According to the National Stroke Association,1 stroke is the number one cause of long-term disability and the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.
The most common type of stroke is called “ischemic stroke,” which results from an obstruction in a blood vessel supplying blood to your brain. Once you suffer a stroke, the damage, should you survive it, can be absolutely devastating.
Thankfully, up to 80 percent of strokes are preventable. According to researchers,2lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, body mass index, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and smoking can have a direct bearing on your individual risk.
There’s also compelling evidence showing that your vitamin D status, grounding, stress, and use of statin drugs and hormone replacement therapy and/or birth control pills play a role.
Even Small Changes in Habits Can Make a Big Difference
Daniel Lackland, a professor of neuroscience at the Medical University of South Carolina and a spokesman for the American Heart Association, has developed a scale of lifestyle factors that have a bearing on stroke risk, called the “Life’s Simple Seven” scale, 3 which includes:
Control your cholesterol
Manage your blood pressure
Reduce your blood sugar, and
The really good news here is that even minor changes can reduce your stroke risk. As reported by the featured NPR article:4
“[The] scientists dug into a large study that tracked 30,239 people to see how much improvement it takes to prevent stroke….The good news is it doesn’t take much to make a difference.
Each risk factor for stroke was scored from 0 to 2, with 0 being crummy, 1 kind of OK, and 2 terrific. Even a one-point improvement in the total score across all seven factors significantly reduced stroke risk.
Each improvement of a point on the 14-point scale meant an 8 percent reduction in stroke. ‘The neat thing of this finding is that anything makes a difference… If you make a small change, you make an improvement,’ Lackland says. ‘If you make a bigger change, you make a bigger improvement.’
Some changes can give you a really great payoff. The study showed that reducing your systolic blood pressure by 20 millimeters (regardless of how high your blood pressure currently is) decreases your risk of stroke by 50 percent. Reduce it by another 20 mm, and you cut your individual risk in half yet again. Not smoking, or quitting smoking equated to a 40 percent lower risk.
Beware of Flawed Dietary Recommendations
First, with regards to cholesterol and stroke risk, what we’re looking for is a proper balance. Proper balance between these ratios is best achieved through a healthy diet, as outlined in my Nutrition Plan, and exercise. It’s well worth noting that cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins have been found to boost stroke risk.
Total cholesterol will tell you virtually nothing about your disease risk, unless it’s exceptionally elevated (above 330 or so, which would be suggestive of familial hypercholesterolemia, and is, in my view, about the only time a cholesterol-lowering drug would be appropriate). Two ratios that are far better indicators of heart disease risk are:
- Your HDL/total cholesterol ratio: HDL percentage is a very potent indicator of your heart disease risk. Just divide your HDL level by your total cholesterol. This percentage should ideally be above 24 percent. Below 10 percent, it’s a significant indicator of risk for heart disease
- Your triglyceride/HDL ratios: This percentage should ideally be below
When it comes to diet, you’d be well advised to scrutinize the standard recommendations,5 which include cutting down on saturated fats and dietary cholesterol.
It’s important to understand that cholesterol is in fact essential for your good health, as it carries out essential functions within your cell membranes, and is critical for proper brain function and production of steroid hormones. Vitamin D is also synthesized from a close relative of cholesterol: 7-dehydrocholesterol. In fact, we now have evidence showing that cholesterol deficiency has a detrimental impact on virtually every aspect of your health.
For example, there’s reason to believe that low-fat diets and/or cholesterol-lowering drugs may cause or contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, and violent behavior, due to adverse changes in brain chemistry.
Furthermore, studies have shown that dietary cholesterol has little to do with raising your serum cholesterol. For example, although egg yolks are relatively high in cholesterol, numerous studies have confirmed that eggs have virtually nothing to do with raising your cholesterol. For instance, research published in theInternational Journal of Cardiology showed that, in healthy adults, eating eggs every day did not produce a negative effect on endothelial function (an aggregate measure of cardiac risk); nor did it increase cholesterol levels.
But that’s not all. One 2009 study6 discovered that proteins in cooked eggs are converted by gastrointestinal enzymes, producing peptides that act as ACE inhibitors—common prescription medications for lowering blood pressure, which would actually lower your stroke risk!
Most Saturated Fats Are Actually Good for You
The same can be said for saturated fats, which provide the building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones and hormone like substances in your body. They also act as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Dietary fats are also needed for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A, for mineral absorption, and for a host of other biological processes. When you eat saturated fats as part of your meal, they also slow down absorption so that you can feel satiated longer.
It’s important though to understand that not all saturated fats are the same. There are subtle differences that have profound health implications, and if you avoid eating all saturated fats, your health will likely suffer. There are in fact more than a dozen different types of saturated fat, but you predominantly consume only three: stearic acid, palmitic acid and lauric acid.
It’s already been well established that stearic acid (found in cocoa and animal fat) has no adverse effects on your cholesterol levels, and actually gets converted in your liver into the monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. The other two, palmitic and lauric acid, do raise total cholesterol. However, since they raise “good” cholesterol as much or more than “bad” cholesterol, you’re still actually lowering your risk of heart disease. Sources of healthy fats include:
Coconuts and coconut oil
Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk
Unheated organic nut oils
Raw nuts, such as almonds or pecans and seeds
Organic Pastured egg yolks
Trans fats, on the other hand, should clearly be avoided. They are known to promote inflammation, which is a hallmark of most chronic and/or serious diseases, not just strokes and heart disease. For example, in one 2010 study,7 post-menopausal women who consumed the most daily dietary trans fat had a 30 percent higher incidence of ischemic strokes. So please, understand that while most health journalists and “experts” will lump saturated fats and trans fats together, they have markedly different health impacts, and the vilification of saturated fat, which arose from an unproven hypothesis from the mid-1950s, is a myth that has since been firmly debunked by nutritional science.