Harvard Health Letter

Betting on beta blockers

They're versatile and have a long track record. But should you count on a beta blocker to treat your high blood pressure?

Beta blockers — also known as beta-adrenergic blockers or beta antagonists — are among the oldest heart medicines. Propranolol (Inderal), the first drug in the class, was developed in the late 1950s. Many others have come along since, including atenolol (Tenormin), bisoprolol (Zebeta), and metoprolol (Lopressor, Toprol XL). If you're not sure whether a drug is a beta blocker, check its generic name. All the beta blockers end in -lol.

The heart is regulated by the autonomic (think "automatic") part of the nervous system, which controls involuntary muscle action. Adrenaline (also called epinephrine) and a similar chemical called norepinephrine play an important role in the autonomic system by acting on specific receptors — namely, beta receptors. When adrenaline attaches to those receptors on heart muscle cells, the heart beats faster and more forcefully — tending to raise blood pressure.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »