By Catherine Shu, published on September 1, 2005 - last reviewed on May 7, 2008
Think you can't find a health food at a baseball game? Take a cue from the pros. Bypass the ice cream and foot-longs and grab a bag of sunflower seeds.
This all-American snack packs a surprisingly hefty nutritional punch. Just a handful of seeds contains 75 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E. Plus, the seeds are a good source of fiber, folic acid, and protein.
But that's not all. According to research, sunflower seeds may help lower high blood pressure, a dangerous health condition that currently afflicts one in three American adults, although many don't know it.
Spanish researchers tested a fatless sunflower seed meal in an experiment that mimicked the body's digestive process. When digested, the seed meal released bioactive peptides, or proteins, that inhibited the production of an enzyme that contributes to high blood pressure. The researchers believe that whole sunflower seeds could have the same effect.
If left untreated, high blood pressure, or hypertension, can lead to a heart attack or stroke. But before it is life threatening, studies show, it takes a hefty toll on the brain.
Hypertension is defined as a blood pressure of 140/90 mmHg or above. The first number measures the pressure of blood against artery walls when the heart beats, while the second number refers to the pressure in between beats.
High blood pressure does its damage slowly, by wearing away at the inner lining of the blood vessels. Over time, it narrows blood vessels in the brain and causes small strokes that may go by unnoticed but still cause damage. Indeed, hypertension sufferers score lower on memory and concentration tests than their healthier peers do.
Prevention is key. "There is some suggestion that the effects of hypertension may be partially reversible with treatment, but there is no evidence for complete reversibility," says Shari Waldstein, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Maryland, Baltimore County, who studies the effects of blood pressure on the brain.
In fact, some researchers believe that much of the cognitive decline that comes with aging, including forgetful "senior moments," may be due to hypertension. The effects of high blood pressure on the brain are cumulative. While cognitive effects are more pronounced in elderly adults, younger people with untreated hypertension can also suffer damage.
"The longer high blood pressure is untreated and sustained, the more damage there will be to the brain, including alteration of blood flow and structural changes," says Merrill F. Elias, a professor of epidemiology and hypertension expert at the University of Maine, Orono.
While sunflower seeds are certainly no cure for a serious disease, doctors often recommend that patients modify both their lifestyle and diet along with prescribing medication. A study sponsored by the National Lung, Heart and Blood Institute found that a diet high in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products, and low in saturated fats and cholesterol, could substantially lower blood pressure.
Sodium can also increase blood pressure. So if you do suffer from hypertension and want to add sunflower seeds to your diet, make sure they're unsalted.