Here are two important statistics I’d like to share with you. First, every 45 seconds, someone in this country has a stroke. Second, as many as 80 percent of those strokes could have been prevented. Eighty percent! That is not an insignificant number, not in my book. After all, having a stroke can be seriously debilitating, not to mention lethal. And although strokes usually occur in older people, age alone does not provide much protection against an unhealthy lifestyle, as my patient Gerald learned.
Are You at Risk for a Stroke?
Preventing a stroke could involve making some lifestyle changes. For example, you may need to do the following:
- Stop smoking.
- Reduce high blood pressure.
- Limit alcohol intake to no more than two drinks per day if you’re a man, one drink if you’re a woman.
- Maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
- Control diabetes.
- Work with your doctor on regulating atrial fibrillation.
- Manage weight at healthy levels.
- Reduce inflammation.
- Become active, if you are currently sedentary.
- Consider trading synthetic hormone replacement therapy for natural alternatives.
- In addition, I would add to the list: Eat a nutritious diet of real food and drink plenty of fresh, pure water.
Now let’s look at how strokes happen and why these lifestyle changes can help protect you from devastating consequences.
What Is a Stroke?
Someone once described a stroke as “a heart attack in the brain,” and that’s actually a good description of what happens. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel supplying the brain with nutrients and oxygen either ruptures (hemorrhagic stroke) or becomes blocked by an obstruction, such as a blood clot (ischemic stroke). In either case, brain cells and tissues deprived of oxygen die and cannot be rejuvenated. About 80 percent of all strokes are ischemic; 20 percent are hemorrhagic.
Depending on the location of the brain cells and the extent of damage, the stroke could cause limited mobility, speech difficulties, or some memory loss. Roughly two-thirds of people who experience a stroke are left with a disability of some type. A small stroke, for example, might affect one leg, making walking tricky, while a larger stroke could result in full or partial paralysis and other devastating complications.
Both hemorrhagic and ischemic strokes have several things in common, including a sudden onset of symptoms. These may include:
- Dizziness or balance problems.
- Numbness on one side of the body or face.
- Weakness in a leg, arm, or hand on one side of the body.
- Loss of vision or dimness, especially in only one eye.
- Extremely painful headache.
Remember, if these symptoms occur gradually, they are most likely due to another condition. It’s when they hit suddenly — out of the blue — that a stroke is the likeliest suspect.
When stroke symptoms develop quickly, getting treatment as fast as possible is one of the most important things you can do to avoid complications. Ischemic strokes (not hemorrhagic strokes) are often treated with tPA (tissue plasminogen activator) to break up blood clots, but this remedy works best when administered as soon as possible, ideally within an hour from the onset of symptoms. For every minute a stroke is not treated, nearly 2 million nerve cells and 14 billion synapses (nerve-cell connections) are destroyed. This is why speed is of the essence in stroke treatment.
Is It a Stroke or a TIA?
A third type of event (a ministroke) is known as a TIA, or transient ischemic attack. Small blood clots or bits of cholesterol in the bloodstream can temporarily obstruct the brain’s blood vessels, preventing blood flow and interfering with brain function. When a TIA occurs, an individual may seem disoriented or unable to follow a simple conversation. He or she could also experience numbness in a limb or other stroke symptoms. However, in the case of a TIA, the blockage moves, circulation resumes, and the symptoms disappear, usually within 24 hours.
Please do not think, however, that just because the symptoms are gone, everything is fine and dandy. A TIA is a warning that a major stroke could be on the way. In addition, a TIA signals hardening of the arteries, which could also mean a heart attack is a very real possibility. If you or someone you know has a TIA-like experience, see a physician as soon as possible.
If your doctor thinks you may have had a stroke, you will most likely have a physical exam as well as blood tests. In addition, your doctor may order one or more of the following procedures:
- Carotid ultrasound to check the arteries in your neck.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan to obtain a detailed image of your brain.
- Cerebral angiogram, again to check the arteries in your neck and brain.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe blood flow and to see if any brain tissue has been damaged.
- Echocardiogram to look for blood clots in the area of your heart.
From these tests, your physician can better determine if you suffered a stroke and can formulate a treatment plan.
3 Ways You Can Identify a Stroke
According to the American Stroke Association, asking these 3 questions can help you tell whether someone is having a stroke.
- Ask the person to smile. (Look for drooping on one side of the face.)
- Ask the individual to raise both arms. (Look for weakness on one side of the body.)
- Ask him or her to repeat a simple sentence, such as “I like to read.” (Listen for slurred speech.)
If the person has difficulty responding to any of these requests, call 911 right away. Quick action can save a life or help prevent disabling brain damage. Do not wait for the person to “get better.” People who’ve had a TIA usually recover quickly, but they still need to see a physician because of their risk for a second, more serious stroke.
Supplements for Stroke Prevention
Although we tend to think of our hearts and brains as entirely separate organs, the truth is they are closely linked by their reliance on healthy circulation. As I often tell my patients, what’s good for the heart is good for the head, too. So I often recommend these heart-healthy supplements to my patients who may be at risk for a stroke.
If you are currently taking medication, please check with your pharmacist or physician before adding supplements to your daily regimen, since some could cause drug interactions.
- Curcumin, an extract of the spice turmeric, has proven value as an inflammation fighter, supported by dozens of studies. As a bonus, it also prevents blood clots, so it’s at the top of my stroke-prevention supplements list. Curcumin has virtually no side effects and no known drug interactions. Take 500 mg once daily with or following a meal.
- Garlic is an outstanding anti-stroke supplement, since it prevents clots from forming and helps lower cholesterol. Take 300 mg twice daily with meals. If you are taking blood thinners or other medication, check with your doctor first.
- Ginger is best known for its ability to fight inflammation with virtually no side effects. But it also supports healthy circulation by allowing blood vessels to relax. In addition, ginger can reduce the risk of stroke by lowering cholesterol. If you are currently on blood thinners or a daily aspirin, speak with your physician before taking ginger, since the combination may cause excessive bleeding. Otherwise, take 250 to 500 mg three times daily with food.
- Ginkgo biloba has a long history of medicinal use, especially for conditions involving the brain. Ginkgo has the ability to strengthen blood vessels as well as increase blood flow to the brain. Take 120 mg daily.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are one of my foremost recommendations for treating the conditions that make strokes possible. You can get omega-3s from fatty fish (e.g., salmon, herring, and anchovies), although I highly recommend buying only wild-caught fish and avoiding farmed fish because of the toxic chemicals they contain. If you’re not a fan of fish or if you would like a more reliable source of omega-3 fatty acids, purified or molecularly distilled omega-3s are available. My first choice is Calamarine, a purified and stable oil in capsule form. Take 1,000 mg twice daily. For vegetarians or those with seafood allergies, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil are good alternatives. I recommend one to two tablespoons of flaxseed oil daily.
- Nattokinase is a naturally occurring enzyme extracted from fermented soybeans known as natto, a popular food in Japan. Nattokinase has been used as a heart and circulatory remedy for decades. Since it is very effective at dissolving blood clots, nattokinase should not be taken by anyone who is already on blood-thinning medications. Also, if you have surgery planned, stop taking nattokinase two weeks prior. Otherwise, take 100 mg three times daily before meals.