Photo: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

Living well after a stroke is possible, thanks to earlier detection, better recognition and treatment options. But one Saskatchewan researcher is taking a different tact and looking at the role that nutrition can play in how well or how poorly those who have had strokes can recover.

Dr. Phyllis Paterson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan, is delving into the critical role that diet can play post-stroke. She has found that malnourishment hampers successful recovery. In part, that is linked to some of the after effects of a stroke, including difficulty swallowing, mobility issues and depression. Estimates are that as many as 50 percent of stroke patients may be effected by malnutrition.

Some early results show that a lack of nutrition impairs key recovery mechanisms by decreasing the amount of inflammation in the brain produced after a stroke. Inflammation is often seen as a bad thing, but it does play an important role in helping the body respond to injury. It helps limit the stroke, allowing the brain to begin important repair work. However, too much inflammation can derail that process.

Diet tied to an ability to mend and repair

Funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Dr. Paterson’s rat studies have indicated that malnutrition diminishes brain plasticity – the ability to reorganize brain cells and create new connections. She and her team also discovered that muscles not affected by the stroke grew bigger over time and helped compensate for those injured by the stroke. Once again, it is believed that efficiency of that mechanism is tied to nutrition or the lack of.

She believes that providing more support to stroke patients can be a great benefit. Dietitians can offer assistance with specialized meal plans that take issues, like difficulty with swallowing, into account.

Healthy habits are also essential for preventing another stroke. Diets high in sodium may contribute to high blood pressure – a leading risk factor factor for strokes. Saturated fat and trans fat also can raise blood cholesterol levels. Some basic guidelines include: eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, fish twice weekly, cut sugar intake to no more than 100 calories daily for women and 150 calories for men, lean protein sources and low-fat dairy products.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation estimates that 62,000 Canadians have a stroke each year, which translates to one every nine minutes.

Strokes should be addressed as medical emergencies. Learning to recognize them is critical. The acronym FAST (Face: It is drooping? Arms: Can you raise both? Speech: Is it slurred or jumbled? Time: Call 911 right away) is a useful tool.