If you have high blood pressure, make sure you're not actually making it worse instead of making it better. Here are 6 mistakes you might be making, and how to fix them.

Per the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about half of American adults have hypertension—an important risk factor for heart disease and stroke—and many people are unaware they have it. Getting your blood pressure under control may be even more difficult during stressful times, but luckily there are things you can do to help your numbers improve. Here are 6 ways that you can help yourself or correct seemingly innocent behavior to ensure you're doing all that you can to take care of your heart—and none of them involve a gym.

1. Not knowing your numbers

Checking your blood pressure regularly can help set you up for success, increase your awareness, and help you to take protective measures. An NHANES survey indicated that 16% of people are unaware that they have hypertension, making it virtually impossible to make any precautionary lifestyle or dietary changes to improve their health.

Stopping into your local pharmacy to get your blood pressure taken or obtaining a blood pressure machine for home use can give you the peace of mind you need or help you take corrective action if need be. This is particularly important if you have risk factors for hypertension such as:

  • BMI > 30
  • physical inactivity
  • tobacco use
  • more than moderate alcohol use (moderate drinking is defined as no more than one alcoholic beverage per day for women, and no more than two for men)

In order to take an accurate reading, I recommend you take more than one reading per day in order to get the most accurate measurement to inform your choices.

2. Not drinking enough water

Drinking too much water can elevate your blood pressure, but so can being dehydrated, so you need to find a way to keep a healthy balance with what you drink. A 2019 study indicates that even mild dehydration can thicken blood, impede blood flow, and, ultimately, raise blood pressure. Recommendations vary (here's more about how much water you should drink daily), so I like to tell my clients to purchase a 32 oz. water bottle with a straw and to make sure they fill it up at least three times in the day. If you add this to your daily coffee and seltzer consumption, and the hydration you get from foods, you will ensure proper hydration throughout the day.

Additional RD secret pro tip: research has found your blood pressure goes up when your bladder is full, so make sure to empty it out before getting your blood pressure measured.

Senior women taking care of herself she exercise with dumbbells at home
Credit: Getty Images / chee gin tan

3. Eating late in the evening

We understand that early dinners won't always happen, but making it a goal to eat earlier might help your blood pressure. An American Heart Association funded study found that not only did late night eating (after 6 p.m) increase obesity risk, but also consuming 30% or more of your calories after 6 pm was associated with a 23% increase in hypertension.

You can avoid this by making sure you eat at timed intervals throughout the day, with appropriate amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrates. You should include a protein-rich snack about two hours before dinner, which can help to ward off hunger and stabilize your blood sugar. If you're properly fueled throughout the day, then you will be less likely to overeat during dinner and on and on into the night.

4. Drinking too much alcohol

During the past year, more and more people are turning towards alcohol to help them de-stress, but we need to rethink how we wind down at the end of the day if we want to avoid risk for hypertension. Heavy drinking significantly increases your risk for hypertension. Researchers found that compared with people who never drank, moderate drinkers were more likely to have high blood pressure, while heavy drinkers (more than 14 drinks a week) were much more likely to have hypertension.

Some alternatives to de-stressing with a drink include taking a brisk walk to get a change of scenery, talking to some friends, or trying an online meditation class—all of these activities can help shift your mood, relax you, and take away the feeling that you need a glass of wine in order to relax.

5. Eating too much salt

Salt is all around you and often you're not even aware of the hidden amounts of salt you're consuming every day. Too much sodium isn't good for your blood pressure. Sure, grilled chicken and greens are healthy, but oftentimes restaurants load food items with salt for flavor and so they may not be as healthy as you first thought. For example: a large bowl of chicken soup can have more than your daily recommended amount of sodium per day (2,300 mg) in one meal! Frozen meals also often have sodium levels between 700-1,800 mg per meal.

An easy work around would be to look for lower-sodium options when you order a meal, or purchasing lower-sodium frozen meals. It might be a good idea to start checking the nutrition labels on your food too. Not every meal has to be perfect, but these suggestions are definitely a great start to lowering the salt content of your diet.

6. You're not getting any sun

The sun is good for you: fact! The Journal of American Heart Association published an observational study that analyzed close to 46 million blood pressure readings from 342,000 patients in 2,200 dialysis clinics, and found that exposure to UV sunlight was associated with lower systolic blood pressure. The researchers weren't exactly sure why, but getting outside has plenty of other benefits too.

Getting outside in the sun can help you with your UV light exposure, 10-30 minutes a day might be enough in the summer (the study didn't track minutes, but rather observed that in the summer BP went down). Walking or running outside may be extra beneficial, since movement helps your blood pressure too. More doesn't mean better, since you'll want also be mindful about protecting your skin from sun damage.