Scottish Daily Mail

How fasting could help cut your blood pressure

And guess what? It’s down to those gut bacteria I’m so obsessed about!


ReGulAr readers of this column might wonder if I am ever so slightly obsessed with the microbiome, the billions of tiny creatures that live in our guts — and you’d be right.

I’m fascinated by these extraordin­ary microbes, and the ongoing battle between the ‘good’ and the bad’ ones, that influences so much about us, from our weight to our mood. And now we can add blood pressure to the list — because it seems bacteria in your guts may be causing your blood pressure to rise. But help is on its way.

raised blood pressure or ‘hypertensi­on’ is known as a silent killer because it kills so many people without them ever realising they have it. In the UK, hypertensi­on is responsibl­e for at least 75,000 deaths every year, as well as more than 100,000 strokes. If you know anyone who’s had a severe stroke then you’ll be aware just how disabling it can be.

The good news is that if you are hypertensi­ve, or just borderline, then a small drop in your blood pressure of just 5 per cent can cut your risk of heart attack or stroke by 13 per cent.

And, surprising­ly enough, a recent study suggests that one of the best ways to reduce blood pressure is by doing a short fast, which then boosts levels of ‘good’ bacteria in your gut.

I feel passionate­ly about the dangers posed by raised blood pressure because two close friends — both younger than me — died as a result of untreated hypertensi­on. I also have a strong family history of heart attacks and strokes, so I am at significan­t risk.

I keep a portable blood pressure monitor at home (you can buy them for less than £20 from a chemist or online) and I test myself at least once a month.

Your blood pressure is a measure of how hard your heart has to work to drive blood around your body. Mine hovers around 125/75, depending on the time of day and how stressed I am feeling. The NHS says an ideal blood pressure is between 90/60 and 120/80 — you’re considered to have high blood pressure if your reading is 140/90 or higher.

A third of British adults are hypertensi­ve, rising to half of those over 65 (I am 64).

But unless you’ve been tested you won’t know because there are rarely any symptoms. The problem is that high blood pressure puts excessive strain on your blood vessels, your heart and other organs, including your brain and kidneys.

A recent major study, published in the journal Hypertensi­on, showed that even if your blood pressure is a little raised (where the first number, your systolic blood pressure is above 120), you’re at increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline, with the risk rising sharply the higher the number.

Blood pressure is normally lowest at night when you’re sleeping, then starts to rise a few hours before you wake up, usually peaking in the middle of the afternoon.

That’s why the best time to measure it is first thing in the morning, before breakfast, or last thing at night. Apart from medication, losing weight can help reduce blood pressure because your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood around your body.

If you are a smoker, give up — because that will improve blood flow. Doing more exercise will have a similar effect.

And consuming less salt also seems to help, though no one really knows why. But what if you have tried all these things?

Well, perhaps you could also try five days of fasting, to help reset the bacteria in your gut that may be causing your blood pressure to be higher than it should be.

That, at least, seems to be the conclusion of new research from the Max Delbruck Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin in Germany.

Published in the science journal, Nature Communicat­ions, this study involved 71 overweight volunteers with raised blood pressure who were randomly allocated to two groups — both were asked to eat a healthy Mediterran­ean-style diet (plenty of nuts, fruit, vegetables, oily fish and lean meat) for three months, but one group also started with a five-day fast, eating just 350 calories a day.

THrouGHouT the experiment the researcher­s took regular poo samples, to see what impact these dietary changes were having on their volunteers’ gut bacteria. Fascinatin­gly, the fasting group had massively boosted levels of certain ‘good’ bacteria that produce powerful anti-inflammato­ry compounds.

The really striking finding was that this group experience­d far more benefits: they not only lost more weight, but their blood pressure improved so much that nearly half were able to dramatical­ly reduce their medication.

The scientists put this improvemen­t down to the anti-inflammato­ry compounds produced by the fast.

If you’re tempted to try something similar, talk to your doctor first — particular­ly if you are on medication. Sticking to 350 calories a day, even if it is just for five days, is challengin­g. I’ve tried it, and the effects were impressive, but it was tough.

You might find my 5:2, intermitte­nt fasting approach (where you reduce your calories to 800 just two days of the week, then eat normally), less demanding.

A randomised trial carried out a few years ago by researcher­s at Surrey university, comparing the 5:2 diet to a standard diet, found the former was significan­tly better at reducing blood pressure.

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