Different Food Groups May Impact Blood Pressure Through Epigenetics

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The risk of a person living in an industrialized country developing high blood pressure during their lifetime is over 90% [1]. If left unchecked for a long time, high blood pressure as well as conditions such as obesity, diabetes and excess lipids (hyperlipidemia) can lead to serious illnesses such as heart disease, stroke. , kidney failure, dementia and premature death. [1]. Despite drugs that are available and effective, most patients with hypertension – or hypertension, as it is scientifically called – cannot cure it.

It’s somewhat confusing, and scientists have proposed several reasons for the phenomenon. A simple explanation is the unhealthy lifestyles including diets high in salt, fat and processed foods which are the root cause of this disease. [2]. Why they do this is more complicated, and recent research shows that food can actually affect our epigenetics and increase – or decrease blood pressure through this mechanism.

A branch of epigenetic focuses on RNA (which we’ve all heard of, thanks to Pfizer’s vaccine). There are many types of RNA, and the one Pfizer uses is messenger RNA, or mRNA. The cell’s rapid messengers are single chains of molecules known as nucleotides strung together.

They pass instructions between a gene and the cell building machinery, telling it which protein to build. Overseeing this construction work is another type of RNA known as microRNA or miRNA. Shorter than mRNAs, each miRNA can block its partner mRNA, preventing the protein from forming.

Architects of the cell, miRNAs epigenetically control what proteins are made at any given time.

A group of scientists from the University of Toledo examined the link between essential hypertension (high blood pressure of unknown medical cause), our diet, and miRNAs by reviewing previous research on the subject. [3]. Their conclusion: the impact of our diet on the expression of miRNAs in the intestine and the liver can stimulate or hinder the development of high blood pressure.

Different food groups, such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, exert different changes in the type and number of miRNAs in cells. As a result, different proteins – some of which affect blood pressure – are built.

For example, different proportions of proteins that constrict blood vessels, activate the renin-angiotensin system, and maintain the correct composition of the walls of veins and arteries will alter blood pressure levels. Diets rich in specific food groups therefore influence blood pressure levels through epigenetics.

A diet high in carbohydrates, such as a diet based on high fructose corn syrup, decreases the expression of miR-19b and miR-101a. These two miRNAs work to suppress fat deposits in the arteries. When less expressed, the levels of fat in the arteries rise and blood pressure rises.

The good news is that a high protein diet appears to protect against the development of high blood pressure, based on research so far. No studies have been conducted on the effects of proteins on blood pressure controlling miRNAs, so this remains to be discovered.

However, lipids and fatty acids combined with an inactive lifestyle can lead to hyperlipidemia-dependent changes in expressed miRNAs, causing blood vessel hyperresponsiveness and cardiac remodeling. Specifically, miR-21 is highly expressed where there is a lot of lipids, and this miRNA interferes with the positioning of smooth muscle cells as blood vessels remodel.

Of the four types of fatty acids – saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fat – only polyunsaturated fatty acids are not associated with high blood pressure. In fact, although miR-14 levels are generally low due to essential hypertension, rats fed a high-fat diet of omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids had their levels restored to normal. Hence the exciting prospect of using polyunsaturated fatty acids to treat high blood pressure activated by hyperlipidemia!

Exploring the role of miRNAs in relation to blood pressure has identified another of its potential clinical uses. As obesity is a high risk factor for essential hypertension, bariatric surgery can be used as a preventive treatment. This reduces obesity, thereby reducing the risk of developing high blood pressure. Interestingly, miRNA levels change after successful bariatric surgery resulting in weight loss (with lower body mass index, lower body fat percentage, lower blood sugar, and lower liver transaminases). Therefore, sampling and measuring a patient’s miRNAs could one day be used to diagnose whether a surgical procedure was successful or not.

We have only just begun to glimpse the role of miRNAs in diet and the complex and intricate sophistication of these processes. Other types of regulatory RNAs may also be strongly involved in the epigenetic control of blood pressure, and this is an exciting area for future research. The more we know about all the molecules playing a role in preventing or promoting the development of arterial hypertension, the easier it will be to treat.

The references:

  1. Messerli, FH, Williams, B. and Ritz, E. (2007) “Essential hypertension”, The Lancet, 370(9587), p. 591-603.
  2. The Lancet (2007) ‘Hypertension: Uncontrolled and World Conqueror’, The Lancet, 370(9587), p. 539
  3. Golonka, RM et al. (2021) “Impact of nutritional epigenetics in essential hypertension: targeting of microRNAs in the intestine-liver axis”, Curr Hypertens Rep, 23(5).


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