Nearly half of all adults in the United States have high blood pressure, or hypertension, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but only 1 in 4 have it under control. If you’re one of them, you’ve probably heard that you should limit your salt intake. But eating less salt isn’t the only dietary change that can help with high blood pressure. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is a well-studied eating pattern for both preventing and treating hypertension. In addition to reducing dietary sodium, the DASH diet emphasizes filling your plate with more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats.
And when it comes to produce, one vegetable in particular is a standout star when it comes to lowering blood pressure: dark leafy greens. Read on to find out why eating arugula, collard greens, kale, spinach, and other greens can have a big impact on your blood pressure.
Blood pressure benefits of green leafy vegetables
High in minerals
According to a 2019 research published in Nutrients, three specific minerals that can have a positive impact on blood pressure are potassium, calcium and magnesium. Dark green leafy vegetables are a good source of all three of these nutrients. Magnesium helps manage blood pressure by increasing nitric oxide levels, which helps blood vessels relax. And calcium can affect blood pressure through its actions on the smooth muscle cells that line artery walls. Just 1 cup of cooked spinach has 37% of the Daily Value of magnesium and nearly 10% DV of calcium.
Potassium plays an important role in blood pressure management, as it helps the body eliminate excess sodium through the urine, which can reduce water retention and blood volume and lead to low blood pressure. A 2020 review in Hypertension noted that populations consuming a higher-potassium, lower-sodium diet had lower rates of hypertension. However, most adults don’t reach the daily value of 4,700 milligrams of potassium. Including at least one serving of dark leafy greens per day can help you reach that DV for potassium.
Source of dietary nitrates
Dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, chard, spinach, collard greens and arugula are high in nitrates, a compound found naturally in soil, water and food. Bacteria and enzymes in the body convert nitrate in plant-based food such as leafy green vegetables into nitrous oxide which acts as a messenger, telling blood vessels to relax and dilate and thus lower blood pressure. (It’s important to note that manufacturers also add nitrate to processed meats as a preservative that can turn into harmful nitrosamines. But it works very differently in the body than plant-based nitrate.)
In a 2021 Danish cohort study published in European Journal of Epidemiology, participants who consumed at least 1 cup of leafy greens per day had lower systolic blood pressure at baseline and a significantly reduced risk of cardiovascular disease events such as heart failure and stroke, compared with those who ate fewer leafy greens. And a 2018 meta-analysis published in Nutritional reviews found that consuming plant foods high in nitrates can significantly lower systolic blood pressure and improve other cardiovascular disease factors such as endothelial function.
High in vitamin C
More research is needed to fully understand the relationship between vitamin C and blood pressure, but there are some theories about how it may be helpful. One factor that increases the risk of developing high blood pressure is oxidative damage to blood vessels. Oxidation is a normal and necessary process, but it can become harmful if there is an imbalance between unstable compounds called free radicals and antioxidants such as vitamin C. If there are not enough antioxidants available, the free radicals will start causing tissue damage like your blood vessels, so eating more antioxidant-rich foods can help keep free radicals in check.
Vitamin C also works hand in hand with the nitrate in dark green leafy vegetables to boost blood pressure benefits. As noted earlier, the body produces nitrous oxide, a chemical messenger that tells blood vessels to relax, when it breaks down nitrate from food. Vitamin C helps this process by increasing the activity of the enzyme that converts nitrate in food into nitrous oxide.
Additionally, a 2020 meta analysis published in Cardiovascular therapy found that those with high blood pressure had significantly lower levels of vitamin C in their blood than those with normal blood pressure. While the evidence for taking vitamin C supplements for blood pressure is inconclusive, there’s no harm in eating a diet that includes more fruits and vegetables that are high in the vitamin. One cup of cooked greens such as spinach or kale provides at least 15% of the DV for vitamin C.
Rich in Carotenoids
Dark green leafy vegetables are rich in fat-soluble pigments called carotenoids which have been associated with many protective health benefits. Like vitamin C, carotenoids also act as antioxidants, helping to reduce oxidative stress which can contribute to an increased risk of hypertension. A 2019 review of observational studies published in Journal of Hypertension looked at carotenoid intake specifically in relation to blood pressure and noted that people with higher intakes of carotenoid-rich foods (such as fruits and vegetables such as dark leafy greens) were less likely to have high blood pressure.
Good source of fiber
Only 5 percent of US adults get the recommended amount of fiber in their diets, but eating enough of this nutrient has a whole host of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure. A 2020 systematic review published in BMC Medicine found that even after a diagnosis of heart disease or high blood pressure, increasing dietary fiber can significantly improve both. Dark green leafy vegetables can be an excellent source of fiber, especially when cooked. For example, 1 cup of cooked spinach contains 4 grams of fiber.
Adopting a diet that incorporates more fruits and vegetables can go a long way in helping you lower your blood pressure. Pack at least one of your daily vegetable servings of a dark leafy green such as arugula, collard greens, collard greens or spinach for potentially greater blood pressure benefits. A serving of leafy greens is 1 cup of raw vegetables or one cup of cooked vegetables. Easily boost your veggie intake by adding them to soups, adding a handful to smoothies, or packing a salad for lunch at work.
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