The causes and consequences of low blood pressure

Your heart is constantly pumping blood through your body. The force with which your blood is pressed against the walls of your blood vessels is your blood pressure. This can be (too) high, normal or (too) low. The latter is less common than the former and the consequences are generally less dangerous. Low blood pressure can even be healthy, provided it does not cause any complaints. And provided it is not a symptom of an underlying problem, such as blood loss or reduced heart function. Your blood pressure arises as a result of the contraction of the heart muscle. The heart muscle pumps blood into the blood vessels. This causes the blood to press against the walls of the blood vessels, causing blood pressure. Your blood pressure is expressed in upper pressure (systolic pressure) and lower pressure (diastolic pressure). The upper pressure is measured when your heart contracts. A lot of blood is then pumped through the arteries, which increases the pressure on the vessels. The negative pressure is the pressure in the arteries when your heart relaxes again. The pressure on the arteries then drops. Normal blood pressure is around 120/80 Hg (systolic pressure/negative pressure).

Your blood pressure is always fluctuating

However, ‘normal’ blood pressure is not a hard data. It is highly dependent on, among other things, your age, your health, your lifestyle (smoking, drinking, sleep) and your weight. For example, a blood pressure of 80/45 is very normal in children and a blood pressure of 180/85 is still considered normal in the elderly. Your blood pressure is never always the same. It varies from time to time. For example, during stress or heavy physical exertion, more adrenaline is produced, which can quickly increase your blood pressure. But your posture, normal exercise, anxiety and anger also influence your blood pressure.

When is your blood pressure too low?

Low blood pressure (hypotension) is less common than high blood pressure (hypertension). A blood pressure of around 90/60 is usually referred to as low blood pressure. The body is then no longer able to function properly, causing various complaints. In some people (especially young women), blood pressure is always on the low side. They generally do not suffer from it and low blood pressure is therefore considered completely normal for them. Low blood pressure can occur at any age. Blood pressure is generally only considered too low if you actually have symptoms. Low blood pressure that is not caused by an underlying problem and that does not cause complaints is even healthy. The lower pressure protects your blood vessels.

Complaints due to low blood pressure

You do not always have to suffer from low blood pressure that is not caused by an underlying problem. However, sometimes low blood pressure does cause symptoms. The most common are: dizziness, light-headedness, seeing stars, fainting and fatigue. The complaints usually occur suddenly, for example when you get up. There is suddenly not enough blood flowing through your veins, causing your brain and lungs not to receive enough blood. This can even cause you to faint. Symptoms such as looking pale, a weak pulse and dilated pupils can also occur. They mainly occur in older people and in people taking medication for high blood pressure.
In certain situations the complaints can worsen. For example, in extreme heat. Your blood then flows to your skin to cool your body. This causes your heart and brain to receive insufficient blood and you can faint. But even if you get up too quickly, your body’s natural correction mechanism to increase blood pressure can fail briefly. When you suddenly stand up, due to gravity – a lot of extra blood collects in the veins of your legs and your lower body. As a result, less blood is returned to your heart and your heart can therefore pump less blood. Your blood pressure drops. Normally your body reacts quickly to a drop in blood pressure. Your heart starts beating faster and more powerfully and the small arteries narrow. If these compensatory mechanisms do not function properly or too slowly, complaints such as dizziness and even fainting can occur. This form of low blood pressure is called orthostatic hypotension and mainly occurs in the elderly. Postprandial hypotension also occurs regularly in the elderly. There is then a temporary drop in blood pressure after the meal. When blood flows to the intestines after a meal (for food digestion), the heart rate normally increases and the blood vessels in the body constrict to maintain blood pressure. However, in some elderly people these mechanisms do not work sufficiently. The blood flows normally to the intestines, but the heart rate does not increase enough and the blood vessels do not contract sufficiently. This causes blood pressure to drop. The result is often dizziness, light-headedness, weakness and falls.
Continuously low blood pressure that causes complaints is not healthy. Your blood does not flow properly through your veins, which means your body cannot function properly.

Dehydration is the most common cause of low blood pressure

The most common cause of low blood pressure is a reduction in the amount of fluid in your body. This occurs, for example, in dehydration as a result of heavy sweating, high fever, blood loss, fluid loss due to severe burns, severe diarrhea or extreme heat. But a severe allergic reaction or drinking (a lot of) alcohol can also drastically reduce the amount of fluid in your body. Sometimes your veins also expand (temporarily), causing your blood to accumulate in these veins. Less blood than normal then flows back to the heart, causing low blood pressure. Cardiac arrhythmias and blockage of blood flow in your arteries can also lead to low blood pressure. Finally, certain medications, such as medications for high blood pressure (antihypertensives), can also cause low blood pressure.
Severely low blood pressure may indicate shock. This is a life-threatening situation, where the pressure in the blood vessels is so low that vital body functions can no longer be maintained. The blood flow and therefore the oxygen supply to the heart, brain and other organs are compromised, which can cause the cells to die.
However, in a large proportion of people, no condition or abnormality is found that can explain low blood pressure. In that case it is referred to as idiopathic low blood pressure. Idiopathic means ‘without apparent cause’.

What should you do if you have low blood pressure?

If you have persistent complaints such as dizziness and fainting, it is always wise to visit your doctor. Continuous low blood pressure that causes many complaints is not healthy. Your body cannot function properly. The doctor can measure your blood pressure using a blood pressure monitor. If it turns out that you have (too) low blood pressure, medication can be prescribed to increase your blood pressure. However, this does not happen often. Naturally, any underlying cause must be ruled out.
Once it has been established that low blood pressure is not caused by an underlying abnormality or condition, you can do a number of things yourself to reduce your complaints. To start, make sure you get enough sleep. In addition, drink plenty of water (especially in hot weather or illness) and as little caffeinated drinks and alcohol as possible. Don’t eat too heavily, rest a while after eating and don’t get up too quickly. Finally, it is important to exercise regularly and not to stay in a hot bath or sauna for too long.
If you do feel dizzy or faint, lie down with your legs elevated. In this way, the blood flows back to your brain and the complaints usually disappear on their own.

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