Does Inflammation Cause High Blood Pressure? Here's What You Need to Know

Chronic inflammation and hypertension can damage your heart. Here's how to reduce your risk of both.

Inflammation and high blood pressure are separate health problems, but they are linked—and they can both lead to heart disease. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is common. Nearly half of adults in the United States have hypertension, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hypertension increases your risk for heart disease and stroke, which are leading causes of death in the United States, according to the CDC. An insidious force, called inflammation, also affects your heart health in a variety of ways. Here's a look at how both high blood pressure and inflammation drive cardiovascular disease and the very real steps you can start taking today to safeguard your heart.

What Is Inflammation?

Inflammation is your body's normal response to an illness or injury, according to the National Institutes of Health. It occurs when your body activates your immune system and sends out inflammatory cells to fight an offender that could make you sick, or to heal an injury.

Inflammation can be either acute or chronic. Acute inflammation happens when the immune system activates to tackle something sudden, like a bee sting. Another example of acute inflammation is getting the flu, when "your immune response is heightened to fight off the infection," says Tamanna Singh, M.D., co-director of the Sports Cardiology Center in the Heart, Vascular and Thoracic Institute at Cleveland Clinic.

Chronic inflammation is more of a low-lying and longer-lasting problem, and it can be harder to notice because it can sit there simmering under the surface, wreaking havoc on your body. Chronic inflammation typically lasts from months to years, and sometimes it's caused by chronic inflammatory disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, says Nishant Shah, M.D., a cardiologist at Duke Health. In addition, the NIH notes that cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, depression, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease and some cancers are also associated with chronic inflammation.

What's the Link Between Inflammation and High Blood Pressure?

The two are closely related, and they affect your health in profound ways. "We do know that there's a direct correlation between inflammation and hypertension and heart attacks and stroke," Singh says. Here's a closer look.

May Cause High Blood Pressure

Research has shown that inflammation can cause high blood pressure, per research in Current Opinion in Physiology in 2021. Chronic inflammation leads to damage in the lining of the blood vessels, and "that inflammatory response can lead to things like arterial stiffness, which generates higher and higher blood pressure," Singh says.

Many studies have investigated the link between inflammation and hypertension. Early animal studies, as well as observational human studies, have shown this link, though more research is needed to fully understand it, says Shah. Other research has found that when patients were given drugs that targeted the immune system and inflammation, their blood pressure would be lower. That opened the possibility that treating inflammation may also treat hypertension.

As a 2021 review in Cardiovascular Research points out, these drugs may be most effective in those who have uncontrolled hypertension, but researchers also need to look at if they could be effective for people in the early stages of hypertension. "It is definitely an area that is in need of more research because there are patients that may benefit from targeting inflammation to help control their blood pressure," Shah says.

May Worsen High Blood Pressure

If you have high blood pressure, following healthy lifestyle habits—including eating a low-sodium, healthy diet, limiting alcohol, staying active, maintaining a healthy weight and managing stress— is recommended to lower your levels, according to the American Heart Association. However, greater levels of chronic inflammation may worsen uncontrolled hypertension, and therefore elevate your risk for cardiovascular disease, Shah says.

an illustration of someone's arm getting their blood pressure taken
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How to Reduce Inflammation to Prevent High Blood Pressure

Inflammation can be reduced in several ways. "There's not one magic treatment option to reduce inflammation," Shah says. That's because the root cause of inflammation is different for everyone. Someone who has an autoimmune disease, such as irritable bowel disease, has inflammation from IBD, for instance.

One of the big factors underlying inflammation is lifestyle habits, and it's one of the first things that doctors typically look at, Singh says. There are steps you can take on your own to reduce inflammation.

  • Eat a heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory diet: "The more plant-forward you eat, the better, because we know that a lot of our plant-based foods are anti-inflammatory," Singh says. That includes green leafy vegetables, whole grains and fruit—basically colorful fruits high in antioxidants. Singh points out that many of these foods are found in the Mediterranean diet.
  • Avoiding inflammatory foods: Certain foods cause inflammation, so you'll benefit from limiting how much of them you eat. They include refined carbohydrates (such as white bread), fried foods, sugary drinks and processed meats. "Processed foods tend to have a lot of sodium. In addition to sodium causing water retention and leading to high blood pressure, there are also mechanisms that we're starting to see where increased sodium intake can also lead to inflammation," Shah says.
  • Exercise regularly: Exercise is also important, Shah says, noting that the American College of Cardiology and the AHA recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week. "Maintaining that heart-healthy lifestyle will help folks reduce the amount of systemic inflammation in their body," Shah says.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Excess fat promotes inflammation. People with excessive weight or with obesity who lose weight also reduce markers of inflammation, according to research in Clinical Nutrition ESPEN.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you reduce your blood pressure by lowering inflammation?

Yes. Because inflammation and blood pressure are linked, reducing inflammation can help lower blood pressure. Many heart-healthy lifestyle changes are recommended for improving both inflammation and hypertension.

What are the signs of inflammation in the body?

Acute inflammation may show up as swelling or redness, for example. Chronic inflammation can involve joint stiffness, digestive issues, belly fat, increased blood pressure, skin irritation and frequent illness.

Can you reverse heart damage from inflammation?

Whether damage can be reversed depends on the extent of the damage, Shah says. "By eating a healthy diet and living a healthy lifestyle, you'll put your heart in a position to recover as best as it can."

The Bottom Line

Chronic inflammation can contribute to high blood pressure. The good news is that both high blood pressure and inflammation can be reduced with a few key lifestyle changes. Eating a balanced diet, reducing sodium intake, reaching a healthy weight and staying active can move the needle. "Routine checkups, eating well and good exercise habits, I think, are the best things that we can do for ourselves," Shah says.

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