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Cecilia Bergström
Julkaistu 28.9.2015
Päivitetty 12.9.2018
Kuva: Jarno Hämäläinen

Blood pressure

Blood pressure means the pressure in your arteries. This pressure is the result of your heart contracting and pumping blood into the arteries. The blood pressure increases when you are nervous, moving around or exerting yourself. Temporary fluctuation in blood pressure is normal. If the blood pressure is continuously at an elevated level, this may damage your heart muscle and blood vessels.

High blood pressure is one of the greatest risk factors of arterial diseases. Other factors increasing disease risk include elevated cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity, lack of exercise and heavy alcohol use.

Elevated blood pressure can be detected only by measuring, as it cannot be felt or identified by any other method.

Blood pressure is expressed in two figures. The higher figure indicates the pressure when the heart muscle is contracting (systolic pressure), and the lower figure indicates the pressure when the heart muscle is resting between beats (diastolic pressure). The unit used is a millimetre of mercury, or mmHg.

  • Ideal blood pressure is under 120/80 mmHg
  • Normal blood pressure is under 130/85 mmHg
  • Satisfactory blood pressure is 130–139/85–89 mmHg
  • Elevated blood pressure is over 140/90 mmHg

The measurement 140/90 mmHg is equivalent to 135/85 mmHg when measured at home.

You can affect your own blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure can be lowered by reducing the use of salt, and taking regular exercise, and by weight and stress management. Avoiding heavy use of alcohol and stopping smoking also help lower blood pressure.

Lifestyle changes will bring results in a few months and they may be as effective as using a single blood pressure medicine. If lifestyle changes are not enough to achieve the desired results by themselves, blood pressure medication will be prescribed. The need for medication is always assessed by a doctor.


Cholesterol is a fatty substance known as a lipid, and is vital for the normal functioning of the human body. It is needed as a structural element in cell membranes and in the formation of certain hormones and bile acids. The liver produces a sufficient amount to cholesterol for the body’s needs. We also receive it from food.

Cholesterol is harmful if there is too much of it in the blood circulation. Excess cholesterol builds up on arterial walls and blocks the vessels.

Cholesterol levels cannot be established by external observation, so they need to be measured with a blood test. You can personally control your cholesterol levels in your blood through lifestyle choices.

LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, carries cholesterol to organs and the walls of blood vessels. HDL, the “good” cholesterol, carries cholesterol away from organs and the walls of blood vessels. Family medical history and lifestyle have an impact on the cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood.

For your blood vessels to remain healthy, the recommended blood lipid levels are:

  • Total cholesterol level 5.0 mmol/l or less
  • LDL cholesterol level 3.0 mmol/l or less
  • HDL cholesterol 1.0 mmol/l or more for men, and 1.2 mmol/l or more for women.
  • Triglycerides 1.7 mmol/l or less

If you have already been diagnosed with an arterial disease or have several risk factors, the doctor will determine your target level expressed as a target LDL cholesterol level. Depending on the situation, the target level for LDL cholesterol level may be less than 2.5 mmol/l or less than 1.8 mmol/l.

By bringing down the cholesterol level in your blood, the build-up of cholesterol on arterial walls can be prevented and the existing blockages reduced. The build-up of cholesterol begins in childhood. Smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes increase the risk of arterial disease. What is crucial is the overall impact of all risk factors combined.

Changing your diet lowers the blood cholesterol level by 10–15% on average, but sometimes by as much as 40%. The impact on each individual is different but an improved diet will always be beneficial and bring results. Improving the diet is always the primary method when the aim is to prevent the elevation of blood cholesterol levels or to lower the existing high cholesterol level. Maintaining a healthy diet also boosts the efficacy of possible drug therapy.

Making the right choices

When shopping for groceries, look for the Heart Symbol, as these will contain less salt, an adequate amount of dietary fibre and good-quality fats. They will help you maintain a healthier diet.

The quality of fat is the most crucial factor regarding blood cholesterol level. Saturated fats increase the LDL cholesterol level, while unsaturated fats help lower it. Foods high in saturated fats include fatty cheeses, cream and other dairy products, fatty sausages and meat, bakery goods, coconut and palm oil. Foods rich in unsaturated fat include vegetable oil, margarine, fish and nuts and avocado. It is recommended that you eat fish 2–3 times a week.

Fibre helps lower the blood cholesterol level, as is captures any cholesterol contained by the food and removes it from the body. Fibre can be found is cereal products, fruit and vegetables. To secure an adequate intake of fibre, choose wholemeal bread and other wholegrain cereal products and eat at least a handful of vegetables in every meal. Seeds, nuts and pulses are also high in fibre.

Reducing your salt intake is the most crucial method in reducing high blood pressure.  Salt contains sodium, which is harmful. Our bodies need very little sodium, and a sufficient daily amount is received from normal foods such as milk, fish and meat.

As our bodies produce all the cholesterol they need, we need no extra cholesterol from our diet. Eat high-cholesterol foods with moderation, if you have been diagnosed with an arterial disease or if you have high cholesterol. Foods that are high in cholesterol include egg yolk, liver and fish roe.

Foods containing plant stanols or plant sterols are worth trying, if other lifestyle changes are not enough to lower high cholesterol levels.

Licorice, salty licorice and other black sweets contain glycyrrhizin which may raise blood pressure. Some licorice produced are also high in salt. Therefore as a rule, those suffering from high pressure should avoid licorice and other black sweets.

Regular physical activity lowers blood pressure, supports weight control and improves blood lipid and sugar levels. It is recommended that you take brisk exercise for at least 30 minutes per day in total, which may however consist of shorter periods of activity several times a day. Daily physical activity may include cycling or walking to and from work, outdoor activities with the family or an exercise class. The suitable level is exertion is that of a brisk walk. Weight training is a beneficial addition to other forms of exercise. Don’t be shy to try out different forms of exercise to find the one that suits you best. Make regular exercise a habit that you enjoy!

Weight management plays a key role in the treatment of elevated blood pressure and cholesterol level. Increased waist measurement is a particularly significant factor causing elevated blood pressure. The waist measurement should be 90 centimetres or less for women and 100 centimetres or less for men. Even small weight loss will bring health benefits. If you wish to lose weight, it is advised that you eat regular, moderately sized meals and take regular exercise. It is important to eat a lot of vegetables, berries and fruit and reduce the amount of foods that are high in fat and sugar, as well as drink less alcohol.

Smoking increases blood pressure, the level of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in blood and lowers the HDL cholesterol level. Most importantly, smoking damages arterial walls and in this way encourages the build-up of cholesterol in the walls of blood-vessels.  The benefits of quitting smoking become quickly evident, as the heightened risk of serious disease decreases dramatically within a year, and the benefits only increase in the following years.

Alcohol should be consumed no more than 1–2 units at a time, on only a few days a week. The limit of moderate alcohol use is one unit for women and two units for men per day – but not every day of the week.

Changes take time. You don’t have to change everything at once, and remember that each small permanent change you make is a giant step for the better.

Change these… for these
butter, butter-oil mix vegetable oil, margarine
whole milk, semi-skimmed milk and buttermilk skimmed milk and skimmed buttermilk
traditional yoghurt, Turkish/Greek  yoghurt fat-free yoghurt, soy/oat-based product
cream low-fat cooking cream or vegetable oil mixture
fatty red meat and sausage poultry, lean meat
minced meat (pork/beef) lean mince (max. 10% fat), lean steak mince, chicken mince
Cereal products low in fibre (bread, porridge, muesli, cereal) cereal products high in fibre
Less of these More of these
Sugar, sweets, biscuits, cakes, juice with added sugar, soft drinks, alcohol, salt Vegetables, berries, fruit – at least six
handfuls a day! Peas, beans, lentils, fish, nuts, pulses  and seeds.

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