High blood pressure is so common these days that almost half of American adults have it. While medication may be necessary, there are lifestyle habits that can help bring it under control, including eating most or all of your diet from plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains like oats, nuts, seeds and pretty much anything you can find in the produce aisle. You also may want to limit your intake of red meat, dairy and eggs. Here is the whole story, and how these foods work to bring down that blood pressure that's increasing your risk of stroke and other life-threatening conditions.

If you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure, the only consolation may be that you're not alone. An unprecedented 45 percent of all American adults have hypertension, the technical term for elevated blood pressure. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While medication is often the first line of defense, it may only be necessary for a short time, if you take the necessary steps to alter your lifestyle. That’s because you can lower – and even reverse – high blood pressure with the help of plant-based foods and other lifestyle habits such as daily exercise, even simply walking in the morning. Here’s how to do it.

Blood pressure basics that can save your life

Just a few years ago, you might have thought high blood pressure was something you didn’t have to worry about until you were older. That's no longer the case. High blood pressure is hitting almost every age group, even kids, teens, and young adults, according to Dana Simpler, M.D., primary care practitioner and board certified internist with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md.

Blame the modern American lifestyle, and diet, for driving up blood pressure in younger people. “The American lifestyle is progressing in the wrong direction,” says Andrew Freeman, M.D., cardiologist with National Jewish Health in Denver, Colo., who’s been dubbed the Vegan Cardiologist. “Not only are people under more stress, they’re also eating poorly younger in life, they’re not physically active, and they’re heavier than ever.” All of these factors contribute to high blood pressure.

Surprisingly, the cause of high blood pressure changes as we age. When Simpler sees high blood pressure in younger patients, it’s often because of their being overweight. “Yet blood pressure increases with age, and that’s related more to what people are eating, namely the standard American diet, as opposed to weight,” she says.

Chances are you may have high blood pressure and not even know it, according to the CDC which is why it is called the silent killer. Left unchecked and untreated it can get out of control, Simpler says, and have devastating consequences. High blood pressure is damaging to the cardiovascular system and can lead to heart failure, heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure.

That’s why you need to get your blood pressure checked regularly, Simpler says. If you’re not overweight, check it yearly after age 40. If, however, you are overweight, start getting it checked now, no matter what your age.

How high is too high? What’s considered healthy blood pressure has been a moving target in recent years, but in general, ideal still remains 120/80 mm Hg. If it’s 140/90 mm Hg, you should be on medication, Simpler says.

How to lower your blood pressure naturally

Fortunately, lifestyle strategies can help you keep blood pressure at that optimal level or even work to lower it. Yet do note: If you’re currently taking blood pressure medications, work with your doctor to wean yourself off of them under his or her supervision. “The effect of these lifestyle changes can be quick, and they need to be done under the supervision of a physician,” Dr. Andrew Freeman, the cardiolgist says.

One of the most effective things you can do is shift your diet toward plant-based foods, especially if you’re still eating a standard American diet comprised of red meat, dairy and daily animal products and processed foods. “They’re high in fat, sugar and salt, which can increase blood pressure,” Simpler says. In fact, one study from JAMA Internal Medicine found that compared with meat eaters, vegetarians tended to have lower blood pressure.

Instead, focus exclusively or almost exclusively on a whole-food, plant-based diet. “The evidence is clear that people who are near vegan get most or all of the same health benefits as people who are perfectly vegan,” Simpler says, adding, though, that this doesn’t include vegan junk food which can still be loaded with unhealthy ingredients and push blood pressure up. If you are going to eat animal products, limit them to under five percent of your diet.

By eating plants, you’ll dramatically cut your salt (fat and sugar, too) intake and increase your potassium intake, which can counter the effects of blood pressure. Freeman says.

The Best Foods for High Blood Pressure

Potassium has been shown to lower blood pressure, according to research published by the American Heart Association, since potassium counteracts the effects of sodium in the bloodstream and reduces the tension in the walls of the blood vessels.

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Eat high-potassium foods like bananas, kiwi, potatoes and avocados, which are high in potassium. Simpler recommends shooting for about 4,000 milligrams a day (a banana has about one tenth of that). Other high-potassium foods are Honeydew melon and cantaloup, mushrooms, sweet potatoes and beans.

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Next, add in nitrate-rich foods such as dark leafy greens and beets, which help your body produce nitric oxide, which helps relax the arteries to normalize blood pressure. Aim for at least two cups of leafy greens per day, more if you can tolerate and desire it, Simpler says.

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Other foods that benefit blood pressure are berries, and in a study of 34,000 people with hypertension, those who at the highest levels of anthocyanins, found in blueberries and strawberries, reduced their high blood pressure risk by 8 percent.

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Garlic has been shown to lower blood pressure, and a study divided subjects with hypertension into seven groups and the one group that ate the most amount of garlic also saw the greatest improvement in their blood pressure over 24 weeks.

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Hibiscus tea has been shown in studies to help lower blood pressure, due to its high antioxidant content, says Simpler. She recommends  cold steeping hibiscus tea in eight to 16 ounces of cold water for five minutes.

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Exercise is the other key to lowering blood pressure

If you want to avoid the meds, then make sure you’re logging 30 minutes of breathless or cardio exercise a day, which studies show can prevent and improve high blood pressure, Freeman says. One study from the journal Hypertension found that women who met physical activity guidelines of 30 minutes of moderate activity (mainly through walking) per day had a significantly lower risk of developing high blood pressure. Choose any activity you enjoy but just work hard enough that you lose your breath. Then quell stress by engaging in whatever helps you ease your worries, whether that’s meditating, walking your dog or listening to music.

By following these strategies, you should see improvements in your blood pressure within a few days to a few weeks.