I Never Knew I Was At Risk For A Stroke. Here's What I Wish I Knew

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In 2013, I had a mild stroke. I had no knowledge about strokes and I was terrified about what it would mean for my life as the mother of a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. The actual incident of having a stroke was shocking. I experienced a shooting pain down the left side of my body, a massive pressure headache, and lost control of movement in my left leg. At the urging of my primary care doctor, I went to the emergency room and was diagnosed with having had an ischemic stroke.

After being admitted to the hospital, doctors told me that I would likely stay in the hospital or be transferred to a rehabilitation hospital for up to five weeks. They believed it could take a lot of recovery time to teach my brain how to move my left leg again. I was devastated at this news. Fortunately, the next day, I regained movement of my left leg, and four days later, I was discharged. My doctors attributed my being in good physical condition as a major factor in my quick recovery.

I never knew I was at risk for a stroke.

After many tests, it was determined my stroke was most likely caused by a small hole in my heart called a Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO), combined with a blood disorder, called factor V Leiden. Factor V Leiden increases the risk of blood clotting and is believed to have been the cause of a small clot that formed near my heart. That clot was then able to pass into my brain through the tiny hole in my heart. I was unaware I had either condition prior to having my stroke. With this newfound knowledge, I am able to get treatment to prevent future strokes. I take an aspirin daily and had a heart surgery to close the hole in my heart. Those two steps combined with embracing a healthy lifestyle are my best defense for preventing a future occurrence. Here are the top five things I do to prevent a future stroke:

1. Stay hydrated

This is important for overall health but especially if you have factor V or have an increased risk of forming blood clots. To do this, I make sure I drink half of my body weight in ounces of water a day. I always increase my intake of water when I am exercising or traveling on long flights.

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2. Stay active

I balance cardiovascular workouts, resistance training (such as barre workouts and light weight lifting) with stretching and relaxation techniques such yoga and meditation. The benefits of cardiovascular exercises keep the heart healthy, making blood less likely to clot, lowering blood pressure, and increasing levels of good cholesterol. Resistance training, yoga, and meditation, keep me strong, help me build lean muscles, manage stress, and become more mindful.

3. Eat mindfully

I became more educated and intentional about food after having a stroke. I now focus on establishing a more nourishing lifestyle filled with mostly plant-based foods. I now try (as best as I can) to avoid preservatives, dairy, and foods heavy in sodium. I shifted away from my mindset of dieting to a more balanced view of long-term wellness. The more I educated myself on the impact of what I was putting into my body, the easier it became to make better day-to-day choices.

4. Manage inflammation

Chronic inflammation in the body increases risk of heart disease and stroke. Discovering your level of inflammation is complex and may require special medical testing. I turned to a functional medicine doctor that did blood tests to measure certain inflammation markers. Now that I have all my blood work completed, I have a personalized program I follow that includes taking extra B vitamins, eating foods higher in omega-3s, bumping up my antioxidant intake, and avoiding specific foods that cause inflammation in my body.

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5. Monitor your health

Through all this I have learned that it's so important to be vigilant about your health. High blood pressure (hypertension) and high cholesterol can easily go undetected—especially if you're young and appear healthy. One way to help reduce your risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease is to have your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar checked regularly, keeping the results for your own records. This should be a lifelong practice and it is never too early to start.

The information you collect today can be your baseline, your compass that guides you in making important health and wellness decisions in the future. For example, blood tests that show a slight elevation in your blood pressure or cholesterol can be lowered by improving eating habits and embracing a healthier lifestyle. You don't want to wait years to find out you have high cholesterol or hypertension, when you are at the point of needing medications or because you have developed heart disease. Knowing your health status now can help you identify the changes (even small ones) you need to make to reduce the risk of facing a stroke and heart disease in the future.

Today I am a spokesperson for the American Heart and Stroke Association. I started working with the stroke and heart association to help advocate to raise awareness about stroke prevention, recognition, and to encourage others to embrace a healthier lifestyle. One of the most important things I know now is that 80 percent of strokes and heart disease are preventable through living a healthy lifestyle, which to me—in many ways—means you can save your own life.

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