The Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation has recently raised the alarm bell to warn that stroke is not only a significant problem for Canadians, but that many of us don’t know what to look for in order to detect a stroke, and seek crucial early treatment. You’ve likely seen their ad campaign, reminding Canadians of the signs of stroke: sudden numbness or paralysis of the face, arm, or leg, slurred speech, confusion, blurred vision, trouble walking and dizziness.
As a naturopathic physician, I feel it is also important to educate the public about what can be done to prevent strokes. Strokes are typically a symptom of underlying cardiovascular disease. The main way to prevent cardiovascular disease is to live a lifestyle that promotes cardiovascular health. It is important to understand your risk factors and take steps to reduce them. A patient that I’ve worked with over the last year illustrates that journey.
Brent was a 54-year-old man who came to see me after his brother had a debilitating stroke at 57. As a father of three teens, Brent didn’t want that fate for himself and his family. He came to me for an assessment and to get help changing the course of his health for the better. I found out that he had smoked for 30 years and his waist circumference was 44” – well above the recommended 40” for men. His LDL cholesterol was elevated, as were his triglycerides, and his blood sugar was borderline diabetic. I ran an insulin test and found this to be very high, indicating insulin resistance. His blood pressure was above normal, at 147/90. Running his own business, he carried a significant stress load, which was taking its toll on his health.
I explained to him that he had multiple risk factors for cardiovascular disease that leave him at higher risk for stroke or heart attack than the average man his age. Genetics may be one risk factor, but the study of epigenetics has proven that our lifestyle affects our gene expression. So even when there is a family history of a disease, lifestyle can determine whether an individual gets that disease. We tested him for a genetic risk for cardiovascular disease, called methylation defects. About 15% of the population has a mutation of the gene necessary for methylation, a critical chemical process in the body. Without adequate methylation, homocysteine can build up in the bloodstream, causing accelerated atherosclerosis. A specific set of nutrients can help solve this problem, which it turned out he needed.
Next, I set out to help Brent quit smoking. Through a combination of herbal medicines to reduce cravings, stress-management and behavioral modification, Brent has been cigarette-free for almost a year now. It was important that he not gain weight after quitting smoking, so I coached him on a heart-healthy weight loss nutrition plan that has resulted in a 35 pound weight loss. Exercise was new territory for Brent, but he made it a family affair by getting out mountain-biking with his teenagers. He’s even keeping up with the youngest one now! As part of a stress management plan, he’s started a “gratitude check-in” at dinner with his family, where each person shares something they are grateful for from that day. This practice has been uplifting for Brent and his family.
After a year of coaching and treatment, Brent’s blood sugar and insulin levels were back to normal. His cholesterol levels were lower, but not low enough. He had tried Statin drugs for cholesterol in the past, but suffered leg pain as a result. I recommended natural medicines that further lowered his cholesterol while also being easier for his body to tolerate. I also recommended fish oil, Coenzyme Q10 and other natural medicines to prevent damage to his cardiovascular system from inflammation, oxidative stress and mitochondrial issues.
Brent looks and feels like a new man. His children will likely have their Dad around for many years to come. Stroke awareness is important, but prevention is critical. We can all benefit from living a stroke prevention lifestyle.