For the better part of my life, my doctors explained that normal, “healthy” blood pressure was 120/80 and high blood pressure was anything over 140/90. Today, that is clearly ancient wisdom and doesn’t tell the whole story.

New studies suggest the number for healthy blood pressure may be much lower. The National Health and Education Survey commissioned by the National Institutes of Health showed systolic pressures above 115 mmHg (the first or top number) can damage arteries and other organs. It also showed every 20/10 (systolic/diastolic) increment in blood pressure doubles the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The National Health, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends a blood pressure of less than 120/80. It defines pre-hypertension (“pre“-high blood pressure) as between 120 to 139 systolic and 80 to 89 diastolic, and they say these numbers indicate the need for lifestyle modification.

I was also never told that blood pressure varies greatly for virtually everyone simply due to exercise, the time of day (lowest when you sleep and highest for up to three hours after you are awake), what you eat, hormones, mood, vitamins and minerals like vitamin D, sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and caffeine in your coffee and soft drinks. There is even a phenomenon known as “white coat hypertension,” which causes your blood pressure to rise when a nurse or doctor take your blood pressure (due to anxiety). It is when your blood pressure stays high in the presence or absence of these factors that you should be concerned. It’s all a matter of degree and duration.

Systolic vs. diastolic: which matters more?

Another often-asked question that has been endlessly debated is, “Which of the two blood pressure numbers, systolic or diastolic, is more important?” Systolic would seem to be the answer, although it could also be added, “Not by much!”

Systolic pressure seems to rise faster and more consistently as we age, possibly because our arteries become less elastic and then begin to level off after age 60 (for most but not all people). However, high diastolic pressure is far more common below age 50, and many older physicians were taught to put more weight on diastolic hypertension.

The question has been more or less settled by a large analysis of multiple studies involving about one million people. The analysis showed that for each 20 mm/Hg increment in systolic pressure or each 10 mm/Hg increment in diastolic pressure, the risk of cardiovascular events doubles, proving both numbers are important.

Reduce your blood pressure naturally

There are many, many potent classes of anti-hypertensive drugs that work quite well. But, if you are opposed to taking drugs or simply want to reduce your reliance on drugs, you are in luck—there are also many natural ways to reduce your blood pressure.

Salt. The common wisdom for reducing blood pressure is to reduce salt intake. However, the latest studies have determined reduction in dietary salt is only effective for “salt-sensitive” persons. Regardless, if you are salt sensitive, then reducing your salt intake may be a powerful way to lower blood pressure naturally.

Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil). Fish oils have already been shown to reduce heart attack and stroke risk and also provide a reduction in blood pressure, albeit slowly and after months of use. Frankly, I take quite a bit of fish oil and see an almost immediate response (a few weeks) when I stop or start.

Vitamin D. Vitamin D appears to work like the powerful class of high blood pressure drugs known as ACE inhibitors. Like ACE inhibitors, it blocks the enzyme renin which causes arteries to constrict.

Coenzyme Q10. Many heart disease sufferers already take this supplement to combat the muscle pain induced by taking a statin. It appears that this supplement can also reduce systolic blood pressure by up to 10 points.

Magnesium. Already a powerful supplement for a healthy heart rhythm and blood sugar control, magnesium can also exert a modest reduction in blood pressure.

Weight reduction. No surprise here! If you are overweight, shedding those unwanted pounds is a surefire way to reduce blood pressure.

Exercise. Exercise, both aerobic and resistance training, will help you lose weight, and it's another way to reduce blood pressure regardless of weight.

Low-carb diets. Low-carb diet programs, such as the Wheat Belly Diet, Atkins’ Diet, or South Beach Diet, seem to consistently tout reductions in blood pressure. In general, the stricter the low-carb restriction, the larger the blood pressure reduction.

Sleep. Getting adequate sleep improves so many things, and blood pressure is included. Try the natural supplement melatonin if you have trouble sleeping.

The takeaway

Maintaining a healthy blood pressure is a basic and crucial element in fighting virtually all forms of heart disease. It is easy to understand, track, and treat, which makes it your first practical step in taking charge of your heart health and practicing what I call Informed Self-directed Healthcare (ISH).

As always, consult your doctors before taking any action. Remember, while you must get involved and take control of your health, you are part of a team that includes your health professionals. The more you know, the easier it is to work with them!