A. See if you can guess the answer to this word puzzle:
Gas is to car as ____ is to brain.
Give up? The answer is blood. Your car can’t run without gas, and your brain can’t “run” without blood. Deprive the brain of blood for even a short time and you’re looking at something called a stroke.
Stroke is the fourth-leading cause of death in America, and a leading cause of adult disability. And up to 80 percent of strokes are preventable. But before we talk about some strategies for preventing strokes, let’s talk for a minute about what they actually are. A stroke—also sometimes called a “brain attack”—happens when a blood clot blocks an artery, or a blood vessel breaks, interrupting blood flow to an area of the brain. Brain cells die and brain damage is just around the corner.
Inability to move your arms or other limbs, and speech or vision impairment are often side effects of a stroke. Brain damage or even death may also occur. Some people recover completely—but more than two-thirds of survivors will have some type of disability.
Now, certain things are beyond our control—age and genetics, for example. But many variables that increase stroke risk are within our control. Controlling stress levels, for example. Regular exercise, not smoking, and a good seven hours of sleep each night all help reduce your stroke risk. So does consuming four cups of black tea per day.
And so do these seven dietary strategies.
1. Get Your B Vitamins
Homocysteine is an inflammatory amino acid that’s a by-product of natural metabolism. In excess, it causes your body to lay down sticky platelets in blood vessels. You need some homocysteine, but excess amounts contribute to atherosclerosis, reduce the flexibility of blood vessels, and make platelets stickier, thus slowing blood flow. Not surprisingly, there’s a direct correlation between high blood levels of homocysteine and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Fortunately, homocysteine levels can be managed by getting enough of three key nutrients, all of them in the B-vitamin family: folic acid, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. Look for a multivitamin or B-complex supplement that provides:
- 400 to 800 mcg of folic acid
- 400 to 1,000 mcg of B12
- 5 to 20 mg of B6
2. Eat an Antioxidant-Rich Diet
One study found Swedish women who ate an antioxidant-rich diet had fewer strokes regardless of whether or not they had a previous history of cardiovascular disease.
“Eating antioxidant-rich foods may reduce your risk of stroke by inhibiting oxidative stress and inflammation,” says Susanne Rautiainen, MSc, the study’s first author and a PhD student at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. “This means people should eat more foods such as fruits and vegetables that contribute to total antioxidant capacity.”
I couldn’t agree more. To reduce stroke risk, eat a colorful array of fruits and vegetables. Cherries, for example, can help lower pain, inflammation, and stroke risk.
3. Indulge Smartly
If “eat your vegetables” doesn’t sound like an exciting prescription for stroke prevention, I’ve got something even better: chocolate. Numerous studies confirm plant chemicals in cocoa-rich dark chocolate called flavanols can lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation, both key components to lower stroke risk.
One study found high levels of chocolate consumption are associated with a one-third reduction in the risk of developing heart disease. The highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a 37 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29 percent reduction in stroke when compared to the lowest levels.
You want to look for a bar with at least 70 percent cacao and low amounts of sugar. And easy does it: Most studies have shown that the benefits accrue with just a square or two a day.
As far as stroke and alcohol go, it’s simple: If you don’t drink now, don’t start. But if you do drink, stick with red wine. One study found resveratrol, the potent polyphenol in red wine, could improve blood flow to the brain by 30 percent and reduce your risk for stroke.
4. Cut the Trans Fat
Unlike saturated fats from whole foods such as butter, coconut oil, or grass-fed meat, trans fats, found in vegetable oils and packaged foods, increase the risk for heart disease and stroke. If you stick with unprocessed, whole foods you’ll virtually eliminate trans fats from your diet.
Note: Don’t trust the “no trans fat” designation! Through a loophole in the regulations, manufacturers can include up to ½ gram of trans fat per serving in foods and still call it a “zero” trans fat food. Serving sizes on the packages are often unrealistically small (e.g., serving size: one-half cookie), so you could easily be consuming a couple grams per normal serving of a food marked “no trans fats.” Read the labels—if the ingredients list includes “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” oils, the product’s got trans fats, period.
5. Dump the Sugar
Sugar isn’t doing you any favors, and could increase your stroke risk. One study concluded that people who drank sugary soft drinks had a higher risk for stroke than those who didn’t. Meanwhile, folks who drank coffee (caffeinated or not) had a decreased stroke risk.
If you do have a stroke, eating sugar could make things worse. One study found folks with high blood sugar have a higher chance of dying from a stroke than those with normal blood sugar levels. High blood sugar also raises your blood pressure (another risk factor for stroke) and elevates your hormone insulin, potentially leading to insulin resistance.
The collection of diseases strongly influenced by insulin resistance has been given the acronym CHAOS: coronary disease, hypertension, adult onset diabetes, obesity, and stroke. What they all have in common is insulin resistance. So if you have any degree of insulin resistance, controlling your insulin by dietary means may be one of the most effective strategies for reducing stroke risk. And what’s the No. 1 way to control insulin levels? Cut sugar and carbohydrates from your diet.
6. Get an Oil Change
The American diet contains far too many omega-6 fatty acids and far too few omega-3 fats, an imbalance that contributes to inflammation and numerous other health problems. Inflammation contributes to nearly every disease on the planet, including stroke.
Innocuous as they sound, vegetable oils are our main source of those omega 6s. Fortunately, a simple oil change can improve your essential fatty acid profile.
I’m a big coconut oil fan. But there’s another oil that also stands up to high heat and that’s full of important antioxidants. It’s called red palm fruit oil, and in my opinion the best kind comes from Malaysia. Malaysian palm fruit oil is always sustainable and non-GMO. It contains beta-carotene, which benefits vision (and is responsible for the oil’s striking red color). It also contains tocotrienols, a type of vitamin E that may help protect the brain from stroke damage.
7. Increase Your Intake of Omega 3s
Coupled with plenty of leafy and cruciferous greens and other whole foods, eating wild-caught fish at least three times a week is your best anti-inflammatory defense against stroke and numerous other issues. If you aren’t a regular fish eater, take a daily essential fatty acids formula that contains a minimum of 1,000 mg of combined EPA and DHA.
A lesser-studied essential fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid (ALA), also provides anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s a plant-based omega-3 and it’s found in flax, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp products. One review of the literature points out that studies show ALA may help lower platelet aggregation (i.e., “sticky blood”), a risk factor for stroke.
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, aka “the Rogue Nutritionist,” is the author, with cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, MD, of The Great Cholesterol Myth. His program “Unleash Your Thin” can help you conquer cravings and food addictions and is available at jonnybowden.com. Visit him at jonnybowden.com and follow him on Twitter @jonnybowden.
Do you have a health question for Jonny? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write “Health Q&A” in the subject line.