. This is usually most pronounced in the morning and also after exercise.

Postprandial Hypotension

Postprandial refers to the period­ after eating. This hypotension is more common than postural­ hypotension and is associated with meals that are high in carbohydrates. Symptoms of dizziness and faintness occur within two hours of eating.

Treatment for Low Blood Pressure

If you have low blood pressure but don’t suffer from any symptoms then no intervention is needed. However, if you are prone to some of the symptoms mentioned above, then try following these tips:

• Stand up slowly after you have been sitting or lying down. This allows time for your circulation to work against gravity and increase the blood flow to your upper body and particularly your brain.

• Move your feet and ankles if you have been standing for a long period­, and contract your calf muscles to increase the blood flow back to your heart.

• Eat smaller, more frequent meals and ensure that they contain a variety of food groups. Avoid meals that are only high in carbohydrate-rich foods, for example a chip roll which contains no vegetables, protein or fruit.

• Limit very sweet desserts and sugary drinks, especially after a meal that contains large amounts of carbohydrate (potato, rice or pasta­).

• Drink plenty of water, especially on hot days and when exercis-

ing.

• Try to avoid environments that trigger hypotension episodes — such as being outdoors in hot conditions.

• One cup of coffee in the morning can be beneficial, believe it or not. Having said that, caffeine should always be taken in moderation as it also dehydrates the body. More than one to two cups a day can dehydrate you and worsen the risk for hypotension.

If low blood pressure is associated with chest pain, shortness of breath or large blood loss, emergency treatment is essential as this may be life threatening and should not be ignored.

Low blood pressure without any symptoms places no additional strain on your heart, and is no danger­ to your body. It is certainly far more desirable to live with a blood pressure on the lower side of normal than on the high side.

I hope that this series on the heart has been helpful to you.

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietitian. She can be reached at eatsmart@iburst.co.za

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