Omega-3 Stroke Prevention and Healing
Every year, an estimated 800,000 Americans suffer a stroke, and about 160,000 of them die from it. In fact, stroke is the third leading cause of death in the US.
Strokes are devastating, not only to the patient but also to the patient’s family and caregivers. They rob individuals of their independence and are a top cause of disability.
But there is a bit of good news. We know what causes stroke and what puts you at increased risk. As a result, we know how you can prevent them. And research is finding that one of my top supplement recommendations—omega-3 fatty acids—plays a key role in stroke prevention. To understand how omega-3s can benefit, it helps to know what happens in the body and brain when a stroke occurs.
What Is a Stroke?
Strokes are sometimes called “brain attacks.” Similar to a heart attack, they occur when circulation to the brain fails, causing brain cells to die from lack of oxygen.
There are two general categories of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes account for about 80 percent of strokes. They are caused by a blockage of blood flow due to a blood clot in the brain or neck (thrombosis); a clot traveling to the brain from another part of the body (embolism); or the narrowing of an artery in or leading to the brain (stenosis).
Hemorrhagic strokes are more rare. They’re caused by bleeding in the brain.
Here are the controllable factors that can dramatically increase risk of stroke:
- High blood pressure is the most serious risk factor. It weakens and damages the blood vessels in the brain, and can cause clots in the arteries that lead to the brain.
- Heart disease. Several heart and blood vessel disorders, most notably atherosclerosis, increase the likelihood that blood clots may break loose and travel to the brain.
- This condition causes unfavorable changes in blood vessels throughout the body, including the brain.
- History of stroke. If you’ve suffered one stroke, chances are higher than you could have another. Second strokes are often much worse than the first.
- This terrible habit raises the risk of practically every deadly disease, including stroke. Cigarette smoking specifically leads to harmful buildup in the carotid artery in the neck, which supplies blood to the brain.
How Omega-3s Help
There are a few forms of omega-3s, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
DHA is critical for brain development and function. Especially the older we get, DHA protects the brain by helping to prevent cognitive decline and diseases like Alzheimer’s.
EPA, on the other hand, is the more potent anti-inflammatory. Inflammation damages blood vessels, which eventually leads to heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes. But omega-3s, and especially EPA, douses the inflammation that’s at the center of all these diseases.
Countless research studies have found that a diet rich in omega-3s can reduce cardiovascular risk factors, including atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, LDL (bad) cholesterol, triglycerides, and irregular heartbeat.
EPA happens to be an excellent anti-clotting compound as well. Blood platelets are responsible for clotting, which can eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke. EPA reduces platelet “stickiness”, which occurs just before clots form.
So, by mitigating all of these dangerous factors with omega-3 supplementation, you automatically lower your risk of stroke.
Omega-3s and Stroke Prevention
A good deal of research has looked into the power of omega-3 fatty acids to prevent strokes.
One study looked at blood levels of omega-3s and risk of ischemic stroke from thrombosis and embolism. The researchers measured omega-3s in people who took part in the Cardiovascular Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study, and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.
At follow-up 8–11 years later, a total of 953 ischemic strokes were identified (408 from thrombosis, 256 from embolism, and 289 were undetermined cause). They found that higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA were inversely associated with stroke due to thrombosis, and higher levels of the fatty acid DPA was linked with lower risk of stroke due to embolism. (DPA is structurally similar to EPA.)
And in a meta-analysis of 794,000 people and 34,817 confirmed strokes, researchers looked at fish intake and risk of stroke. (As you probably know, certain fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are excellent sources of omega-3s.) Those who ate two to four servings of fish per week had the greatest protection from stroke.
Omega-3s and Stroke Recovery
That’s not all. Even if, despite your best prevention efforts, you do still have a stroke, research has shown that high levels of omega-3s help in stroke recovery—both immediate and long term.
In preliminary research published in 2010, researchers discovered that the omega-3 DHA given within five hours following an ischemic stroke had significant neuroprotective effects.
The researchers gave rats either DHA or saline right after suffering a stroke. MRIs indicated that the volume of area in the brain destroyed was cut by about 40% at three hours of DHA administration; 66% at four hours, and 59% at five hours. The DHA appeared to trigger the production of a protective molecule called neuroprotectin D1.
A later study showed similar results. In that one, the researchers showed that brain damage after a stroke was cut by 25% in mice that took omega-3s every day for three months. The researchers discovered that omega-3 supplementation reduced inflammation and prevented the death of brain cells.
Start Taking Omega-3s Today
For all these benefits and more, omega-3 fatty acids are on my list of supplements you should take daily. For general health and prevention, I recommend 1,000–3,000 mg of the omega-3s EPA and DHA per day.
Be careful when you read labels—1000 mg of fish oil is not the same as 1000 mg of omega-3s. Make sure the combined EPA and DHA content equal at least 1000 mg or more.
- Saber H, et al. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Incident Ischemic Stroke and Its Atherothrombotic and Cardioembolic Subtypes in 3 US Cohorts. Stroke. 2017 Oct;48(10):2678-85. Last accessed May 10, 2018.
- Chowdhury R, et al. Association between fish consumption, long chain omega-3 fatty acids, and risk of cerebrovascular disease: systematic review and meta-analysis. 2012;345:e6698. Last accessed May 10, 2018.
- Belavev L, et al. Docosahexaenoic acid therapy of experimental ischemic stroke. Transl Stroke Res. 2011 Mar;2(1):33-41. Last accessed May 10, 2018.
- Omega-3s reduce stroke severity. Universite Laval press release. August 25, 2011. Last accessed May 10, 2018.