By Dr. Mercola
Strokes, or “brain attacks,” are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, as well as a leading cause of disability in adults.1
The most common type of stroke is called "ischemic stroke," which is a devastating interruption of the brain’s oxygen supply resulting from an obstruction in a blood vessel (such as a blood clot) supplying blood to your brain.
When your brain is deprived of blood flow and oxygen, even for only a few minutes, brain cells begin to die, leading to varying degrees of brain damage or death.
It’s estimated that more than two-thirds of stroke survivors have some type of disability as a result, which can range from weakness in an arm or leg to losing the ability to speak or becoming paralyzed on one side.
New research has shown, however, that you can vastly improve your health after a stroke simply by getting regular exercise.
Exercise Should be a Regular Part of Your Life if You’ve Had a Stroke
Canadian researchers found that stroke patients who exercised were able to improve problems with their memory, thinking, language and judgment by close to 50 percent in just six months.2
Some of the exercises were modified for stroke patients and were designed to mimic everyday activities like walking or squatting. Impressive benefits were seen all around, including:
- A reduction in the number of those suffering from at least mild cognitive impairment (from 66 percent down to 37 percent)
- Notable improvements in attention, concentration, planning and organizing
- Improvements in muscle strength and walking
There are about 7 million stroke survivors in the United States.3 If you are one of them – or know someone who is – please be sure to take this valuable information to heart, and share it with those who can benefit. The study's lead researcher,
Susan Marzolini, noted:4
"These results provide compelling evidence that by improving cardiovascular fitness through aerobic exercise and increasing muscle mass with resistance training, people with stroke can improve brain health... Modified exercise programs are desperately needed. They can be adapted for people following stroke, and we think they can provide huge health benefits."
Acting FAST is Crucial if a Stroke Occurs
When a stroke occurs, 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, but again it depends on you recognizing the signs of stroke and getting medical help immediately. The National Stroke Association recommends using the FAST acronym to help remember the warning signs of stroke:5
F = FACE: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
A = ARMS: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S = SPEECH: Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Does the speech sound slurred or strange?
T = TIME: If you observe any of these signs (independently or together), call 911 immediately.
Other signs of stroke indicating you should get help right away include:
- 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
Stroke Prevention 101: Up to 80 Percent of Strokes are Preventable
Once a stroke occurs, all you can do is get medical help immediately, and then begin the long rehabilitation process (which should include exercise, as noted above). A far better option is to do all you can to lower your stroke risk now, as up to 80 percent of strokes are preventable.6
Your diet is clearly important here, which is why I recommend you review my free nutrition plan for comprehensive guidelines on what to eat to stay healthy. 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
- Smoking and excess alcohol intake
In terms of stroke prevention, specifically, you’ll want to be sure to avoid:
- High insulin and leptin levels. Ultimately this is what drives arterial plaque, disturbed signaling between insulin, leptin and their receptors. One of the best ways you can improve this critical point is to minimize your carbs to mostly high-fiber vegetables, eat about 1 gram of protein per 1 kilogram of LEAN body mass per day (much lower than most people eat) and have high-quality fats (no omega-6 oils) and do Peak Fitness exercises.
- Synthetic Trans Fats: These are common in foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, 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 2010 study, post-menopausal women who consumed the most daily synthetic trans fat had a 30 percent higher incidence of ischemic strokes.7
- Smoked and Processed Foods: 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.
- Diet Soda: People who drink diet soft drinks daily may be 43 percent more likely to suffer from a vascular event, including a stroke or heart attack.8
Other Avoidable Stroke Risk Factors
If you want to decrease your risk of stroke, it’s important to get a healthy dose of sunshine. A research team used NASA satellite data to determine how sunlight corresponded with stroke risk, and found that people who got less than the midpoint level of sun exposure were at a 60 percent increased risk for stroke.9
The connection is most likely due to the "sunshine vitamin," vitamin D, which is produced when your body is exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D has been associated with a lower risk of stroke and heart attack risk in previous research. You can find more information to optimize your vitamin D levels here. Just remember to make sure you are getting enough vitamin K2, which works synergistically with vitamin D.
Three additional risk factors that can have a direct impact on your stroke risk are:
- Optimize Vitamin K2. This vitamin is crucial to stimulate matrix GLA protein, which will prevent calcification of your arteries and help place the calcium in the bones where it belongs. Vitamin D will also help work synergistically with the vitamin K2.
- Psychological distress. According to a 2008 study published in the journal Neurology,10 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. 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.
Other Than Exercise, What Can Help Stroke Patients’ Rehabilitation?
Exercise is, again, a definite must. But it’s worth noting 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. There is also preclinical research on omega-3 fatty acids, curcumin resveratrol and the organosulfur compound found in Cruciferous vegetables known as sulforaphane being of value in post-stroke recovery.11
Another chioce for acute stroke rehabilitation is 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.12