Strokes are the third leading cause of natural death in the US, killing more than 140,000 people annually. A stroke is similar to a heart attack of the brain and can cause paralysis, speech and vision problems, in addition to death. Fortunately, you can prevent strokes naturally through exercise and a healthy, plant-based diet.
It’s important to note that I am not a medical professional. However, I've been on a journey to discover the leading causes of natural death and how to prevent them – for myself and for others. The information in this article was compiled from multiple sources, most notably the book, How Not to Die, by Michael Greger, MD. If you want to extend your lifespan in a healthy way, I strongly suggest reading the book here. And of course, when it comes to your brain health, always consult a doctor.
Simply put, a stroke is like a heart attack for the brain, often referred to as a "brain attack." The reason is that a stroke occurs when blood flow to an area of the brain is cut off, typically due to constricting blood vessels filled with atherosclerosis plaque or blood clots caused by dislodged plaque. This atherosclerosis builds up over time due to the accumulation of bad cholesterol and trans and saturated fats on the artery walls leading to the brain, resulting in bleeding or a lack of oxygen.
Strokes can typically come in two types and can vary in terms of severity. A hemorrhagic stroke is less common and occurs when a blood vessel bursts in the brain and begins to kill off brain cells. This stroke can happen suddenly in people of all ages and isn't typically due to poor diet or exercise. The more common stroke is an ischemic stroke, which can be more easily prevented and occurs due to the factors listed above, such as plaque buildups thanks to poor diet and exercise.
Minor strokes can cause temporary issues, such as numbness or weakness in the arm, leg, or even face. However, these minor strokes can often be rehabilitated. More serious strokes can cause long-term brain damage such as permanent paralysis, the inability to speak, and in many cases, even death. The severity of a stroke largely depends on the type, the area of the brain, and the amount of plaque buildup on your main arteries that lead to the brain.
While you can recover from a major stroke, roughly two-thirds of survivors have long-term damage, and of course, brain injuries like strokes account for the third leading cause of natural death in the U.S. Like a heart attack, strokes can be prevented by adopting a healthy lifestyle comprised of exercise and a plant-based diet. This is because the underlying causes of strokes are the buildup "bad" LDL cholesterol and trans and saturated fats in your veins, typically found in animal products and junk food with added sugar.
The leading offender of the more common ischemic stroke is the accumulation of a poor diet comprised of animal products and added sugars, including a lack of antioxidants and potassium. What's more, long-term lack of sleep and exercise has also been shown to increase your risk of stroke. To prevent a stroke altogether, adopt a plant-based diet as well as exercise regularly.
Here are the specific steps needed to prevent a stroke:
Stated previously, the best way to not only avoid a stroke but actually reverse the signs of brain disease is to avoid animal products like meat and dairy as well as junk food with added sugars. Instead, stick to a healthy, plant-based diet rich with nuts, legumes, and whole grains. The reason for this is that animal products and junk food are filled with "bad" LDL cholesterol as well as trans fats and saturated fats, which cause plaque buildup in your arteries and can cause a clot, blockage, or bleeding in the brain, resulting in a stroke.
To prevent a stroke, you need to avoid these foods high in bad fats and cholesterol and replace them with natural foods rich in antioxidants, potassium, and fiber (more on these below). This will not only stop additional plaque from building up in key arteries leading to the brain but can actually help your body clean out the existing plaque to reverse your risk of stroke altogether.
Not all food is created equal, and it's important that you divide what you eat into three broad categories:
In the book, How Not to Die, author Michael Greger, MD points to his “daily dozen”, which is a daily checklist of 12 food groups that you should eat. This makes it easy to follow general guidelines that account for the types of foods and their servings that will help avoid a stroke in the future.
Here’s the daily dozen list, comprised of key food groups and their daily servings:
Of course, the one thing you don’t see here is animal products, such as meat or dairy. While it’s ok to splurge every once in a while, make sure you stick to the above bullet points for most of your meals if you want to prevent heart disease like a heart attack.
If your head's spinning due to all the food information, don't worry. I've come up with a tried-and-true daily meal plan that can help keep you on track in your efforts to reduce the risk of stroke. The meal plan is broken down into breakfast, lunch, post-workout, and dinner. For more information on how I eat, check out the "Example of How I Eat" section of this article on how to prevent heart attacks.
Numerous studies have shown that increased fiber intake can help fight the causes of stroke and heart disease. Unfortunately, the exact reasoning is still unknown. We do know that increased fiber intake can soak up the bad LDL cholesterol and sugars and help your body flush it out before it reaches your bloodstream and starts caking up your arteries. Fiber has also been shown to lower your blood pressure, another potential long-term cause of brain bleeds.
In fact, while strokes typically occur over the age of 70, and very rarely before the age of 45, studies have also shown that a lack of fiber intake throughout childhood and beyond can cause stiffening of the arteries leading to the brain - a major indicator of stroke risk. To fight this, consume foods high in fiber, such as flaxseeds, veggies, and more.
Like fiber, increased potassium intake has been shown in key studies to reduce the risk of stroke by as much as 21% or more. Also like fiber, the exact reasons aren't clear, but that doesn't change the fact that clinical studies have shown that potassium helps - a lot. So, why risk it? Eat some potassium! On average, you should try to increase your potassium intake to at least 1,640 mg per day.
Of course, we all think of bananas when we think of potassium. However, this is a misnomer, because bananas are not rich in potassium. I repeat - they are not rich in potassium (great marketing by bananas though, am I right?). Instead, the foods with the highest levels of potassium are actually citrus fruits, as well as whole-foods like greens, beans, and sweet potatoes.
Antioxidants are found in foods as well as in your body and help fight what's known as "oxidation" or "oxidative stress", which occurs when oxygen molecules go rogue due to high-energy electrons and damage your cells and DNA. Antioxidants fight these free radicals by attacking the rogue oxygen cells and recouping the electron, which can help prevent aging. What's more, studies have found that antioxidants can prevent many diseases, stroke being one of them.
Food with the most antioxidants are typically fruits that are bright in colors, such as berries, citrus, and melons. However, herbs and spices are also known to be high in antioxidants, meaning you can throw some spices in any meal to boost your antioxidant levels.
Maintaining an active lifestyle is at the core of any preventative health measure, and it's no different here. Regularly working out or taking part in outdoor activities can reduce your blood pressure as well as fight (and even reverse) the buildup of plaque on your arteries that lead to the brain. While what I'm about to say probably isn't scientifically accurate, I view working out as a "positive stressor" that can help flush out any plaque that's been building up over time.
Maintaining an active lifestyle can also help fight obesity, which lowers the risk of bad LDL cholesterol and trans and saturated fats building up in your arteries. However, even healthy-looking people can still eat poorly and increase their risk of stroke, so don't think that just because you're skinny you can eat whatever you want. Still, working out regularly will certainly help fight the leading causes of stroke.
According to the experts, an "active lifestyle" is one where you walk at least 20 minutes a day. While this is a good place to start, to me, this isn't very active. Instead, focus on exercising at least 60 minutes three times a week, and throw in a walk on your off-days. What's more, you can even hit the sauna for 15 - 30 minutes during your workout or off-days, which has been shown to positively stress your body as if you were moderately running or working out.
Lack of sleep has also been shown to be a leading cause of stroke. In fact, even too much sleep can increase your risk of stroke. The reasoning still isn't 100% clear, but the thinking is a lack of sleep can increase the plaque buildups on your artery walls. Studies have found that getting roughly seven to eight hours of sleep reduces the risk of stroke. Sleeping for four hours or less or 10 hours or more per night can increase the risk of stroke by as much as 50 percent.
There are two broad types of strokes. Hemorrhagic strokes occur when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and are less common. Ischemic strokes are more common and occur when blood vessels leading to the brain become blocked with a clot or plaque due to poor lifestyle habits. Hemorrhagic strokes are more random and less preventable but the risk of ischemic strokes can be reduced with healthy diet and exercise.
Here are the specific types of strokes:
Ischemic strokes account for more than 85% of all strokes and occur when a blood vessel sending blood to the brain becomes blocked due to fatty deposits on the walls, also known as atherosclerosis. This can happen either because a plaque-caused blood clot develops in the brain's vessels themselves, or because a clot forms elsewhere and passes through the bloodstream to the brain until it clogs an artery too small to pass through.
Ischemic strokes are typically caused due to poor diet and exercise. Over time, consumption of food high in LDL cholesterol, saturated fat, trans fat, and added sugars causes atherosclerotic plaque to build on the walls of arteries leading to the brain. These fatty deposits continue to build until the plaque either breaks off in the form of a clot or the artery becomes too clogged to let blood pass. This causes blood to stop flowing to the brain, resulting in a stroke as brain cells begin to die - damaging parts of the brain.
A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a "mini-stroke" caused by a temporary clot that eventually passes through the bloodstream. This is typically when people experience temporary paralysis or the inability to speak, but eventually recover. These are known as warning strokes and should be taken seriously.
Hemorrhagic strokes are less common and typically occur randomly due to weakened blood vessels that rupture and bleed into areas of the brain. This blood accumulates and puts pressure on the brain, compressing the tissue. The rupture can occur within or outside the brain as either can cause compression of the brain tissue.
The main causes of preventable stroke are the same causes as heart disease. Most notably, your diet and exercise is the number one factor that increases or decreases your risk of stroke. Like a heart attack, strokes commonly occur due to the building of fatty deposits on artery walls, usually because of a poor diet based on animal products filled with bad cholesterols and fats.
Here are the specific leading causes of strokes to help you avoid them:
Like with heart attacks, LDL cholesterol, also known as "bad" cholesterol, is the number one cause of strokes in the U.S. LDL cholesterol levels in your body increase when you consume food rich in trans fats, saturated fats, and dairy-based cholesterol typically found in animal products and junk food with added sugars. High levels of LDL cholesterol carry trans and saturated fats into the blood and create fatty deposits on your artery walls, resulting in an eventual clot in the brain.
Studies show that people with diets made up of the unprocessed veggies, fruits, nuts, legumes, and whole grains mentioned above have lower levels of LDL cholesterol when compared to their Standard American Diet (SAD) counterparts. Healthy people on a plant-based diet typically have LDL cholesterol levels between 50 - 70 mg/dL, and overall cholesterol levels hovering around 150 mg/dL. Comparatively, people on the SAD diet have LDL cholesterol levels around 100mg/dL and overall cholesterol north of 200.
If you want to reduce your LDL cholesterol levels and lower your risk of a clot-related stroke, it's important to cut out animal products like meat and dairy as well as junk food with added sugars. These foods are rich in bad cholesterol as well as trans and saturated fats. Alternatively, you could keep eating these foods and die of brain bleeding.
Trans fats and saturated fats are "bad fats" that are carried through your blood via LDL cholesterol and deposited on your vessel walls, resulting in clogged arteries leading to the brain. And when the blood vessels in the brain are blocked, brain cells begin to die, causing a stroke. Trans fats and saturated fats are most commonly found in animal products like meat and dairy as well as in processed junk foods with added sugars.
Sadly for those who love eating candy and steak, unlike LDL cholesterol, which has optimal levels to stay under, any level of trans fat and saturated fat is bad. That means ideally, you're consuming zero grams of either. However, I know making this drastic of a change is hard, so instead of cutting it out completely, try to cut it down.
For example, I love consuming animal products as much as the next person, but rather than eating it daily, I've been able to cut down consumption to 1-2 days per week. During the week, I try to stick to getting my protein through plants and legumes, and then on the weekend, I treat myself with a "cheat day" filled with steak, bacon, and the occasional candy bar.
Ok, by now you should know that meat, dairy, and processed junk food are all rich in LDL cholesterol, trans fat, and saturated fat, each a leading cause of clogged brain vessels and the strokes that come with them. Still, I wanted to break out these food groups as one of the leading causes of strokes. This is because while bad cholesterol and fats are the leading offenders of strokes, the easiest way to consume them is through animal products and processed junk food.
If you want to lower your risk of stroke by managing your LDL cholesterol and trans and saturated fat levels, the only way you're going to do it is by cutting animal products and junk food out of your life (or at least drastically cut your consumption). The best thing to do would be to remove these types of food from your life completely. However, I know this may be unrealistic, so instead, why don't you reduce consumption to 1-2 days per week?
This way, you give your body time to heal and clean itself from your multi-year buildup of atherosclerosis. Remember, the human body isn't only resilient, it's also regenerative. If you cut down on meat, dairy, and processed junk food, you can actually reverse the signs of stroke. Giving your body 4-6 days a week to heal itself, you'll drastically reduce your risk of stroke.
High blood pressure is also a cause of stroke because chronically high blood pressure can damage or weaken your brain's blood vessels, causing them to rupture or leak. This will, of course, cause a lack of blood flow to the brain and result in the death of your brain cells. High blood pressure has also been shown to cause clots themselves to form, potentially blocking blood flow.
One major way to reduce your blood pressure is to reduce your intake of stimulants as well as salt. What's more, you also shouldn't smoke if you want to reduce your blood pressure. Failing to do these things may cause your doctor to put you on heart pressure medication, which is only addressing the symptom and can still result in a stroke.
A lack of physical activity is a leading factor of obesity, which can increase the fatty deposits on your brain's blood vessels. Sedentary lifestyles have been shown to increase your levels of LDL cholesterol as well as trans and saturated fats. What's more, people who don't exercise regularly can also have high blood pressure, which increases the risk of stroke. For this reason, it's important to engage in physical activity 3-5 days a week for 30-60 minutes, or more.
Diabetes can result in obesity, which shown above can be a leading cause of stroke. However, studies show that diabetes can also alter the brain's blood vessels at key locations and can lead to stroke if the right (or wrong) cerebral vessels are affected. Finally, diabetes messes with your insulin, which if unchecked, can increase the fatty deposits on your brain's blood vessels.
Common warning signs of strokes include the following five factors:
The best foods you can eat to avoid a stroke include a plant-based diet filled with unprocessed veggies, fruits, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. Foods to avoid include meat, dairy, and processed junk food high in added sugars, LDL cholesterol, trans fat, and saturated fat. Foods high in antioxidants and potassium are also shown to reduce the risk of stroke.
Many of the foods that reduce the risk of stroke, such as veggies, fruits, nuts, legumes, and whole grains, also contain many key vitamins that can lower the chances of suffering a stroke. Some of these key vitamins include vitamin D, B12, and B3, as well as vitamin C, coenzyme Q10, and probiotics. Eating the right foods, however, should naturally increase your consumption of these vitamins.
No. This is a myth. While there are things you can do to prevent a stroke, such as eating healthy and exercising, drinking a glass of water before bed has no effect. In fact, waking up in the middle of the night to pee can actually increase your risk of stroke if your sleep patterns are affected.
Aspirin has been known to help prevent heart attacks and strokes for people who may have already suffered a heart or brain attack. Taking aspirin may reduce your chance of a clot-related stroke thanks to its blood-thinning properties, but it may increase your chance of a hemorrhagic stroke that's caused by excessive brain bleeding. It's recommended you do not try this preventative measure without the help of a medical professional.
Overall, preventing a stroke is the same as preventing a heart attack. Reduce your intake of LDL cholesterol, trans fat, and saturated fat, typically found in meat, dairy, and processed junk food high in added sugars. Instead, adopt a plant-based diet full of unprocessed fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. This will reduce the amount of fatty deposits on your artery walls.