The brain is one of the most amazing organs in our body. Just thinking about the infinitesimal daily functions it controls on a minute-to-minute basis is mind-boggling.
The brain runs the body like your hard drive runs your computer. Electrical and chemical signals rush in from every part of the body, are analyzed, and the correct response is determined and sent back to the corresponding part of the body in the blink of an eye.
All this is accomplished, in part, via the blood supply to the brain which brings in oxygen and the chemical markers to be analyzed. When the blood supply to a part of your brain is interrupted or severely reduced, depriving brain tissue of oxygen and nutrients, a stroke occurs.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the definition of a stroke, stroke symptoms, how strokes are diagnosed, stroke recovery, and stroke causes and prevention. We’ll also take a look at what has been called a “mini stroke” or transient ischemic attack (TIA) and some of the possible aftereffects of a stroke.
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain has been unexpectedly and suddenly interrupted or cut off, or when hemorrhaging occurs.
The formal medial term for a stroke is cerebrovascular accident (CVA).
TRANSIENT ISCHEMIC ATTACK (TIA)
Sometimes called a “warning stroke” or “mini stroke”, a TIA produces stroke-like symptoms that generally only last a few minutes and create no lasting damage to the brain.
TIA’s should be taken seriously as they occur when a blood clot temporarily clogs an artery and part of the brain doesn’t get the blood it needs. Consulting with your primary health care provider if you suspect you have suffered a TIA can greatly reduce your risk of having a major stroke because TIA’s are an important indicator in predicting if a stroke will occur rather than when one will happen.
TIA symptoms are the same as those of a stroke but don’t last as long.
Understanding and recognizing the warning signs of a stroke could save someone’s life. The following symptoms can appear out of nowhere, with no warning signs. Their duration can be anywhere between a few minutes, lasting up to 24 hours.
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, jumbled nonsensical speech, trouble understanding.
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
- Sudden, severe headache with no known cause.
In the case of a TIA, the short duration of these symptoms and lack of permanent brain injury is the main difference between TIA and stroke. 1
HOW ARE STROKES DIAGNOSED?
The doctor will usually start by asking the patient what happened and when the symptoms began. Then the doctor will ask the patient some questions to see if she or he is thinking clearly. The doctor also will test the patient’s reflexes to see if she or he may have had any physical damage. This helps the doctor find out which tests are needed.
The doctor may order one or more of the following tests:
- Imaging tests that give a picture of the brain. These include CT (computed tomography) scanning, sometimes called CAT scans and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanning. CT scans are useful for finding out if a stroke is caused by a blockage or by bleeding in the brain.
- Electrical tests, such as EEG (electroencephalogram) and an evoked response test to record the electrical impulses and sensory processes of the brain.
- Blood flow tests, such as Doppler ultrasound tests, to show any changes in the blood flow to the brain. 2
Several decades of scientific research now show that stroke rehabilitation is critical for optimal stroke recovery. The benefits come from helping the brain to reorganize itself with physical therapy, which in turn helps the stroke survivor to recover functions lost after brain injury.
Stroke rehabilitation is the process by which a stroke survivor works with a team of health care providers with the aim of regaining as much of the function lost after a stroke as possible, if there was a loss of function at all.
Recovering from a stroke begins the moment treatment is prescribed and greatly depends on how serious the stroke was and which part of the brain was affected. The following are conditions that may be experienced during the recovery period:
- Weakness on one side of the body (the opposite side of the body from which the stroke occurred).
- Difficulty with speech.
- Trouble swallowing.
- Difficulty with urination.
- Balance and coordination problems.
- Cognitive function issues – memory problems, difficulty following directions.
- Emotional upsets.
STROKE CAUSES and PREVENTION
Many factors can increase your risk of a stroke. A number of these factors can also increase your chances of having a heart attack. Stroke risk factors include:
- A family history of stroke, heart attack or TIA.
- Being age 55 or older.
- High blood pressure — a systolic blood pressure of 140 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or higher, or a diastolic pressure of 90 mm Hg or higher.
- High cholesterol — a total cholesterol level of 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), or 5.2 mmol/L, or higher.
- Cigarette smoking.
- Obesity — a body mass index of 30 or higher.
- Cardiovascular disease, including heart failure, a heart defect, heart infection, or abnormal heart rhythm.
- Previous stroke or TIA.
- High levels of homocysteine, an amino acid, in your blood.
- Use of birth control pills or other hormone therapy.
Other factors that can increase your risk of stroke include heavy or binge drinking and the use of illicit drugs such as cocaine.
Prevention begins with knowing your risk factors and adopting a healthy lifestyle. These are the best steps you can take to prevent a stroke.
In general, a healthy lifestyle means that you:
- Control high blood pressure (hypertension). Exercising, managing stress, maintaining a healthy weight, and limiting sodium and alcohol intake are all ways to keep high blood pressure in check.
- Lower your cholesterol and saturated fat intake. Eating less cholesterol and fat, especially saturated fat, may reduce the plaques in your arteries.
- Don’t smoke. Quitting smoking reduces your risk of stroke. Several years after quitting, a former smoker’s risk of stroke is the same as that of a nonsmoker.
- Control diabetes. You can manage diabetes with diet, exercise, weight control and medication. Strict control of your blood sugar may reduce damage to your brain if you do have a stroke.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight contributes to other risk factors for stroke, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Weight loss of as little as 10 pounds may lower your blood pressure and improve your cholesterol levels.
- Exercise regularly. Aerobic exercise reduces your risk of stroke in many ways. Exercise can lower your blood pressure, increase your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and improve the overall health of your blood vessels and heart. It also helps you lose weight, control diabetes and reduce stress. Gradually work up to 30 minutes of activity — such as walking, jogging, swimming or bicycling — on most, if not all, days of the week.
- Manage stress. Stress can cause a temporary spike in your blood pressure — a risk factor for brain hemorrhage — or long-lasting hypertension. It can also increase your blood’s tendency to clot, which may elevate your risk of ischemic stroke. Simplifying your life, exercising and using relaxation techniques are all approaches that you can learn to reduce stress.
- Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Binge drinking and heavy alcohol consumption increase your risk of high blood pressure and of ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes.
- Don’t use illicit drugs. Many street drugs, such as cocaine and crack cocaine, are established risk factors for a TIA or a stroke.
Follow a brain-healthy diet
In addition, eat healthy foods. A brain-healthy diet should include:
- Five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables, which contain nutrients such as potassium, folate and antioxidants that may protect you against stroke.
- Foods rich in soluble fiber, such as oatmeal and beans.
- Foods rich in calcium, a mineral found to reduce stroke risk.
- Soy products, such as tempeh, miso, tofu and soy milk, which can reduce your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and raise your HDL cholesterol level.
- Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and tuna. 3
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1. American Heart Association
2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Carol Roy is a Natural Health Practitioner, registered with Natural Health Practitioners Canada, who received her diploma from the Alternative Medicine College of Canada in Montreal, Quebec. With 9 years experience in her area of expertise, naturopathic medicine, Carol has also trained to become a fully qualified Reiki Master, Quantum Touch ® Practitioner and Reflexologist.
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