An effective, natural approach
One of the best ways to reduce your heart disease risk—and avoid dangerous, unnecessary procedures (see page 1)—is to manage your blood pressure (BP).
Unfortunately, for many doctors, that means pushing potentially dangerous drugs to keep systolic blood pressure readings at or below 120 mm Hg.
(They continue to insist on this metric despite a growing body of evidence showing that a moderately “high” reading of 130 to 140 mm Hg is acceptable as you get older—and may even be beneficial. Some studies show this modest increase in BP helps oxygen and nutrients better circulate throughout your system, also improving brain health and lowering your risk of dementia.)
Fortunately, there’s been more scientific research in recent years about how natural approaches can effectively manage blood pressure—without the serious side effects of many prescription drugs.
These approaches have mainly focused on vitamins, minerals, and other dietary supplements.
But a recent study reminded me that there are other options as well. In fact, researchers found that a simple, five-minute, daily breathing exercise can lower blood pressure in older people as well as…or even better than…some drugs. Let’s dive right in.
The power of resistance breathing
Researchers examined 36 men and women between 50 and 79 years old. All of the participants were healthy, but had systolic BP (the top number) higher than the “normal” limit of 120 mm Hg.
The participants were given handheld IMST devices, which help people with respiratory diseases strengthen their diaphragms and other respiratory muscles. (Basically, as the user breathes in air, the IMST device tries to suck it back out—creating resistance that exercises the muscles.)
The participants were divided into two groups. One group did high-resistance IMST breathing (30 inhalations, for about five minutes a day) six days a week. The other group used their devices on a much lower setting that didn’t exercise the lungs.
After six weeks of this regimen, the researchers found that the high-resistance group had an average systolic BP decrease of 9 points.
The researchers said this kind of improvement in blood pressure is equal to or better than what people can see from walking 30 minutes a day, five times a week. And it’s an even better result than some blood-pressure drugs!
Not to mention, the high-resistance IMST group had significantly lower markers of inflammation and oxidative stress—both of which can substantially boost heart attack risk.
And this group’s average blood pressure reading continued to stay lower even after stopping the breathing exercises for six weeks!
The link between lung and heart health
The researchers also noted that the high-resistance IMST group had an average 45 percent improvement in vascular endothelial function—or the ability of the arteries to relax and expand, which lowers blood pressure.
Plus, this group had significant increases in levels of nitric oxide, which helps arteries open wider and prevents obstructions. The researchers believe that the breathing exercises stimulate the cells lining the blood vessels to produce more nitric oxide.
The best part? All of this dovetails with results from other studies. Over the last few decades, researchers have discovered just how closely the heart and lungs are linked in terms of circulation and metabolism.
In fact, two of my professors at the University of Pennsylvania were leaders in studying these connections: Dr. Alfred P. Fishman in physiology and Dr. Domingo M. Aviado in pharmacology. I worked closely with both of these influential researchers at different points in my career.
An option for postmenopausal women
Of course, as I often report, 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week can also improve blood pressure and heart health. But if you’re unable to exercise due to an injury or other impediments, an IMST device can be a useful alternative.
The researchers also said that postmenopausal women not taking supplemental estrogen may be good candidates for IMST breathing exercises as well.
This is important because in previous studies, the researchers found that these women don’t reap the benefits of traditional approaches to blood pressure management as much as older men do.
Specifically, aerobic exercise doesn’t appear to improve key measures of cardiovascular health for postmenopausal women not taking estrogen—making alternative methods like IMST viable options.
So, I recommend consulting with your doctor about using an IMST breathing device. It can be another tool in your drug-free approach to managing your blood pressure and improving your heart health for many years to come.
1“Time-Efficient Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training Lowers Blood Pressure and Improves Endothelial Function, NO Bioavailability, and Oxidative Stress in Midlife/Older Adults With Above-Normal Blood Pressure.” J Am Heart Assoc. 2021 Jul 6;10(13):e020980.