According to World Health Organization estimates, 19 percent of Australians over age 18 had high blood pressure in 2014. Left uncontrolled, the condition can damage and weaken the brain’s blood vessels, causing them to narrow, rupture or leak, which can lead to a stroke. It can also give rise to blood clots forming the arteries leading to the brain, blocking blood flow and potentially causing a stroke. While high blood pressure is not one to be ignored, many people prefer to use drugs only as a last resort. Natural medicine can certainly help normalise pressure, and here we look specifically at the role traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) can play.
When talking about hypertension (high blood pressure), it's important to understand that your blood pressure varies over a 24-hour period. Moreover, readings are often higher than normal when taken in a doctor’s office. This is dubbed the ‘white coat syndrome’, which simply means the experience of having your blood pressure taken is enough to send it heavenwards! So if your pressure reading is high, don’t panic – and certainly don’t start on anti-hypertensive drugs based on one reading, as this may mean you end up taking medication permanently for what was a temporary condition (see sidebar). Your doctor should take several readings over a period to determine whether you do indeed have high blood pressure. They may even suggest that you undergo 24 hour blood pressure monitoring at home to investigate the pattern of your blood pressure. Even if subsequent readings remain high, it doesn't mean you have hypertension. "Having high blood pressure and suffering from hypertension can be two different things," says traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner, Yun Niu Ph.D. "Hypertension is essentially chronic high blood pressure, whereas your blood pressure may increase under certain circumstances. So think about the recent events in your life: whether you have been under a lot of stress, have eaten different food, experienced sleeping difficulties, or are going through menopause. If you can identify a possible culprit, work on resolving this issue: your blood pressure may return to normal. Of course, you need to keep monitoring it during this time." Talk to a TCM practitioner to see whether they can help you, adds Yun. "Herbs and acupuncture can be effective, but may take time. If the pressure is too high, it's important to bring it down because it can be dangerous and cause damage to the body." In TCM, high blood pressure results primarily from three conditions.
Excess liver yang energy can be caused by emotional stress; stress arising from anger, worry, frustration or a busy life; poor diet; and deficiency of yin liver energy. Sudden emotional stress can raise blood pressure, because when you're stressed, liver energy goes upwards, whereas it naturally likes to go downwards. When the stress becomes chronic, it affects your emotions, and therefore affects the liver energy.
Symptoms include bad temper; red face; red, sore or dry eyes; dry mouth; bitter taste in the mouth; thirsty; dry stools; irritability; tinnitus; impatience; dizziness; thick head; and headache.
While this is an early state, remaining in it for too long will lead to yin deficiency, which causes yang energy to rise further. Symptoms associated with a deficiency of yin liver energy are similar, but are more inclined to happen late in the day.
Treatment is usually a combination of reducing yang energy, while reinforcing yin energy to restore the balance. Acupuncture can help by redirecting the liver energy downwards, which may also make it easier to cope with stress. However, it does not eliminate stress, so stress management strategies are essential.
Lack of kidney yang energy manifests in symptoms such as a pounding heart and palpitations. In TCM, the kidney and heart are connected. So if kidney yang energy is weak and not supporting the heart energy, the heart can show the symptoms.
Sometimes it may be associated with a sore back; frequent urination during the night; loose teeth; hair loss; tiredness; poor memory; weight gain; poor sleep; shortness of breath; low libido or impotency; and greater tendency to feel cold.
Symptoms associated with a lack of kidney yin energy may be red face; clammy or hot palms; more inclined to feel hot; hot flushes; dry mouth, particularly during bedtime; palpitations; impatience; restless sleep or not sleeping at all. Treatment with acupuncture and herbs can rebalance this energy.
Mucous in TCM can result from deficiency of spleen energy, which governs the transformation and use of fluids. Deficient spleen energy compromises spleen function.
You may experience fluid retention, especially around the gut area and digestive system, and for a longer period of time.
Excessive fluid behaves like mucous: in TCM this is called internal mucous. While you may not be able to see internal mucous, it can circulate with your energy and lodge anywhere in your body, acting as a direct blockage for the energy and blood circulation.
Symptoms include nausea; feeling full or bloated easily; loose or sticky stools; belching; not feeling refreshed after sleeping; fatigue, feeling sluggish and heavy; weight gain; thick head; reduced appetite; and frequent urination in small amounts.
There's also the mucous blockage that occurs when it stays in the body for too long. This creates heat, called mucous fire, which gives rise to other symptoms including irritability; palpitations; red face; tinnitus; a feeling of fullness around the ribs sometimes. Some symptoms of excess of yang energy may also be present.
With this condition, avoid eating or drinking anything that will further compromise your spleen function: sweet foods, dairy products, and anything that is hard to digest. Sip small amounts of water frequently throughout the day rather than drinking large amounts at a time. Eating citrus, especially dried lemon or mandarin peel, can help clear some mucous, while ginger is effective for the sluggish feeling and yang-energy-deficient people.
"Some people with high blood pressure may suffer from all three conditions," Yun comments. "In this case, the TCM practitioner will identify the dominant problem and formulate a prescription for herbal medicines and/or a formula for acupuncture to deal with it. They can also advise the patient about beneficial foods to eat."
Another cause of high blood pressure is blood stasis or stagnation, which is also a blockage. The practitioner can determine whether the blood is causing the stagnation through pulse and tongue diagnosis.
As this is a much later and more severe stage, professional treatment is essential due to the increased danger of stroke or heart attack. Symptoms are generally more extreme, and include headache; chest pain; sore neck and shoulders; heaviness on the left side of the body; poor vision and memory, palpitations, sleeplessness, and fatigue.
Any Chinese herbal formulation for high blood pressure should include herbs to prevent damage to kidneys and heart, at least during the ‘recovery stage’. "Not all practitioners do this, so always ask how they plan to help the function of your kidney and heart," Yun advises. "Additionally, be sure to ask the practitioner how to prevent the condition from recurring or getting worse."
"The majority of TCM practitioners in China and overseas now believe TCM cannot effectively treat true hypertension," says Yun. "So accept that it may be necessary to take medication if you cannot find any natural way to resolve it. It's not the end of the world – and if you fear the side effects, a TCM practitioner can deal with these." The reason why people become locked into the drugs is that when they stop taking it, their blood pressure shoots up higher than before. "The drug normalises the pressure while you're taking it, but because you haven’t made any changes such as dealing with the stress you may be experiencing, the pressure bounces back up again. So you become frightened and go back on the drugs, and the longer you take them, the harder it is to stop." If you're prepared to make lifestyle changes as well, you may be able to work with your TCM practitioner to eliminate the drugs, or at least gradually reduce the dose. "I've done this successfully," says Yun.