Nearly half of Americans have high blood pressure. A promising 5-minute daily breathing practice and other proven lifestyle strategies may help change that.
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When it comes to heart health, it's easy to focus too much on your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. But there's a more significant threat: high blood pressure. It may not always make headlines, but hypertension (the medical name for high blood pressure) is the leading modifiable risk factor for cardiovascular disease death, per the American College of Cardiology.

If that statistic makes your blood pressure rise, taking a deep breath might help. Really. According to a 2022 Journal of Applied Physiology analysis, a special kind of deep-breathing therapy, called inspiratory muscle strength training (IMST), may be more effective for reducing blood pressure than exercise. And it takes just five minutes a day.

What Is the Link between Breathing and Blood Pressure?

High blood pressure isn't only about your heart. It's also about your breathing muscles. Enter IMST, a therapy developed in the 1980s to help people with respiratory diseases strengthen their diaphragms and breathing muscles. "IMST involves using a small handheld device to provide resistance when you inhale," explains Daniel Craighead, Ph.D., lead researcher of the study and assistant research professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "In that way, it's akin to a weightlifting maneuver, such as a bench press."

To see if IMST might do good things for blood pressure, Craighead and his team recruited adults between the ages of 18 and 82. Participants were asked to perform 30 breaths per day for six weeks. Half of the group did high-resistance IMST, while the other half focused on low-resistance. Researchers found that, in just two weeks, those who performed IMST saw improvements in their blood pressure levels. And at the end of the trial, both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels were reduced, by 9 mmHg and 4 mmHg respectively. To put that into perspective, that's more than the 5- to 8-point decrease in SBP that people with hypertension are likely to achieve by running or biking for 90 to 150 minutes a week.

But the truly jaw-dropping finding is that it's also as effective as some blood pressure medications.

a woman practicing breath work
Credit: Getty Images

Why Is IMST So Potent?

Stronger breathing muscles are one reason for IMST's success, but they aren't the only one. "People who saw the largest gains in their breathing muscles didn't necessarily experience a larger drop in blood pressure than those who had smaller strength gains," notes Craighead. "One thought is that deep breathing turns down the sympathetic nervous system's fight-or-flight response, which tends to be in overdrive in people with high blood pressure." But there's more. The IMST group also produced more of a blood-pressure-lowering substance called nitric oxide that relaxes the blood vessels. This, in turn, increased their arteries' ability to dilate by 45%, substantially easing blood flow.

5 More Ways to Lower Your Blood Pressure

If you'd like to lower your numbers, with or without IMST, these tried-and-true strategies can also help:

Downsize Sodium

Limiting sodium to 1,500 milligrams per day can trim SBP in those with high blood pressure by 5 to 6 mmHg. Of course, easing up on salt when you cook and at the dinner table is a great start. But the real challenge isn't what happens at home. It's when you eat out. That's because, according to the American Heart Association, more than 75% of Americans' sodium intake comes from restaurants and packaged foods. What if you love to eat out? "Pay attention to key words that might indicate a food is prepared with high sodium, like pickled, brined, barbecued, cured or teriyaki," says Amy Kimberlain, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "And be on the lookout for salty ingredients like broth, soy sauce and miso."

Bump Up Potassium

Consuming 3,500 to 5,000 daily milligrams of this mineral can lower SBP by 4 to 5 points. The best way to get your fill is by eating lots of fruits and veggies. In fact, 4 to 5 daily servings of produce can supply 1,500 to 3,000 milligrams worth. Yet, few of us come close, with only 1 in 10 of us eating enough fruits and veg, notes Kimberlain. In addition to produce, you can also get impressive amounts from other potassium-rich foods like beans, salmon and dark leafy greens.

Try the DASH Diet

The DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, includes a mix of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and low-fat dairy and is so effective that it may lower systolic numbers by up to 11 mmHg. Together these healthy foods deliver a powerful cocktail of blood-pressure-reducing potassium, calcium, magnesium and fiber capable of producing results without restricting sodium. However, if you're extra motivated, watching the saltshaker can bring your numbers down even more.

Keep an Eye on Your Weight

In addition to easing the strain on your heart, maintaining a healthy weight may also manage blood pressure by keeping blood vessels healthy and insulin levels in check. And every little bit counts. For every 2 pounds you lose, you can expect a 1-point drop in return. So, think progress, not perfection.

Ease Up on Alcohol

While a margarita may do good things for you occasionally, chronic drinking can increase your risk of high blood pressure. According to a 2021 review published in Current Hypertension Reports, excessive alcohol consumption can increase the risk of hypertension in both men and women, and in women, the risk can begin with moderate intake. Your best bet is to follow the CDC's general guidelines regarding alcohol—for females, one daily drink or less, and for males, two drinks or less. And since drinking with meals is less likely to spike blood pressure than sipping on an empty stomach, better to enjoy your drink with dinner.

The Bottom Line

"IMST is a great low-burden and time-efficient strategy for people to add to what they are already doing," says Craighead. But it's not a substitute for a healthy diet and lifestyle. Instead, think of it as one more tool in your blood pressure-lowering lineup.