By Dr. Mercola
According to the National Stroke Association, stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and is a rapidly growing health threat for middle-aged women in particular. The most common type of stroke is called "ischemic stroke," which results from an obstruction in a blood vessel supplying blood to your brain.
A number of factors are likely behind the surprising rise in strokes in women, including:
- Increasing rates of obesity (women's waists have grown by nearly two inches in the last 10 years)
- Vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sun exposure. Sun avoidance also increases your risk of vitamin D sulfate deficiency, which may be an underlying cause of arterial plaque buildup (a risk factor for stroke)
- Rising prevalence of high blood sugar levels
Strokes Typically Occur Without ANY Warning
This is why prevention is so important. You simply will not have any warning signs indicating that you're heading for a stroke in the future... And once you suffer a stroke, the damage, should you survive it, can be absolutely devastating.
I like to refer to most strokes as a brain attack, which is similar to a heart attack; the only difference is that the blood clot blocks blood flow to your brain instead of your heart. As a result, brain cells begin to die. Naturally, the longer your brain goes without oxygen, the greater your risk of lasting brain damage. This is one area where conventional emergency medicine excels, as there are emergency medications that can actually dissolve a blood clot that is blocking blood flow to your brain, and if done quickly enough can virtually reverse any permanent neurological damage.
In order to be effective, you typically need to get treated within one hour. This is clearly one of the miracles of modern science, however it all goes to waste if one does not address the underlying conditions after the stroke. However, if you notice any of these signs of stroke, you should get help right away:
- Sudden trouble walking (dizziness, loss of balance, etc.)
- Sudden confusion
- Sudden numbness or weakness (especially on one side of your body only)
- Sudden trouble seeing
- Sudden severe headache
To Prevent a Stroke, First Address Your Diet
Clearly, in the case of strokes (and most disease), prevention is your best option, and your diet plays a CRUCIAL role. (Later, I'll also discuss other lifestyle choices that can have a very significant impact, such as vitamin D.)
A recent article featured by Yahoo Health lists five different foods that have been linked to an increased risk of stroke. I agree with three of the five mentioned, and will review those below. The other two, namely red meat and salt, need some clarification as not all meats and salts are created equal. The devil is in the details, as they say, and that's definitely something to keep in mind before you banish all red meat and salt from your diet.
- Red meat—I believe it is a serious mistake to lump ALL red meats together, because the differences between meat raised in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) and organically-raised, grass-fed meats are so vast, it's like talking about two completely different foods.
Organic grass-fed beef is typically NOT associated with any of the ill health effects you see from CAFO beef, but very few researchers, let alone journalists, ever make this distinction. For more information about why grass-fed beef is actually good for you and will NOT promote disease the way CAFO beef does, please see this previous article.
- Salt—As for salt, you cannot compare the processed salt used in processed foods with natural, unrefined salt. So while I agree that steering clear of processed foods will help you reduce your stroke risk and improve your health in general, it's important to understand that you don't have to avoid ALL salt, just the processed kind (think regular table salt).
Unrefined natural salt on the other hand, such as Himalayan salt, is actually very important for a variety of biological processes, including helping the lining of your blood vessels to regulate blood pressure—clearly a beneficial effect, as opposed to a disease-promoting one. To learn more about the differences between processed and the natural unrefined salt essential for life, please review this previous article.
Trans-Fats: Known to Increase Stroke Risk
Any food containing trans fats should be avoided if you care about your health. This includes numerous processed foods, such as crackers, chips, most store-bought baked goods, and any fried foods, just to name a few examples. Trans fats are known to promote inflammation, which is a hallmark of most chronic and/or serious diseases; not just strokes and heart disease.
Women in particular would be well served to heed this advice as stroke rates are on the rise in middle-aged women, and poor dietary choices is likely a significant culprit. In one study, released last year, post-menopausal women who consumed the most daily dietary trans fat had a 30 percent higher incidence of ischemic strokes.
Please also understand that nearly all health journalists and "experts" will also lump saturated fats into this category and that would be a major mistake, as saturated fats in appropriate quantities and not damaged by heat are actually health promoting.
Beware of Smoked and Processed Meats
Certain preservatives, such as sodium nitrate and nitrite found in smoked and processed meats have been shown to damage your blood vessels, which could increase your risk of stroke. Furthermore, nitrates are frequently converted into nitrosamines, which are also clearly associated with an increased risk of certain cancers. In the most recent review of more than 7,000 studies on diet and cancer, executed by The World Cancer Research Fund, the researchers concluded that no one should eat processed meats for this reason. Hot dogs, bacon, salami and other processed meats may also:
- Increase your risk of diabetes by 50 percent
- Lower your lung function
- Increase your risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
I recommend keeping these foods to a minimum in your diet, if you choose to eat them at all. And, if you are going to eat bacon, sausage, ham or any other processed meat product once in awhile, following these guidelines will at least help minimize any risk to your health:
- Choose organic meats that are grass-fed or free-range
- Look for "uncured" varieties that contain NO nitrates
- Choose varieties that say 100% beef, 100% chicken, etc. This is the only way to know that the meat is from a single species and does not include byproducts (like chicken skin or chicken fat)
- Avoid any meat that contains MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavor or artificial color
- Ideally, purchase sausages and other processed meats from a small, local farmer who you can ask about the ingredients
Diet Soda May Dramatically Increase Your Stroke Risk
Earlier this year, research presented at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference showed that people who drink just one diet soda a day may increase their risk of stroke by 48 percent!
According to the authors:
"This study suggests that diet soda is not an optimal substitute for sugar-sweetened beverages, and may be associated with a greater risk of stroke, myocardial infarction, or vascular death than regular soda."
While more research will likely be needed to confirm this potential link, there's plenty of evidence showing that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose (Splenda) can be dangerous to your health. I believe aspartame is, by far, the most dangerous artificial sweetener on the market. Reports of adverse reactions to the US FDA also support this, as aspartame accounts for over 75 percent of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA.
How Vitamin D Deficiency Increases Your Stroke Risk
According to research presented at the American Heart Association's (AHA) Annual Scientific Sessions in Chicago, IL in November last year, low levels of vitamin D—the essential nutrient obtained from exposure to sunlight—doubles the risk of stroke in Caucasians.
Vitamin D is the only known substrate for a potent pleiotropic (meaning it produces multiple effects) repair and maintenance seco-steroid hormone that serves multiple gene-regulatory functions in your body. This is why the health benefits of vitamin D run the gamut from improved immune function to significantly reduced cancer risk, to improved mercury detoxification...
It essentially works as a "master key" to activate the DNA "library" within each cell in your body. This cellular DNA library contains information needed to address virtually every kind of stimulus the cell may encounter; hence the reason why vitamin D works in so many different tissues, and affects such a large number of different diseases and health conditions. So far, scientists have found about 3,000 genes that are upregulated by vitamin D.
Not only is vitamin D deficiency known to increase your risk of arterial stiffness, a major risk factor for stroke, but it can also:
Other Stroke-Prevention Guidelines
It's important to realize that the vast majority—up to 80 percent, according to the National Stroke Association—of strokes are preventable, so you have a lot of "say" in whether or not you're going to become a statistic here.
So, besides avoiding processed foods (especially smoked and processed meats) and diet sodas, and making sure your vitamin D levels are within the therapeutic range, what else can help lower your stroke risk? Conventionally speaking, many of the same risk factors that increase your risk of heart disease also increase your risk of stroke, and these include factors like:
- High blood pressure
- High triglycerides and elevated homocysteine levels
- Low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol
So, as with your heart, eating unprocessed, preferably organic, foods, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight will help to reduce your risk of stroke. Two additional risk factors that can have a direct impact on your stroke risk are:
- Psychological distress. According to a 2008 study published in the journal Neurology, the more stressed you are, the greater your risk. The researchers actually found that for every notch lower a person scored on their well-being scale, their risk of stroke increased by 11 percent. Not surprisingly, the relationship between psychological distress and stroke was most pronounced when the stroke was fatal.
- Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and birth control pills. If you're on one of the hormonal birth control methods (whether it's the pill, patch, vaginal ring or implant), it is important to understand that you are taking synthetic progesterone and synthetic estrogen -- something that is clearly not advantageous if you want to maintain optimal health. These contraceptives contain the same synthetic hormones as those used in hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which has well-documented risks, including an increased risk of blood clots, stroke, heart attack, and breast cancer.
Lastly, it may be worth mentioning that vitamin B3, or niacin, may help improve neurological function directly AFTER a stroke. When rats with ischemic stroke were given niacin, their brains showed growth of new blood vessels, and sprouting of nerve cells which greatly improved neurological outcome. While this likely needs to be studied further, it serves as yet another potent example of how nutrition is at the heart of all healing mechanisms in your body, even when it comes to something as serious as a stroke.
But the unquestionable treatment of chioce for acute stroke rehabilitation would be hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). Research has shown that HBOT helps your body produce and mobilize mesenchymal stem cells, which play a critical role in your body's attempt to repair any injured tissues or cells. For more information, please review www.strokedoctor.com.