We all know that high blood pressure is dangerous, but what about the dangers of having low blood pressure? If your BP levels drop below normal, can it also cause serious health issues?
While low blood pressure is normally not a concern, it can become a medical emergency if levels drop too low for a sustained period of time or if they are severe enough to lead to shock.
What is Low Blood Pressure (Hypotension)?
Medically known as hypotension, low BP, can mean different things for different people. But generally, this condition occurs when blood pressure levels fall below the normal range.
Hypotension causes a low flow of blood throughout the body, which means the body may not be getting enough nutrients and oxygen.
If low blood pressure is severe and long-lasting, it can eventually affect the heart, brain and other organs.
Just like with high blood pressure, the risk of developing low BP increases as you age. It’s estimated that 10%-20% of people over the age of 65 have low blood pressure.
What Qualifies as Low BP?
A normal blood pressure reading is 120/80 mm Hg. Numbers outside of this range can still be considered healthy. Healthy blood pressure readings are based on your age, medical history and overall condition.
If your blood pressure readings are consistently below 90/60 mm Hg, your doctor may diagnose you with low blood pressure.
While high blood pressure is almost always a serious concern, low blood pressure isn’t necessarily anything to worry about. Most doctors only consider low BP a problem if the person is experiencing symptoms, as this can mean that the organs aren’t getting enough blood.
Signs of Low Blood Pressure
Signs and symptoms of low blood pressure can include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Blurry vision
- Confusion or difficulty concentrating
If you experience shallow breathing, rapid pulse, and cold or clammy skin, seek medical attention immediately. These are symptoms of shock, which requires immediate medical care.
Some people only experience symptoms when standing. This is a condition known as orthostatic hypotension. Fortunately, this condition isn’t dangerous unless it’s causing a rapid drop in blood pressure, which can lead to fainting.
What Causes Low BP?
Low blood pressure can be caused by a variety of things, including:
- Abrupt change in position
- Automatic nervous system disorders
- Extreme blood loss
- Endocrine disorders
- Severe infection
- Thyroid conditions
- Vigorous exercise
To make matters more confusing, low blood pressure can also be a sign of good health if you aren’t experiencing any symptoms.
Some other causes of low blood pressure include:
Blood pressure can drop after eating, which can cause dizziness, light-headedness and faintness. This is most common among older people, but it can also occur in those who have Parkinson’s disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
How does eating cause low blood pressure?
After eating a meal, the intestines need more blood for digestion. This causes the heart to beat faster and blood vessels in other parts of the body to narrow to maintain blood pressure. Because this process becomes less effective as we age, older individuals may experience symptoms of low blood pressure after eating.
Heart issues can cause low blood pressure, including:
- Heart failure
- Heart valve problems
- Low heart rate
In this case, blood pressure levels tend to be very low because the heart cannot pump enough blood to keep the pressure up.
Coughing, Using the Bathroom or Swallowing
Blood pressure can drop when coughing or swallowing because both actions stimulate the vagus nerve, which raises acetylcholine levels in the body.
Using the bathroom can also stimulate the vagus nerve, particularly if you’re straining while having a bowel movement or urinating.
Certain medications can cause blood pressure levels to fall, including:
- Beta blockers
- Alpha blockers
- Tricyclic antidepressants
- Sildenafil, or Viagra
- Drugs that treat Parkinson’s disease
Acetylcholine causes blood vessels to dilate, reducing blood pressure and blood supply to the brain. This can cause dizziness and fainting, but these symptoms usually resolve quickly.
Hormonal imbalances can cause a wide range of issues, including low blood pressure. The thyroid gland creates and stores hormones that regulate a number of the body’s functions, including blood pressure and heart rate.
The adrenal glands regulate the body’s stress response.
If you have problems with either gland, you can develop low blood pressure.
Along with morning sickness, frequent urination and a string of other issues, pregnancy can cause low blood pressure.
It’s common for blood pressure to fall during pregnancy because the circulatory system is expanding. Systolic pressure usually drops 5-10 points, while diastolic pressure falls 10-15 points.
It’s perfectly normal and common to have low blood pressure during pregnancy, and this should not be a cause for concern.
People suffering with eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa, may also have low blood pressure. Bulimia can cause electrolyte imbalances that can lead to heart failure or irregular heartbeats. Anorexia can cause an abnormally low heart rate and low blood pressure as a result.
Prolonged bed rest can also lead to low blood pressure.
When is Low Blood Pressure an Emergency?
Low blood pressure is an emergency if there are symptoms of shock, which include:
- Shallow breathing
- Rapid pulse
- Cold or clammy skin
Shock is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention.
Hypotension has been linked to different types of shock:
- In cases of severe bleeding (internal or external), blood volumes drop. This can lead to severe and potentially dangerous hypotension. Serious burns can also send a person into shock.
- Dehydration – caused by vomiting, diarrhea, heat, over-exercising, or overusing diuretics – can cause weakness and dizziness because the body is losing more water than it takes in.
- A severe allergic reaction can cause anaphylaxis shock, which is a medical emergency.
- Infections can cause bacteria to invade the bloodstream, which can lead to septicemia. Septic shock can cause a dramatic drop in blood pressure.
Diagnosing Low BP
If you have consistently low BP readings, your doctor may wish to do further testing to determine the root cause of the problem.
Along with taking a medical history and a physical exam, your doctor may recommend:
A painless, non-invasive test, an ECG involves the placement of soft, sticky patches (or electrodes) on the chest, arms and legs. The patches are designed to detect your heart’s electrical signals, which are either captured on graph paper or displayed on a screen.
The purpose of an ECG is to detect irregularities in the heart’s rhythm, issues with oxygen and blood supply to the heart muscle, and structural abnormalities in the heart.
An ECG can be performed in your doctor’s office.
A simple blood test can give your doctor a lot of information about your health. Along with your overall health, a blood test can tell your doctor whether you have high blood sugar, low blood sugar or a low red blood cell count (i.e. anemia). All of these conditions can lead to low blood pressure.
Certain heart conditions that cause low blood pressure are easier to detect when the heart is worked harder. During a stress test, your doctor will have you walk on a treadmill or perform some type of exercise that elevates your heart rate.
If you are unable to exercise, your doctor may give you a certain type of medication that will make your heart work harder.
Echocardiography or electrocardiography will be used to monitor your heart as you’re going through the test. Your doctor may also monitor your blood pressure.
An echocardiogram is a non-invasive test that includes an ultrasound of your chest. The ultrasound will give your doctor detailed images of your heart’s structure as well as its function.
During the test, ultrasound waves are transmitted and the echoes of the waves are recorded with a transducer. A computer uses this information to create moving images on a connected video monitor.
Tilt Table Test
If you experience low blood pressure symptoms when standing or if your symptoms are caused by faulty brain signals, a till table test can help your doctor evaluate how your body reacts to changing positions.
The test is exactly what it sounds like: you lay down on a table that’s tilted to raise the upper part of the body. The motion simulates the motion of lying to standing.
A non-invasive test that checks your automatic nervous system’s functioning. It works by analyzing your heart rate and blood pressure after a few cycles of deep breathing.
Preventing Low BP
Low blood pressure isn’t usually a cause for concern if there are no symptoms, but you can still take steps to prevent your levels from falling too low.
Simple preventative measures can include:
- Increasing water intake
- Change positions slowly (e.g. sitting to standing, or lying down to standing)
- Avoiding long periods of standing or sitting still
- Eating smaller meals more frequently
- Avoiding caffeinated beverages later in the day
- Cutting down on your alcohol intake
- Reducing your carbohydrate intake, particularly refined carbs
- Avoiding exercising outdoors in the summer or in extreme heat
- Avoiding spending extensive amounts of time in hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms
Can You Treat Low Blood Pressure Naturally?
In most cases, blood pressure doesn’t require any treatment. While you should always consult with your doctor to treat any medical issue, including low blood pressure, there are some natural remedies and lifestyle changes that may help combat the problem.
#1) Lifestyle and Dietary Changes
Certain dietary and lifestyle habits can lead to high blood pressure, and the opposite is also true. Here are some tips:
#2) Drink More Fluids
Low blood pressure is often caused by dehydration. When the body doesn’t have enough fluids, blood volume decreases, causing low blood pressure. Make sure that you’re getting enough fluids.
#3) Add More Salt
Salt is demonized in the health and medical industries, but if you’re suffering from low blood pressure, adding more salt to your diet can bring levels back to normal.
Healthy foods that are high in sodium include smoked fish, olives, cottage cheese and canned soup.
Salt can help raise your blood pressure, but take care not to go overboard. Consuming too much salt can lead to the opposite problem: high blood pressure.
#4) Consume Foods High in Vitamin B-12 and Folate
Vegans are at greater risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, as this vitamin is obtained primarily through animal products. Too little B12 can lead to anemia, which can cause low blood pressure.
Vegans can take a B12 supplement to bring levels back to normal. Others who have a B12 deficiency can eat fortified cereals, eggs and beef to get more B12.
#5) Drink Licorice Tea
There is some evidence that licorice can reduce the effect aldosterone, which is a hormone that regulates the impact of salt on the body. Drinking licorice tea may help increase blood pressure rates as a result.
#6) Enjoy a Cup of Coffee
Caffeinated beverages, like coffee and tea, may cause a temporary spike in blood pressure. It does this by boosting your heart rate and stimulating the cardiovascular system.
If you only experience low blood pressure symptoms after eating, try lowering your carbohydrate intake, laying down after eating, and eating smaller meals more frequently throughout the day.
Staying active can help prevent and treat low blood pressure. Orthostatic hypotension, which causes light-headedness and dizziness when standing, can be caused by blood pooling in the limbs when you sit or stand for too long.
The more active you are (i.e. the more you move), the less chance the blood has to pool and cause low blood pressure symptoms.
Try activities that don’t require straining or holding your breath, like recumbent biking or swimming.
#8) Elevate Your Head While Sleeping
Raising the head of your bed can help improve your body’s ability to circulate blood. Aim to raise the head of your bed by four inches by placing books, boards or bricks underneath your mattress (not your pillows).
#9) Get More Vitamins D and C
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to orthostatic hypotension. Older women seem to be more effected.
Vitamin C can also help blood vessels constrict to normalize blood pressure levels.
#10) Try Supplementing with Herbs
Several herbs can help elevate blood pressure levels. Always consult with your doctor before starting a new herb supplement, as they may not be safe for everyone. Herbs that may increase blood pressure include:
- John’s wort
- Blue cohosh
- Pau d’Arco
- Calamus amines
- Cola and broom alkaloids
#11) Compression Stockings
Along with dietary and lifestyle changes, compression socks can be worn to increase blood pressure levels.
Compression stockings help move blood throughout the body, which can raise blood pressure levels. They work by squeezing the leg tissues and the walls of the veins. This action helps blood return to the heart.
Low blood pressure is normally no cause for concern, but if symptoms arise, medical treatment may be necessary. It’s important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms and any at-home treatments you may be considering.