I needed to pick a cardiovascular condition for my latest nutrition school report. Initially when I picked strokes as my subject, I figured it would be boring but at least I would find plenty of resources for my research. Believe it or not I got SO TOTALLY INTO this report! I learned so much about the brain, blood vessels and cholesterol and found it fascinating. The craziest thing I found was that stroke victims are getting younger and younger. According to the National Stroke Association’s 2016 Annual Report, 44% more young people (45 years old and under) have been hospitalized from stroke since 2006 – what the hell?! It is one of the leading causes of long-term disability and guess what? Most strokes are preventable! So let’s learn a little bit about them.
Although strokes begin in the cardiovascular system, it is actually a cerebral condition. You can even call a stroke a cerebrovascular event. A stroke occurs when oxygen is cut off to some part of the brain, due to a rupture that leads to bleeding in the brain, or a blood clot which cuts off blood flow. A blood vessel rupture is called a Hemorrhagic stroke. The loss of blood flow is known as an Ischemic stroke. A TIA or ‘mini stroke’ is a Transient Ischemic Attack. This is a temporary interruption of blood flow and doesn’t permanently destroy brain cells. However, it is a warning sign that a stroke is on the way.
Three arteries – the anterior, middle, and posterior – supply blood flow to the brain’s two hemispheres. The most common area in which a stroke happens is the middle cerebral artery. Its major branches are responsible for supplying blood flow to parts of the brain responsible for both creating and understanding speech, vision, and movement.
Okay, so how do we avoid all of this crazy blood bursting in our brain stuff. The two most common risk factors are cholesterol and hypertension, aka high blood pressure. Cholesterol and blood pressure are like the goldilocks of your arteries – they can’t be too high, they can’t be too low, they need to be juuuuust right.
Young people have strong, but still pretty flexible blood vessels. When we get older, our blood vessels get weaker, and more stiff. With normal blood pressure, our blood cells move along our vessels at a steady pace. In the instance of high blood pressure, blood cells move much more quickly and can bump into the blood vessel walls and damage them. Which, for an older individual, is a very big problem as they have weaker blood vessel walls. This damage can lead to a ballooning of the artery wall, otherwise known as an aneurysm. In this case, the artery wall can rupture and cause blood to spill out and into the brain, resulting in an Hemorrhagic stroke. Blood vessels like arteries are different sizes, and sometimes in an effort to avoid that artery wall balloon business, they can make their wall thicker. Fun fact, this process is called hyaline arteriolosclerosis. If blood pressure is consistently high, the artery walls get thicker and thicker until very little or no blood at all can get through. This results in a blood clot-ish situation or Ischemic stroke.
Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol is a very big risk factor – but only because it tries to aid damaged arteries. In an attempt to prevent any further damage to the artery wall from your very rude blood cells that are in a big rush to get to their destination, cholesterol is deposited to fill weak spots in the artery wall lining. Here cholesterol builds up and acts as plaque, similar to plaque buildup on our teeth if we don’t keep up with oral hygiene. If we aren’t eating to support our blood pressure, and have high cholesterol levels, plaque buildup can lead to – yep, a blood clot.
The cholesterol in question here is LDL or low density lipoprotein, which carries essential fatty acids to the arteries. Cholesterol itself is a fat and naturally acts as glue to help mold damaged spots of the artery wall. It’s just doing its job! (The alternative form of cholesterol is HDL or high density lipoprotein, which is carried out of the body from our liver.) When medical professionals cite that high cholesterol is a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, they are really referring to high LDL levels. We actually need cholesterol to live – it helps us digest healthy fats in our diet and fat-soluble vitamins. It also strengthens our nerves and cell membranes, and supports hormone production.
Lowering blood pressure and LDL cholesterol isn’t rocket science – eat your veggies! Eat kelp and seaweed, which is actually a baller food group! Eat berries! Eat less processed garbage! Just because your family has a history of high blood pressure and cholesterol – or even stroke – doesn’t mean that has to be your future.