Share this article on:

Belly fat and resistant hypertension

Jordan, Jensa; Grassi, Guidob

doi: 10.1097/HJH.0b013e328339b8d9
Editorial commentaries

aInstitute of Clinical Pharmacology, Hannover Medical School, Hannover, Germany

bClinica Medica, University of Milano-Bicocca, Ospedale San Gerardo, Monza, Milan, Italy

Correspondence to Jens Jordan, MD, Institute of Clinical Pharmacology, Hannover Medical School, Carl-Neuberg-Strasse 1, 30625 Hannover, Germany E-mail:

Basic and clinical hypertension research has substantially improved our understanding on the mechanisms mediating arterial hypertension and associated organ damage. Yet, in many hypertensive patients, blood pressure is not sufficiently controlled [1]. In some patients, blood pressure is simply not measured. In others, blood pressure is assessed, but suitable antihypertensive medications are not prescribed. However, even in the setting of clinical trials conducted by hypertension specialists, a relatively large proportion of the patients are treatment-resistant [2]. Treatment-resistant arterial hypertension is commonly defined as blood pressure above the target of 140/90 mmHg or lower in high-risk population on at least three antihypertensive drugs of different classes. All these medications should be given in full doses and one medication should be a diuretic [3,4]. Given the large number of patients characterized by drug-resistant hypertension, the small number of mechanistic, epidemiological, and clinical studies dealing with the issue is surprising. In fact, the exact prevalence of treatment-resistant hypertension and its impact on cardiovascular morbidity and mortality are unknown. One study compared cardiac and extracardiac organ damage between patients with resistant hypertension and well matched patients with satisfactory blood pressure control [5]. Patients with resistant hypertension showed more left ventricular hypertrophy, carotid intima–media thickening and plaques, urinary albumin excretion, and hypertensive retinopathy compared with controlled patients [5]. Whether and to what extent drug-resistant hypertension is characterized by a neurohumoral and sympathetic activation greater in magnitude than that seen in patients not resistant to antihypertensive drugs is only partially defined, however.

Obesity predisposes to treatment-resistant arterial hypertension. Epidemiological studies suggest that 60–70% of hypertension may be directly attributable to excess adiposity, both in women and in men [6]. The age-adjusted relative risk for the development of hypertension was 1.75 in men and 1.46 in women [7]. Regression models corrected for the age-related rise in blood pressure demonstrated an increase in systolic blood pressure of 1 mmHg for a gain of 1.7 kg/m2 and 4.5 cm (men), or 1.3 kg/m2 and 2.5 cm (women) in BMI or waist circumference, respectively [8]. Moreover, in a primary care setting the odds ratio for achieving blood pressure values less than 140/90 mmHg in diagnosed and treated hypertensive patients was 0.8 in overweight patients, 0.6 in grade 1, 0.5 in grade 2, and 0.7 in grade 3 obese patients [9]. Hypertensive participants of the Framingham Heart Study were less likely to be controlled to a blood pressure less than 140/90 mmHg when they were older, had left ventricular hypertrophy, or they were obese [10]. Similarly, obesity was an important predictor for treatment failure in the Antihypertensive and Lipid-Lowering Treatment to Prevent Heart Attack Trial (ALLHAT) study [11]. However, in terms of blood pressure control fat and fat may not be the same.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Visceral adiposity and drug-resistant hypertension

Earlier studies using abdominal computed tomography to quantify subcutaneous and visceral adipose tissue suggested that visceral abdominal fat is an independent predictor for arterial hypertension [12]. In this issue of the Journal, Ishikawa et al. [13] present data on a study relating visceral adipose tissue to difficult to treat arterial hypertension in men but not in women. The authors determined subcutaneous and visceral abdominal adipose tissue through computed tomography in 572 hypertensive men on stable antihypertensive medications participating in the Japanese Morning Surge – Home Blood Pressure (J-HOP) study. Then, they calculated the ratio between visceral and subcutaneous adipose tissue. The authors defined difficult to treat hypertension as when the patient had an office blood pressure more than 140/90 mmHg on three antihypertensive drugs regardless of diuretic use and resistant hypertension, when one of the drugs was a diuretic. Compared with women, men were almost three times more likely having difficult to treat hypertension and more than twofold more likely to have resistant hypertension. Remarkably, BMI was similar in controlled patients and in patients with difficult to treat arterial hypertension. Yet, the visceral to subcutaneous adipose tissue ratio was significantly increased in difficult to treat men and tended to do so in difficult to treat women. When the analysis was restricted to patients with resistant hypertension the relationship disappeared.

The observation that diuretic use may attenuate the relationship between visceral adiposity and hypertension control is important, both from a scientific and from a clinical point of view. In particular, the study by Ishikawa et al. [13] further supports the idea that volume expansion is a crucial mechanism in the pathogenesis of difficult to treat or resistant hypertension. An earlier study in 279 consecutive patients with drug-resistant hypertension showed excessive aldosterone and natriuretic peptide levels compared with control individuals [14]. The increase in natriuretic peptides may have been secondary to volume expansion. Obesity-associated arterial hypertension in general involves renin–angiotensin system activation [15,16], volume expansion, and raised cardiac output [17–19] rather than vasoconstriction. Pharmacological studies and direct sympathetic nerve recordings suggest involvement of the sympathetic nervous system [20–22]. Indeed, obese hypertensive patients exhibit an increase in renal and in cardiac sympathetic activity [23]. Baroreflex dysfunction and the sleep apnea syndrome may contribute to sympathetic overactivity in this setting [22,24]. Furthermore, adipose tissue may directly be involved because it expresses all the components of the renin–angiotensin system [16,25] and may produce substances directly stimulating aldosterone release [26]. Excessive aldosterone release is also an important mechanism predisposing to resistant hypertension [27]. In addition to an activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the renin–angiotensin system, structural kidney changes described in animal models of obesity may also promote sodium retention [28].

Overall, the literature suggests that visceral adiposity makes the control of arterial hypertension more difficult. Moreover, visceral adiposity is one of the leading features of the metabolic syndrome. Given the relatively high-added metabolic and cardiovascular risk, current guidelines suggest that patients fulfilling metabolic syndrome criteria should be treated more aggressively [4]. However, current treatment recommendations and clinical trials give little guidance on how to achieve this goal considering that many patients do not respond to first line antihypertensive therapies. The idea that blood pressure could be cured through weight loss is appealing. Unfortunately, many patients are unable to attain long-term reductions in adiposity through life style interventions. Short-term studies may overestimate the long-term effect of weight loss on blood pressure. Finally, weight-loss studies focusing on blood pressure control are rare. The issue has been recently reviewed in a contribution by the European Society of Hypertension Working Group on Obesity in this Journal [29].

A recent study examined influences of dietary salt restriction on office and 24-h ambulatory blood pressure in individuals with resistant hypertension [30]. In this study, 12 patients were randomized to low (50 mmol/day) or high-sodium (250 mmol/day) diets for 7 days each in a crossover fashion. The low-sodium diet lowered office blood pressure 23/9 mmHg, which can hardly be achieved with a single antihypertensive drug. In another study, mineralocorticoid receptor inhibition with spironolactone decreased blood pressure in patients with resistant hypertension, especially in those with abdominal obesity and lower arterial stiffness [31]. The authors suggested that spironolactone is a useful fourth or fifth antihypertensive drug. Newer drugs, such as the direct renin inhibitor alsikiren, which has been tested in obese hypertensives [32], or the endothelin receptor antagonist darusentan, which has been tested in resistant hypertension [33] could emerge as suitable add-on therapies in patients with treatment-resistant hypertension. Finally, device-based treatments may prove useful in patients not responding to antihypertensive pharmacotherapy. One approach that is currently being tested in clinical trials is electrical carotid baroreceptor stimulation, which lowers blood pressure through sympathetic inhibition [34,35]. Another promising approach for the treatment of resistant hypertension is catheter-based renal denervation, which appears to elicit its depressor response through interruption of efferent sympathetic and afferent renal nerve traffic [36,37].

Visceral adiposity appears to be an important risk factor for difficult to treat or truly resistant arterial hypertension. Volume expansion and neurohumoral mechanisms are involved. Many patients are affected and continue to be exposed to an unacceptable cardiovascular risk. Yet, the issue is not sufficiently recognized and studied by the scientific community. Moreover, drug companies are not inclined to testing drugs in this ‘niche’ indication. The large number of patients in this ‘niche’ deserves better treatments.

Back to Top | Article Outline


1 Wolf-Maier K, Cooper RS, Kramer H, Banegas JR, Giampaoli S, Joffres MR, et al. Hypertension treatment and control in five European countries, Canada, and the United States. Hypertension 2004; 43:10–17.
2 Major outcomes in high-risk hypertensive patients randomized to angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor or calcium channel blocker vs. diuretic: The Antihypertensive and Lipid-Lowering Treatment to Prevent Heart Attack Trial (ALLHAT). JAMA 2002; 288:2981–2997.
3 Calhoun DA, Jones D, Textor S, Goff DC, Murphy TP, Toto RD, et al. Resistant hypertension: diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association Professional Education Committee of the Council for High Blood Pressure Research. Hypertension 2008; 51:1403–1419.
4 Mancia G, De Backer G, Dominiczak A, Cifkova R, Fagard R, Germano G, et al. 2007 Guidelines for the Management of Arterial Hypertension: The Task Force for the Management of Arterial Hypertension of the European Society of Hypertension (ESH) and of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC). J Hypertens 2007; 25:1105–1187.
5 Cuspidi C, Macca G, Sampieri L, Michev I, Salerno M, Fusi V, et al. High prevalence of cardiac and extracardiac target organ damage in refractory hypertension. J Hypertens 2001; 19:2063–2070.
6 Must A, Spadano J, Coakley EH, Field AE, Colditz G, Dietz WH. The disease burden associated with overweight and obesity. JAMA 1999; 282:1523–1529.
7 Wilson PW, D'Agostino RB, Sullivan L, Parise H, Kannel WB. Overweight and obesity as determinants of cardiovascular risk: the Framingham experience. Arch Intern Med 2002; 162:1867–1872.
8 Doll S, Paccaud F, Bovet P, Burnier M, Wietlisbach V. Body mass index, abdominal adiposity and blood pressure: consistency of their association across developing and developed countries. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2002; 26:48–57.
9 Bramlage P, Pittrow D, Wittchen HU, Kirch W, Boehler S, Lehnert H, et al. Hypertension in overweight and obese primary care patients is highly prevalent and poorly controlled. Am J Hypertens 2004; 17:904–910.
10 Lloyd-Jones DM, Evans JC, Larson MG, O'donnell CJ, Roccella EJ, Levy D. Differential control of systolic and diastolic blood pressure: factors associated with lack of blood pressure control in the community. Hypertension 2000; 36:594–599.
11 Cushman WC, Ford CE, Cutler JA, Margolis KL, Davis BR, Grimm RH, et al. Success and predictors of blood pressure control in diverse North American settings: the antihypertensive and lipid-lowering treatment to prevent heart attack trial (ALLHAT). J Clin Hypertens 2002; 4:393–404.
12 Fox CS, Massaro JM, Hoffmann U, Pou KM, Maurovich-Horvat P, Liu CY, et al. Abdominal visceral and subcutaneous adipose tissue compartments: association with metabolic risk factors in the Framingham Heart Study. Circulation 2007; 116:39–48.
13 Ishikawa J, Haimoto H, Hoshide S, Eguchi K, Shimada K, Kario K. An increased visceral/subcutaneous adipose tissue ratio is associated with difficult-to-treat hypertension in men. J Hypertens 2010; 28:1340–1346.
14 Gaddam KK, Nishizaka MK, Pratt-Ubunama MN, Pimenta E, Aban I, Oparil S, et al. Characterization of resistant hypertension: association between resistant hypertension, aldosterone, and persistent intravascular volume expansion. Arch Intern Med 2008; 168:1159–1164.
15 Tuck ML, Sowers J, Dornfeld L, Kledzik G, Maxwell M. The effect of weight reduction on blood pressure, plasma renin activity, and plasma aldosterone levels in obese patients. N Engl J Med 1981; 304:930–933.
16 Engeli S, Bohnke J, Gorzelniak K, Janke J, Schling P, Bader M, et al. Weight loss and the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system. Hypertension 2005; 45:356–362.
17 Strazzullo P, Barba G, Cappuccio FP, Siani A, Trevisan M, Farinaro E, et al. Altered renal sodium handling in men with abdominal adiposity: a link to hypertension. J Hypertens 2001; 19:2157–2164.
18 Messerli FH, Christie B, DeCarvalho JG, Aristimuno GG, Suarez DH, Dreslinski GR, et al. Obesity and essential hypertension. Hemodynamics, intravascular volume, sodium excretion, and plasma renin activity. Arch Intern Med 1981; 141:81–85.
19 Stelfox HT, Ahmed SB, Ribeiro RA, Gettings EM, Pomerantsev E, Schmidt U. Hemodynamic monitoring in obese patients: the impact of body mass index on cardiac output and stroke volume. Crit Care Med 2006; 34:1243–1246.
20 Shibao C, Gamboa A, Diedrich A, Ertl AC, Chen KY, Byrne DW, et al. Autonomic contribution to blood pressure and metabolism in obesity. Hypertension 2007; 49:27–33.
21 Wofford MR, Anderson DC Jr, Brown CA, Jones DW, Miller ME, Hall JE. Antihypertensive effect of alpha- and beta-adrenergic blockade in obese and lean hypertensive subjects. Am J Hypertens 2001; 14:694–698.
22 Grassi G, Seravalle G, Dell'Oro R, Turri C, Bolla GB, Mancia G. Adrenergic and reflex abnormalities in obesity-related hypertension. Hypertension 2000; 36:538–542.
23 Rumantir MS, Vaz M, Jennings GL, Collier G, Kaye DM, Seals DR, et al. Neural mechanisms in human obesity-related hypertension. J Hypertens 1999; 17:1125–1133.
24 Narkiewicz K, van de Borne PJH, Cooley RL, Dyken ME, Somers VK. Sympathetic activity in obese subjects with and without obstructive sleep apnea. Circulation 1998; 98:772–776.
25 Gorzelniak K, Engeli S, Janke J, Luft FC, Sharma AM. Hormonal regulation of the human adipose-tissue renin-angiotensin system: relationship to obesity and hypertension. J Hypertens 2002; 20:965–973.
26 Ehrhart-Bornstein M, Lamounier-Zepter V, Schraven A, Langenbach J, Willenberg HS, Barthel A, et al. Human adipocytes secrete mineralocorticoid-releasing factors. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2003; 100:14211–14216.
27 Goodfriend TL, Calhoun DA. Resistant hypertension, obesity, sleep apnea, and aldosterone: theory and therapy. Hypertension 2004; 43:518–524.
28 Hall JE. The kidney, hypertension, and obesity. Hypertension 2003; 41:625–633.
29 Straznicky N, Grassi G, Esler M, Lambert G, Dixon J, Lambert E, et al. European Society of Hypertension Working Group on Obesity antihypertensive effects of weight loss: myth or reality? J Hypertens 2010. [Epub ahead of print]
30 Pimenta E, Gaddam KK, Oparil S, Aban I, Husain S, Dell'Italia LJ, et al. Effects of dietary sodium reduction on blood pressure in subjects with resistant hypertension: results from a randomized trial. Hypertension 2009; 54:475–481.
31 de Souza F, Muxfeldt E, Fiszman R, Salles G. Efficacy of spironolactone therapy in patients with true resistant hypertension. Hypertension 2010; 55:147–152.
32 Jordan J, Engeli S, Boye SW, Le BS, Keefe DL. Direct renin inhibition with aliskiren in obese patients with arterial hypertension. Hypertension 2007; 49:1047–1055.
33 Weber MA, Black H, Bakris G, Krum H, Linas S, Weiss R, et al. A selective endothelin-receptor antagonist to reduce blood pressure in patients with treatment-resistant hypertension: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet 2009; 374:1423–1431.
34 Mancia G, Parati G, Zanchetti A. Electrical carotid baroreceptor stimulation in resistant hypertension. Hypertension 2010; 55:607–609.
35 Heusser K, Tank J, Engeli S, Diedrich A, Menne J, Eckert S, et al. Carotid baroreceptor stimulation, sympathetic activity, baroreflex function, and blood pressure in hypertensive patients. Hypertension 2010; 55:619–626.
36 Schlaich MP, Sobotka PA, Krum H, Lambert E, Esler MD. Renal sympathetic-nerve ablation for uncontrolled hypertension. N Engl J Med 2009; 361:932–934.
37 Krum H, Schlaich M, Whitbourn R, Sobotka PA, Sadowski J, Bartus K, et al. Catheter-based renal sympathetic denervation for resistant hypertension: a multicentre safety and proof-of-principle cohort study. Lancet 2009; 373:1275–1281.
© 2010 Wolters Kluwer Health | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins