New Hypertension Guidelines- Lifestyle over Drugs? Or another victory for Big Pharma?

Can half the population have a single disease?

 

First, we were told that half of all Americans have type II diabetes or pre-diabetes. Now we are told that almost 50% of Americans have hypertension (elevated blood pressure) too. Could it be true?

 

That depends who you ask.

 

The American Heart Association (AHA) published new hypertension guidelines during their annual meeting November 2017. These guidelines now classify those with a systolic blood pressure between 130-139 as having hypertension.  That increases the number of Americans with hypertension from 72 million adults to 103 million, a little over 46% of all adult Americans.

 

We should note, however, that the AHA does not have a monopoly on guidelines.

 

The American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Family Physicians still define hypertension as a systolic blood pressure (the top number) of 150 or greater for those over age 60. That means we have to take the new guidelines with a grain of salt (which may not raise your blood pressure). They are the recommendations of one specific organization, not a unanimously agreed-upon decree.

 

The AHA changed their guideline largely on the basis of one particular study, the SPRINT trial. This trial enrolled subjects over age 50 with hypertension and at least one other cardiac risk factor. They sought to determine if using drugs to treat to a blood pressure of less than 120 would be more beneficial than treating to a blood pressure less than 140.  In the end, they determined that it was.

 

After three years, treating subject’s blood pressure more aggressively (with an average of three drugs per subject) reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 1.6%, a statistically significant difference. That means we need to treat 62 people for three years to prevent one cardiovascular event, pretty paltry evidence in the scheme of things.

 

This 1.6% reduction came at a potential cost. They found that the drugs caused dangerously low blood pressure in one out of every 100 people treated, fainting in one out of every 166 people treated, and significant kidney disease in one out of every 62 people.

 

So, even though the data were statistically significant, it appears that the clinical benefit may be much less impressive. But that isn’t even the biggest issue with the new guidelines.

 

The SPRINT trial was designed with meticulous follow up, something that usually don’t translate to the real world.

 

For example, in the SPRINT trial, researchers measured the blood pressure three times, not just once, and they did this only after the subject had been sitting quietly for at least five minutes.

 

Think about the last time you had your blood pressure measured in the doctor’s office. It was likely after you sprinted in from the parking lot after circling three times white knuckling the steering wheel looking for an open space. Or, it was after checking your watch for the tenth time wondering if they forgot about you since they were over 30-minutes late. You then are led into the room and they immediately take one blood pressure and chart it. Does that sound like we are comparing apples to apples?

 

No way.

 

Subjects in the study were also followed monthly for the first three months and then every three months after that. Is that how often your doctor sees you?

 

Unlikely.

 

Remember all those side effects that were found in the trial? That was with meticulous monitoring of patients and their blood pressure. What do you think will happen if the follow up turns into once or twice per year?

 

Medication-induced dizziness, falls, broken hips and kidney disease.

 

So, if your doctor wants to treat you for hypertension for a blood pressure of 130, insist that you measure your blood pressure at home, multiple times each day, for at least a full week before deciding you have a true “disease” that needs treatment. Blood pressure varies during the day, and we should not label you with a disease based on one measurement.

 

But wait. That STILL isn’t the biggest concern with the guidelines.

 

To their credit, the guidelines specify that those with blood pressure 130-139 should start with lifestyle intervention. Bravo. That is absolutely the way it should be.

 

Does that mean if your blood pressure is less than 130 you don’t need to worry about eating well, exercising, managing your stress and getting adequate restorative sleep? Hopefully we didn’t need to reclassify 30 million Americans as having a disease in order to start talking to them about healthy lifestyles. That should be the main focus of every visit for every patient, not just those who have the label of hypertension.

 

Also, remember the 2013 cholesterol guidelines? They specified that the low-risk group that was now labeled as having the disease of high cholesterol should “begin the conversation about statins.” That quickly turned into doctors grabbing their prescription pads and writing millions of statin prescriptions.

 

Even worse, it usually isn’t long before “quality” measurements and insurance reimbursements are attached to achieving the new goal of blood pressure less than 130. Once that happens, do you think your doctor will patiently work with you to fine tune your lifestyle over the course of months? Or will they reach for the drugs to get you to the target faster and simply check the box that they did it?

 

I love rhetorical questions.

 

That leads to the next issue. The guidelines state that if one fails lifestyle interventions, then drugs are indicated.

 

What does it mean when a patient “fails” lifestyle intervention? How long should that trial be? One month? Six months? And what is the lifestyle intervention? 150 minutes per week of cardio with no mention of resistance training or interval work? A low-fat, low-sodium diet, with no consideration that many people may respond better to a low-carb diet rather than a low-fat diet, and salt may have no impact on your blood pressure?

 

Picture this instead.

 

You bring your home blood pressure log into your doctor’s office. The average is consistently above 130. You have a detailed conversation about your risk for cardiovascular disease, and you agree to be more vigilant with your nutrition, physical activity, stress management and sleep.

 

But it doesn’t stop there. Together, you and your doctor decide what the best specific approach is for you. You then set an email follow up in one month and an office visit in 3 months to check in.

 

If you have not started to progress, you re-evaluate why. Does your nutrition need to change? Maybe you started with a low-fat diet but will actually respond better to a low carb diet. Maybe you are getting your 30 minutes of exercise but are sedentary the rest of the day. Maybe you are still hooked on Ambien and can’t get to sleep. Maybe you need a little more encouragement from a weekly email, or joining an online group, or competing with a friend over your Fitbit numbers.

 

None of those issues should mean you “failed” lifestyle intervention. Instead, they should help you and your doctor fine tune your purposeful lifestyle prescription to find what will work for you.

 

In the end, could you have hypertension? You may. But that doesn’t mean you have a “drug deficiency.” It means it’s time to work together with your healthcare provider to get serious about your lifestyle. In a perfect world, that would already be happening for all of us. If it takes a new guideline to initiate that, so be it. Let’s applaud the guidelines for the attention it will bring to lifestyle interventions.

 

Doctors, just keep the prescription pad in the drawer please.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health

www.DrBretScher.com 

Should I salt My Food? Let’s Hear the Truth!

How guilty do you feel when you reach for the salt shaker? Do you look to make sure no one is watching as you quickly shake the little white granules on your food, salivating as you anticipate the bursting flavor that sodium brings? It may be time to stop feeling guilty. You can salt with impunity. At least most of you can.

 

For decades, nutritional guidelines have recommended consuming less that 2300mg of sodium per day. This was most recently perpetuated in the 2015 American dietary guidelines. Yet the evidence to support such a guideline for all Americans is lacking at best.

 

In reality, there is substantial evidence that sodium restriction for the average American does nothing to reduce one’s risk of heart attacks, strokes or death. So, why should we limit it?

 

Approximately 25% of the population is sensitive to salt and may have dramatic increases in blood pressure, increased fluid retention, and increased risk of cardiovascular complications. But that is 25% of the population. Not the entire population. Trying to devise a single guideline for everyone is destined to fail. And it did.

 

Before I get into the specifics of the evidence, here is the conclusion:

 

If you are not salt sensitive (you do not have difficult to control hypertension, you do not have salt sensitive congestive heart failure) then salt restriction is not going to benefit your health.

 

That doesn’t give you license to start eating salt laden processed junk food. No, no, no. But it does give you the freedom to add high quality, minimally processed salt (Celtic sea salt, Himalayan salt, Real Salt, etc.) to your vegetable based, minimally processed, real food diet. 

 

Salt away and experience the flavors that salt can bring.

 

How Did We Get Here?

 

The controversy around salt all started in 1997 when an early version of the DASH study was published in NEJM. This study showed that those with hypertension could reduce their blood pressure by 11/5mmHg by reducing their sodium intake. The less publicized part of the study, however, was that those without hypertension only reduced their BP by 3/2, hardly earth shattering.

 

The follow up DASH study, also in NEJM, followed only 400 people for 30-days. They concluded that those eating the standard American diet could reduce their systolic BP by 6mmHg by limiting sodium to 2300mg.day. Interestingly, those eating a diet higher in fruits and vegetables only reduced their BP by 2mmHg by reducing sodium. Again, a disparity was seen between those who were presumably salt sensitive and those who were not.

 

Notice that neither of these studies reported changes in heart attacks, strokes or death. It was just assumed that any reduction in BP, no matter how small, would automatically translate into improved health. That assumption lead to the guidelines committee recommending sodium restriction for all.

 

The Real Evidence

 

Since the original DASH study in 1997, we still have no randomized trials demonstrating reduced risk of heart attack, strokes or death by decreasing sodium intake.

 

In fact, we have plenty of evidence to the contrary.

 

One large meta-analysis showed no clear association between sodium reduction and cardiovascular complications.

 

Another study demonstrated that sodium restriction caused a cascade of deleterious effects including increased blood levels of renin, aldosterone, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. These are all hormones that lead to higher blood pressure over time.

 

Newer evidence suggests that excessive sodium intake (greater than 7 grams per day) and low sodium intake (less than 2500mg/day) could both lead to increased risk of heart attacks and death.

 

Lastly, recent trials suggest a more prominent response to sodium in those who already have hypertension and eat more than 5 grams/day (there was no report of increased cardiovascular risk). Interestingly, higher potassium consumption was associated with a decreased BP.

 

The Devil That We Know

 

The result? We have the wrong enemy.

 

I have seen countless of patients and clients who report to me, “I’m eating much better. I won’t touch salt anymore!” Salt became the devil we know, and we could feel much better about ourselves by avoiding it.

 

The problem is that it may lead us to ignore the other “evils” in our nutrition. The added sugar, the processed foods, the industrial trans-fats, the fake stuff. It takes too much energy to avoid everything. Our brains are wired to focus on one thing, get rid of it, and feel like we have succeeded.  Don’t make salt the one thing you focus on!

 

Quality Matters

 

What did we learn from all the above studies?

  1. There is no evidence supporting reducing sodium intake to less than 2300 mg/day in the general population
  2. Very high (>7g/d) and very low (<2.5g/d) sodium consumption could be potentially dangerous for most Americans
  3. Where you get you sodium matters!

 

Number 3 deserves more attention. Where we get our sodium matters. If our sodium comes from processed junk food, high sugar or simple carb foods, then we aren’t doing ourselves any favors.

 

Also, why do you think increased potassium lead to reduced BP? First let’s look at potassium rich foods.

  • Avocado
  • Spinach
  • Sweet Potato
  • Acorn Squash
  • Wild salmon
  • Pomegranates
  • Citrus fruits
  • Bananas
  • White Beans

What do these foods have in common? They are real, unprocessed foods that come from nature.

 

Focusing on real, veggie-based foods is going to reduce your BP, and more importantly, lower your long-term risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases.

 

Don’t Make It Too Complicated

 

Remember, there is no one size fits all approach to nutrition. Guidelines that assume otherwise will likely fall short of being helpful. With that in mind, here are the 3 take home points regarding sodium consumption and your health.

 

  1. If you have poorly controlled hypertension or heart failure, then you may need to be careful with sodium intake
  2. If not, which applies to most the population, focus on real foods from nature. Have no hesitation adding real, minimally processed salt.
  3. Don’t get your sodium for processed junk food.

 

It’s that simple. Let’s not make it more complicated than it needs to be.

 

ACTION ITEM: Change the type of salt you use. Invest in Celtic Sea Salt, Himalayan Salt, Real Salt, or other minimally processed salt. Liberally enjoy this salt in your steamed, roasted, or sautéed veggies. Make sure you are limiting your processed food and junk food that contains refined salt (potato chips, pretzels, crackers etc.).  

Thanks for reading.

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health

www.DrBretScher.com

 

858-799-0980Dr Bret Scher