Having a stroke can be a serious event that results in some form of disability and drastically reduced quality of life. However as we know today, we have a great influence on whether we increase or decrease our chances of having a stroke, based on our lifestyle choices. In this essay you will learn how to empower yourself and decrease, if not entirely prevent, your chances of getting a stroke.
In a previous essay, I shared with you a quick guide to understanding strokes. I invite you to read through that resource to first and foremost empower yourself to understand what exactly is a stroke and how it may affect you. We know today that heart disease is the number one killer of all North Americans, with strokes being the 3rd leading cause of death. Given these statistics, it is prudent to be aware of the risks and how we can avoid experiencing a stroke.
Although strokes can occur at any age, stroke risk normally increases as we age. After about the age of 55, the chance of a stroke more than doubles with each decade after that. About 3/4 of all strokes happen in people who are over the age of 65, but many isolated cases within the 1/4 happen to people in their 20's, 30's, 40's and 50's. So let's get empowered and examine what changes we can make in our lives and habits to ensure that we not only have the best health possible, but more than anything reduce, and perhaps even eliminate completely, our chances of heart disease and having a stroke.
What are your health priorities?
Before we talk about positive and protective actions steps, it is important to first focus on your personal understanding of your health and priorities. Many people have a real hard time making changes when it comes to their eating, drinking, thinking and exercise habits. We go through life on auto-pilot so much of the time, not questioning our habits along the way, usually until it is too late and something drastic gets our attention. Today, I invite you to not wait for that time. Instead I hope to encourage you to take action today. So if your health has not been a main priority in your life up until now, or if you find it hard to make positive changes, take some time to reflect on the following questions:
- Why is my health, and either improving it or keeping it, not motivating enough for me to make changes that I know will decrease my chances of unfavorable future outcomes?
- What can I do today, to not need to suffer tomorrow, in physical, emotional, or mental ways?
- What is stopping me from making my health my number one priority today?
Unless we consciously face ourselves and our habits in an honest and authentic way, and acknowledge our own role in the creation of our health, we won't get very far. We will continue to blame external, make excuses and feel that our health is out of our hands. We will make ambitious resolutions around each new year, or perhaps try the latest fad diet, but essentially not change at the fundamental level of our thinking and being. And this is where we must make critical change if we are to make long lasting, effective and meaningful change to positively benefit our health. You are pre-paving your health with every lifestyle thought, word and action, so let's make them count today, in order to reap the benefits of great health tomorrow.
Stroke Risk Factors
One of the biggest risk factors for strokes is high blood pressure. According to the CDC's latest data, around 33% of adults over the age of 20 today in the US suffer from hypertension. This means roughly 1 in 3 people live with a symptom that can be devastating to their health and well-being. Naturally many people get put on medication for this and don't think twice. This however only masks the symptoms, creates further imbalances and does nothing to address the root level of the problem.
We know today that high blood pressure is strongly correlated to a diet high in sodium, a lifestyle high in unmanaged stress and a lifestyle that is sedentary. Although these factors usually work together and increase the risk of many states of disease, it is also very possible to have normal blood pressure when one does not exercise, eats poorly and leads a very stressful life. It is very multifactorial and all depends on the deeper seeded ideas that we go through life with. When it comes to stress for example, it is never about what happens to us that matters most, but how we perceive and handle it that will determine how it impacts our health. So just because a person may not have high blood pressure, it does not mean that they are automatically excluded from the risk of having a stroke.
Let's examine 10 of the most important factors and lifestyle choices to prevent a stroke naturally. This means we take accountability and not mask the problem with a pharmaceutical intervention, where the drug becomes our band-aid. Rather let's get to the root by honestly examining our habits and how they can each increase or decrease our risk of having a stroke.
1. Don’t Smoke
Smoking greatly increases your risk of atherosclerosis, a building up of fatty tissue (mostly cholesterol) in your blood vessels. This narrows the diameter of the blood vessel and leads to high blood pressure and increased risk of blockage in a vessel, cutting off the blood supply and leading to strokes.
For women, smoking and the chances of a stroke are also especially increased if the woman is on birth control. Hence, if you are on birth control and want to avoid having any blood clot problems or strokes, it is imperative that you stop smoking. (Additionally, consider natural birth control that is as effective, if not more, than the pill.)
The risk of ischemic stroke in current smokers is about double that of nonsmokers.
2. Decrease or Eliminate Your Intake of Saturated Fats from Animal Sources
Today we know that not all saturated fats are bad. There are many types from many sources and over the years we took too much of a simplistic approach to represent them most accurately. What we know today is that saturated fats from both plants and animals (to some degree) can be part of a healthy diet. With plant sources, common examples include nuts, seeds and coconuts. With animal sources it gets more complicated as no animal foods from modern, factory farmed settings are a healthy option, for many reasons, not just in the case of stroke prevention. Either way, it is saturated fat from animals that seems to be most problematic when it comes to the health of our arteries and cardiovascular system. Animal foods are also the main source of dietary cholesterol, which can also negatively influence our health, specifically the cardiovascular system. These fats are almost solely found in animal products, like meat, eggs and all dairy. Saturated animal fat is many times blamed as being a greater contributor to bad cholesterol, than cholesterol itself.
Bad cholesterol (LDL) from animal foods has been known to accumulate in our blood vessels as hard sticky plaque. This build-up called atherosclerosis, narrows the diameter of our blood vessels, which tends to increase blood pressure. It also increases the risk of an arterial blockage, because at any time, a piece of this plaque may break off and get logged in a smaller artery, blocking blood supply.
3. Eliminate Your Intake of Trans or Hydrogenated Fat
These types of fats normally begin in an unsaturated form, but get chemically altered to have a longer shelf life or better stability in products. Trans fats are found naturally in small amounts in most animal products. Other than that they are only found in most processed and fast food. Hence, it is very easy to avoid them entirely, just by being mindful of your diet and eating as naturally as possible. Diets based on whole, natural plant foods continuously prove to be protective and healing for cardiovascular health.
However, if you still choose to eat any processed, refined, packaged food products, always read the ingredient label and avoid any mention of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. You can also scan the nutrition facts label, where the aim is to always see ZERO trans fats listed. Be mindful though, that zero does not actually always mean zero as companies are allowed to round down. This is why it is prudent to avoid all heavily processed food, as well as fast food for optimal health.
Trans and hydrogenated fats have been correlated with raising bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL), thereby being a major contributing factor to heart disease and strokes for reasons mentioned in #2.
Exercise in moderate amounts has many beneficial effects on our heart and blood vessels. Its general effects are that it strengthens the heart muscle, increases your oxygen intake, keeps blood flowing smoothly, lowers blood pressure and helps maintain a healthy weight. Its specific effects are numerous and positively impact every single area of our health.
Walking as little as 15 minutes a day has been proven to be very healing and protective for our physical, mental and emotional health. No matter the weather, make sure that some structured movement is a daily part of your life.
5. Adopt a Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet
Whole food, plant-based diets have been shown to be most protective, healing, and optimal for our health and well-being. They are most nutrient dense, rich in fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. They are loaded with healthy fat, protein and carbohydrates. They are completely devoid of cholesterol and unhealthy fats.
Fiber, has been shown to help decrease the risk of all heart disease, among having many other positive health benefits. Diets high in natural, whole food vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients have been proven to be very beneficial for not only cardiovascular health, but promote optimal health in general.
To learn more about the power of whole food, plant-based diets, watch: Forks Over Knives.
6. Reduce Your Intake of Salt To Less Than 2000mg Daily
Salt contains about 40% sodium. High sodium intake throws off our sodium-potassium balance, whose main effect is increased blood pressure. As we know increased blood pressure, increases the risk of a stroke. When it comes to eliminating sodium it goes much further than not using the salt shaker however, as most of our sodium problems come from all of the processed food we eat. All processed foods today contain sodium and most of them in amounts that are double, triple of worse, the intake that is healthy for us.
It is advised that our diets contain no more than 2000mg of sodium daily, with mainstream heart and stroke associations recommending no more than 1500mg of sodium daily. One easy way to ensure that your food passes the sodium test, is to make sure that the sodium amount on the nutrition facts label is never higher than the amount of calories per serving. The most the sodium should ever be is in a 1:1 ratio of calories to sodium. Test this out on some of your processed, packaged foods and see how hard it is to find one that has less sodium than calories per serving. No wonder most North Americans consume double or triple the healthy sodium amounts, and so many of them suffer from hypertension.
7. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Being overweight or obese usually goes hand in hand with high blood pressure as more stress is put on the heart and blood vessels. In most cases it is essential to lose weight in order to optimize your heart and overall health. If you are currently of a healthy weight for your body type, be sure to stay diligent with this, as it is all too easy in our society to gain weight, and very hard to lose it.
The easiest way to lose weight naturally, and for good is with a whole food, plant-based diet. This coupled with some mild to moderate daily exercise or movement does wonders for our weight and health. Most people try all sorts of fad diets only to walk away discouraged or disappointed, when the secret lies in transforming our habits at the root level and making healthy eating and movement a lifestyle. Most importantly we should not experiment with diet pills, gimmicks or fad diets, which usually put more stress on the heart and brain, than any benefit they may provide.
8. Make Time For Yourself
In a busy, busy world, many times we feel like nothing more than a speck in the madness. Realize that you own your life and no one is making you run around like a mouse on a wheel. We are often our worst enemy when it comes to the artificial pressures we put on ourselves. This is why it is so vital to literally stop, and smell the roses. The same pressures we put on ourselves, we have the power to remove. And one of the best ways of assessing your own life is to have some time for yourself for deep inner reflection and contemplation.
Whether this be time to reflect in silence, contemplate in nature, do some fun activities, or take part in hobbies that you enjoy, it is extremely valuable to your health and well-being as it decreases your levels of stress and makes you see the bigger picture of life. Here are some more resources to help you with stress management and expanding your perspective about this topic.
Many people still cringe at this word in our modern day society thinking that it is something some far away monks or hippie yoga enthusiasts do. Well on the contrary, meditation is easy, normal and probably the best way to detach yourself from your stressful surroundings and get back in touch with your true self. It is easy to do, does not require any money and everybody can make time for it, as it offers benefits in as little as 10 minutes a day. Today we even have many scientific studies that prove the many health benefits of meditation.
Stress is toxic to our bodies in so many ways, one of the consequences being an increased incidence of strokes. A study that followed 2,303 Finnish middle-aged white men for 11 years reported that stress was linked to increased stroke risk. Thanks to this and many other similar examinations, we know today more than ever of the strong mind-body connection. And that is why it is so important, perhaps more than ever to get back in touch with our body and mind on a conscious level.
If you lead a stressful life or feel that stress is taking over your life, do not be shy, do not make excuses and do not rationalize your thoughts and actions. Instead get serious about incorporating at least 10 minutes of meditation into your daily routine and learn how to let go of your thoughts, reduce your stress levels and get back in touch with who you really are through the process of meditation.
10. Enjoy Your Life
It is no surprise that happier people are healthier in every aspect. When we wake up in the morning excited to take on a new day, when we feel joyful and fulfilled in our relationships, careers and the ins and outs of everyday life, our body chemistry is very different from someone who does not exhibit these characteristics.
Science today has also showed us that negative thoughts are toxic to our system. This does not mean we should fake our happiness, although at times it really is valuable to fake it until you make it. However people who hold anger, guilt, frustration, fears and who are typically found complaining regularly are actually in a constant state of stress where their body is concerned.
Hence, to reduce your risk of strokes, heart disease and so many other things in fact, start by looking at each day, each person and each situation brand new. Start focusing on all the things that are going right in it, instead of wrong. Fall in love with yourself and your life. Start infusing more appreciation and gratitude into every moment and watch your life and health transform right before your eyes!