One in three adults in the UK has high blood pressure1, also known as ‘hypertension’. Alcohol can play a role in high blood pressure but you can keep your risk low by following the government’s guidelines. Get the facts on blood pressure and how you can help keep yours in check.
When your heart beats, it pumps blood round your body to give the body the energy and oxygen it needs. Pressure is needed to make the blood circulate. The pressure pushes against the walls of your arteries (blood vessels) and your blood pressure is a measure of the strength of this pushing, combined with the resistance from the artery walls.
A normal heart pumps blood around the body easily, at a low pressure. High blood pressure means that your heart must pump harder and the arteries have to carry blood that’s flowing under greater pressure.
This puts a strain on your arteries and your heart, which in turn increases your risk of a heart attack, a stroke or of suffering from kidney disease2.
You can't usually feel or notice high blood pressure. In fact, the British Heart Foundation estimate that around seven million people with high blood pressure are undiagnosed3. This is because high blood pressure very rarely causes any obvious symptoms.
There isn’t always a clear explanation as to why someone’s blood pressure is high. However, there are several factors that can play a part in increasing the risks of developing hypertension:
- Regularly drinking alcohol beyond the low-risk guidelines
- Not doing enough exercise
- Being overweight
- A family history of high blood pressure
- Consuming too much salt.
Due to the lack of noticeable symptoms, hypertension is a silent health condition. The only way of knowing if there’s a problem is to have your blood pressure measured. You can have this done at your GP surgery, some local pharmacies, or you can buy a blood pressure monitor from the chemist.
A blood pressure reading consists of two numbers or levels, the systolic pressure and the diastolic pressure: unless your doctor tells you otherwise, your blood pressure should be below 140/90mmHg5.
High blood pressure is a major cause of stroke and heart attack.
You can reduce your risk of having a stroke or heart attack by lowering your blood pressure.
A stroke is a serious, life-threatening medical condition that occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off.
Uncontrolled high blood pressure puts a strain on blood vessels all over the body, including vital arteries in the brain. This strain can cause vessels to weaken or become clogged up, which in turn can lead to blockage of the blood vessels taking blood to the brain or bleeding into the brain.
Either way it can result in a stroke.
Strokes are a medical emergency and urgent treatment is essential because the sooner a person receives treatment for a stroke, the less damage is likely to happen. You can recognise a stroke using the FAST test:
- FACIAL weakness: Can the person smile? Has their mouth or eye drooped?
- ARM weakness: Can the person raise both arms?
- SPEECH problems: Can the person speak clearly and understand what you say?
- TIME to call 999
If a person fails any one of these tests, phone 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance.
A heart attack is a serious medical emergency in which the supply of blood to the heart is suddenly blocked, usually by a blood clot. Lack of blood to the heart can seriously damage the heart muscle
If you have high blood pressure, you’re also more at risk of having a heart attack or developing heart disease in the future. Because of the increased strain on your heart and blood vessels, untreated high blood pressure can cause angina (chest pain and breathlessness caused when the blood supply to the muscles of the heart is restricted) and may eventually lead to a heart attack.
The symptoms of a heart attack vary from one person to another. You may feel tightness or pain in your chest. This may spread to your arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach. For some people, the pain or tightness is severe, while others can feel nothing more than a mild discomfort. As well as having chest pain or discomfort you can feel light-headed or dizzy and short of breath. You may also feel nauseous or vomit.
The sooner you get emergency treatment, the greater your chances of survival and the more of your heart muscle can be saved.
Phone 999 for an ambulance immediately if you suspect you, or someone else, is having a heart attack.
Other effects of high blood pressure are kidney damage and damage to the retina (the light-sensitive lining at the back of the eye which allows you to see4.
You can lower your blood pressure by making changes to your lifestyle:
- Cut down on alcohol. Alcohol can have a serious long-term effect on blood pressure and research has shown that heavy drinking can lead to increased risk of hypertension for both men and women6.
- Healthy diet and exercise help to lower blood pressure
- Keep caffeine to a minimum: it can temporarily raise your heart rate and your blood pressure. If you regularly have more than four cups a day, it’s a good idea to start cutting down.
Stress raises your heart rate, and therefore your blood pressure, in the short term. But it’s not been proven that stress alone has a long-lasting effect on your blood pressure.
However, the things people tend to do to combat stress, such as eating junk food and drinking to excess, can cause long-term blood pressure problems. If you experience stress, try alternative ways of coping with it, such as exercise or talking to a friend about what’s worrying you.
Drinking alcohol is not an effective way to alleviate mental health difficulties.
The UK Chief Medical Officers' (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines advise that people should not regularly drink more than more than 14 units a week to keep health risks from alcohol low. If you do choose to drink, it is best to spread your drinks evenly throughout the week.
Here are three ways you can cut back and keep your drinking under control.
- Keep track of what you’re drinking. Our free Drinkaware app can tell you if you're drinking too much. It can even help you cut down.
- Eat well.A healthy meal before you start drinking, and low-fat, low-salt snacks between drinks can help to slow down the absorption of alcohol. They’ll help keep your blood pressure down too.
- Have several drink-free days a week. If you want to cut down, a great way is to have several drink-free days a week. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice.
Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.
Blood Pressure Association offer a range of information to help you take control of, or prevent, high blood pressure Information line: 0207 882 6218.
British Heart Foundation for help, facts and lifestyle advice. Heart Helpline: 0300 330 3311.
The Stroke Association: for information or advice about stroke. Stroke Helpline: 0303 303 3100.