A stroke occurs when blood flow to part of the brain is cut off or reduced. When this happens, the brain stops receiving oxygen and nutrients—and brain cells start to die. Strokes can occur close to the surface of the brain or deep within the tissues—the damage depends on the area of the brain that is affected, the type of stroke, and the severity.
Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, and it is considered a medical emergency. According to the Centers for Disease Control And Prevention, about 800,000 people in the United States each year have a stroke, and strokes kill around 140,000 Americans each year.
Signs of a Stroke
Recognizing the signs of a stroke is crucial. Patients who arrive at the emergency room within three hours of manifesting symptoms recover faster than patients whose care was delayed. Use the “FAST” test to determine if you or someone you love is having a stroke.
What Causes a Stroke?
The cause determines the type of stroke.
It occurs when the blood vessels in the brain become narrowed or blocked—up to 90% of all strokes are ischemic. The most common types are:
Thrombotic stroke: A thrombotic stroke occurs when a clot forms in a blood vessel. This may be caused by plaques filled with cholesterol that build up in the vessels, reducing blood flow (thrombosis).
Embolic stroke: An embolic stroke occurs when a clot forms in another part of the body and moves to the brain, blocking an artery (embolism).
According to Harvard Medical School, up to one-fifth of all strokes are lacunar. A lacunar stroke is a type of ischemic stroke resulting from a blockage in tiny arteries deep inside the brain. More than 90% of patients who experienced a lacunar stroke recover within the first 90 days after the stroke.
Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)
A transient ischemic attack (TIA), also called a mini-stroke, is similar to an ischemic stroke because it occurs when a clot blocks blood flow to part of the nervous system, but there is no permanent tissue damage. Symptoms are similar to the ones of an ischemic stroke, but they usually last for less than five minutes. It might be difficult to tell if you are having a stroke or a TIA based on symptoms, so always seek immediate medical attention.
It occurs when a blood vessel leaks blood into the brain. Hemorrhagic strokes are rarer than ischemic strokes, but they account for between 30% and 60% of all stroke-related deaths. The most common types of hemorrhagic stroke are:
Intracerebral hemorrhage: An intracerebral hemorrhage occurs when a blood vessel in the brain spills into the brain tissue, damaging the cells (aneurysm). Among the causes of intracerebral hemorrhage are high blood pressure, trauma, vascular malformations, and use of blood-thinning medications.
Subarachnoid hemorrhage: A subarachnoid hemorrhage occurs when an artery in the brain spills into the space between the surface of the brain and the skull—a sudden, severe headache usually signals the bleeding. After the hemorrhage, the blood vessels widen and narrow erratically, causing cell damage.
Many factors can increase the risk of having a stroke. Lifestyle risk factors include being overweight, physical inactivity, and addiction to alcohol and drugs. Medical risk factors include blood pressure higher than 120/80 millimeters of mercury, smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, sleep apnea, heart disease, and family history.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle is one of the best steps you can take to prevent a stroke.
- Blood pressure: Monitor your blood pressure and keep it low by exercising regularly, managing stress, and maintaining a healthy weight. If you tend to have high blood pressure, ask your doctor about the best methods for regulation, which may include prescription medications if lifestyle alterations are unable to lower blood pressure to safe levels.
- Diet: Cut saturated fat and trans fats to reduce plaque in your arteries. A diet containing five or more daily servings of fruits or vegetables is ideal to reduce the risk of stroke.
- Exercise: Cardio workouts help you lose weight, lower your blood pressure, and improve the health of your blood vessels and heart. Exercise regularly to maintain a healthy weight.
- Preventive medications: In addition to to lifestyle changes, you can ask your doctor about preventive medications. Antiplatelet drugs, like aspirin, make blood cells less sticky and less likely to clot. Your doctor might also consider prescribing Aggrenox, a combination of low-dose aspirin and the anti-platelet drug.
Keep in mind that smoke, second-hand smoke, and heavy alcohol consumption raise the risk of stroke. Certain street drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamines, are risk factors for a TIA or a stroke.
For a full recovery, follow these tips:
- Therapy: Physical therapists and psychologists can help reverse the physical and mental effects of a stroke and prevent depression. Follow the instructions of your physical therapist to rebuild strength and improve coordination.
- Eye exercises: About 25% of all stroke survivors experience issues with vision, and eye exercises can help. Standard letter search or word search puzzles can be easily incorporated into your daily life.
- Support: Having a support network is crucial for a full recovery. Your loved ones can help you heal the emotional distress left by the stroke, but you can also look for local support groups through the American Heart Association.
- Sleep: After a stroke, it might be difficult to fall asleep, and small strategies can help. Sleep in a cool room, turn off technology at least 30 minutes before going to bed and practice meditation to release stress.
- Blood sugar levels: Reduce consumption of foods that can raise blood sugar levels. Cut refined sugars, grains, and alcohol from your diet—eat high-fiber foods that help keep blood sugar levels within the normal range.
- Yoga and meditation: Studies show that yoga improves physical, mental, and emotional health after a stroke—GABA, the neurotransmitter that regulates anxiety, is released in the brain during yoga. Studies have also found that meditation can reduce pain, improve sleep quality, help mental performance, boost productivity, and increase happiness.
- Vitamin D: Low serum levels of vitamin D are associated with post-stroke depression. Taking supplements of high-quality vitamin D can help improve neurologic and cognitive function. Eat foods that contain high levels of vitamin D such as sardines and salmon, and if possible, get at least 20 minutes each day of sun.
Amino Acids for Stroke Recovery
Can amino acid supplements help during stroke recovery? The latest research shows promising results regarding the effects of amino acids on patients during exercise and recovery.
One study investigated whether 30 days of oral supplementation with a special mixture of amino acids (AAs), together with conventional therapy, could improve exercise capacity in 95 elderly people with chronic heart failure. The patients were randomly assigned to a special oral nutritional mixture of 4 grams of AAs twice daily or a placebo. Results showed that exercise capacity in the AA group improved compared to the placebo group—oral AA supplementation, in conjunction with pharmacologic therapy, enhanced circulatory function, muscle oxygen consumption, and aerobic production of energy.
Another study examined amino acid and protein metabolism during exercise and recovery and found that amino acids restore glycogen, a substance deposited in bodily tissues as a store of carbohydrates, which are used as fuel during exercise.
Taking a balanced amino acid supplement can also stimulate muscle protein synthesis. During recovery patients often stay in bed, and go through periods of physical inactivity. Studies show that essential amino acids reduce the loss of muscle protein mass and physical strength.