Hypertension: Natural Alternatives to Calcium Channel Blockers

Monday, February 13, 2017
By: Linda J. Dobberstein, Chiropractor, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

Calcium channel blockers are a class of medications used to manage high blood pressure, chest pain, and irregular heart rhythms. They are generally regarded as safe medications, and are used in all ages and for years at a time. There are, however, challenging side effects and questionable inert ingredients that contribute to the body’s total toxic burden. Natural options exist for healthy blood pressure management and may help one avoid the toxic effects of these drugs. 

What is a Calcium Channel Blocker?

Calcium channel blockers include nifedipine (Procardia), diltiazen (Cardizem), verapamil (Calan), amlodipine (Norvasc) and dozens more. These drugs selectively block calcium channels, which are like little doors that allow calcium to enter the heart and smooth muscle cells. When calcium channel blockers are present, they reduce the strength of heart muscle contraction and reduce the heart’s autonomic nervous system tone and activity, which leads to dilation of blood vessels and a reduction in heart output. They are prescribed to help improve blood flow in narrowed blood vessels thus lowering blood pressure. Keep in mind that calcium helps all muscles contract and these drugs selectively block that action.

Potential Side Effects

Several side effects occur because of drug-induced calcium blocking activity. These include headaches, dizziness, weakness, fatigue, heart palpitations, ankle swelling, lung congestion, nausea, and acid reflux. Other symptoms may occur due to the forced lowering of blood pressure that often de-energizes the body.  Lower blood pressure can stress tissues by decreased intake of oxygen and nutrients and more difficulty removing waste products. Low blood pressure from over-medication can cause significant effects including loss of coordination, poor kidney function, and even brain atrophy.

Calcium channel blockers affect more than just the tone of blood vessels; they also affect the tone of other muscles like the sphincter muscle between the esophagus and stomach. The sphincter weakens which makes it easier for stomach acid to reflux up into the esophagus. This may cause inflammation, erosions, ulcerations or other damage within the esophagus. Nausea, stomach upset, constipation, trouble swallowing, wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath may also occur. A handful of cases document drug-induced hepatitis or liver injury from calcium channel blockers.

Calcium channel blockers are even known to cause hypertension and worsen or cause new onset of heart block and congestive heart failure. These adverse side effects occur because of the underlying change in the natural physiology of the circulatory system.  When combined with other heart medications like digoxin or beta blockers, the risks may increase.

One case report even identified a 76-year old woman who developed lung problems from GERD caused by calcium channel blockers. She developed scarring and thickening of lung tissue because she had chronic aspiration or inhalation of digestive contents into her lungs. It is not just the elderly that are susceptible to calcium channel blocker induced GERD. The literature shows that the calcium channel blocker induced GERD side effect is mostly seen in women age 40 and older.

If the GERD side effect is not connected to the calcium channel blocker, then the acid reflux is commonly treated with an acid blocking drug. This often leads to the path of polypharmacy and a host of other health pitfalls like gut infections, osteoporosis, and even heart attacks.

In addition to adverse drug effects, the inactive ingredients of these drugs are disconcerting. Inactive ingredients found include polyethylene glycol, saccharin sodium, FD&C Yellow #6, propylene glycol, polyvinyl acetate phthalate and more. You may recognize several of these ingredients as endocrine disrupting compounds or have a checkered worrisome past. Many who are put on these medications take them for years, even decades. We often worry about our environment and foods containing toxic chemicals, but what about that daily blood pressure pill? It has taken decades for us to understand the “inert adjuvant” ingredients in vaccines and pesticides are really not inert. Given the toxic load that we face today, it is a question at least worth pondering. It is even better to identify natural options to support healthy blood pressure. 

Natural Calcium Channel Blockers

Our body uses natural calcium channel blockers like magnesium and potassium to normally manage blood pressure. The benefits of these minerals as natural calcium channel blockers have been known for decades, but as with most natural substances, they are often ignored by medicine. When potassium is combined with magnesium, it creates a healthy synergistic effect and functions like a tag-team with the calcium channels. Research and experience shows that these nutrients can be as effective for mild to moderate concerns as blood pressure medication when combined with dietary sodium reduction. Another benefit of magnesium and potassium intake is that they can increase the effectiveness of blood pressure lowering medications, thus minimizing the required dose of medication.

In addition to its natural calcium channel blocker effect, magnesium helps blood vessels stay relaxed, protects the inner endothelial lining of the blood vessels and increases nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is critical for keeping your circulatory system relaxed. Magnesium also helps control blood sugar, insulin sensitivity, heart muscle function, and reduce elevated cholesterol. Potassium is equally important for heart health and blood pressure as magnesium.

Consider supplementing with 400-800 mg of magnesium and 500-1000 mg of potassium per day to help fortify your body’s mineral status and to help manage blood pressure. These minerals must be replenished daily and should be done in addition to consuming a diet rich in organic, colorful vegetables, fruits, legumes, proteins, and dairy along with regular exercise for best results. High levels of stress, drug–nutrient depletions, poor soil content, processed foods and lack of variety in the diet commonly contribute to the insufficiency of these nutrients. Individuals with significant kidney problems need to work with their health care professional before adding supplemental magnesium and potassium.

Hawthorn extract, a heart tonic dating back to use in the first century A.D., is another natural option that may also support healthy blood pressure. It helps blood vessels dilate in the heart and circulatory system, which leads to a mild blood-pressure lowering effect. This herb is not a calcium channel blocker but acts by other means for blood pressure management. Like magnesium and many other nutrients that support healthy blood pressure, hawthorn extract also helps cholesterol and blood sugar management. Hawthorn extract may potentiate the effect of the medication digitalis and may be contraindicated. Work with your medical provider for proper guidance on this.

Calcium channel blockers are popular drugs in medicine’s attempt to manage blood pressure. Unfortunately, this option is not always the best one for mild high blood pressure issues. Mother Nature has provided us with great natural options that do not cause GERD, erosions in esophagus, liver injury, or more, and instead support overall health. When magnesium and potassium are bound with amino acids like glycine, malate and taurine, muscles and cells absorb more. If you cannot tolerate calcium channel blockers, or want to try something better for long-term health, Mother Nature’s natural therapies may be the answer.

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