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Healthy diet a way to lower risk of stroke

by Doris Penner

It is estimated there are 50,000 strokes in Canada each year—that amounts to one stroke every 10 minutes. If the stroke is minor, one may recover completely. However, about one-third of the victims die while others live with the effects which may involve compromised speech and movement, or worse, paralysis. June has been declared Stroke Awareness Month by the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation in the hope that the population will become aware there are ways to lower the risk of stroke through healthy lifestyle and recognizing the warning signs of stroke in order to seek help quickly.

A stroke is a sudden loss of brain function, caused by the interruption of either flow of blood to the brain—called an ischemic stroke—or the rupture of blood vessels in the brain—known as a hemorrhagic stroke. This lack of blood flow causes brain cells or neurons in the affected area to die. The effects of a stroke could impact the ability to move, see, remember, speak or reason, depending on where the brain is injured. Early warning signs include sudden numbness in the face, arm or leg, difficulty speaking or confusion, trouble with vision, sudden severe headache or dizziness.

The concern with stroke is to keep the blood circulating through vessels to efficiently reach all parts of the body. Thus we are talking of the health of two components—blood and  blood vessels themselves. There are certain factors that increase the risk of stroke that one has no control over—one is family history, another is age. However, it behooves us to mitigate the risk in areas where we do have control.

Pumps oxygen

One of the main risk factors of stroke is high blood pressure (hypertension) which causes the heart to work harder to pump oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout the body. The arteries delivering the blood become scarred and less elastic, which means they are very prone to build-up of plaque, thus narrowing the arteries, a condition known as artherosclerosis. While arteries 'age' as people age, the damage comes more quickly to those with hypertension. What occurs  with damaged and narrowed arteries is the heart muscle becomes weaker and the risk for blockage (causing a stroke) increases.

Among other things, 'plaque' consists of waxy-like cholesterol and triglycerides (a blood lipid). It must be understood that cholesterol has important roles to play in the body—it is part of all cell structures and allows for the production of vitamin D and some hormones. When there is an over-abundance of cholesterol which means an increase in the carrier, LDL (low-density lipoprotein), it becomes a problem, and build-up on cell walls begins to occur. People who are overweight, or deal with diabetes are also more prone to high levels of LDL, so-called “bad cholesterol” when compared to HDL (high density lipoproteins) which is not harmful and thus is called “good cholesterol.”

The way to help keep serum cholesterol, triglycerides and other blood fats in check, as well as keep blood pressure at a healthy level is with plenty of exercise, as well as a diet high in fruits and vegetables, moderate in grains and low in saturated fat (choose low-fat dairy products and watch intake of red meat).

Fruits and vegetables are not-only fat-free, but also contain vitamins that function as antioxidants which help protect blood vessels from inflammatory and oxidative stress—in other words to keep linings free from damage which lessens the chance of build-up. Other foods are being researched for their cardiovascular benefits, with some surprising discoveries. Garlic, for example, has been used medicinally—and of course, for culinary purposes—for centuries. Over the last decade, research scientists have been validating its numerous health benefits, among them protection for the cardiovascular system. A member of the lily or allium family along with onions and leeks, garlic is rich in a variety of powerful sulfur-containing compounds, responsible for its characteristically pungent odour and taste, but also the source for many of its health-promoting effects.

Protect blood vessels

It appears the sulfur compounds—and there are a range of them—are able to help lower blood triglycerides and total cholesterol. In addition, the same compounds help protect blood vessels against oxidative stress and inflammation (aided by garlic's content of vitamin C, a primary antioxidant), which as stated above put vessels at risk for unwanted plaque formation and clogging. One disulfide in garlic in particular, known as ajoene has repeatedly been shown to have anti-clotting properties, keeping blood platelets from clumping together to form a clot. Also impressive about garlic is its content of allicin which is able to help prevent unwanted contraction of blood vessels and increases in blood pressure.

Garlic adds a unique and delightful flavour to many aromatic dishes, either in the cooked or raw form. In order to get maximum health benefit, it is best to chop or crush the individual cloves before using which stimulates the release of enzymes and as well to ingest it raw—which doesn't have to mean eating the clove straight. Rather, include it in dishes such as hummus, a chick-pea dip, or salads. However, in uncooked form garlic does have a distinct odour, unpleasant when it stays on the breath which is offensive to many folks.

There might be a good reason to seek out capsules which contain garlic without the strong odour. Some have been formulated particularly to keep arteries healthy and as such contain other natural ingredients that have been shown to help with heart health. Among these are products such as cayenne, said to equalize heart circulation, hawthorn, which helps strengthen heart muscles and bilberry which improves circulation due to its blood thinning properties.