Stroke is a leading cause of long-term disability and the third leading cause of death in the United States.  So, what can you do about it besides a good lifestyle program of regular exercise, losing weight if obese, and enjoying a plant-based diet?

1. Eat red plant foods:

Finnish researchers studied 1,031 men in Finland between the ages of 46 and 65 in a 12-year study.  The study found that people with the highest amounts of lycopene in their blood were 55-59 percent less likely to have a stroke than people with the lowest amounts of lycopene in their blood.1  The antioxidant lycopene belongs to the carotenoid family and is found in tomatoes, tomato products, red-fleshed watermelon, pink grape fruit, guava, and papaya.

2. Watch your triglycerides level.

New research shows that in post-menopausal women, the level of triglycerides is a much better predictor of stroke than total and LDL cholesterol levels. Researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center found that high triglyceride levels were significantly associated with the development of stroke. Women in the highest quarter of baseline triglyceride levels had a 56% higher risk for an ischemic stroke than women in the lowest quarter of triglyceride levels during the course of this 15-year study.  An ischemic stroke is caused by an interruption or blockage of blood flow to or inside the brain. This risk occurred even after the researchers adjusted for age, weight, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, and exercise.2  Since low thyroid hormone and diabetes frequently elevate triglycerides, those who have elevated triglycerides should have these checked.

Interventions to lower triglyceride levels include:

  • Limiting the amount of saturated fat to 7 to 10 percent of total calories
  • Limiting the total amount of fat to under 30 percent of total calories
  • Limiting the amount of cholesterol
  • Eating only enough calories to achieve or maintain a healthy weight. (Excess calories are converted to fat or cholesterol.) Just a little weight loss can significantly lower elevated triglyceride levels; in many cases it will even lower them back to a normal level.
  • Adding triglyceride-lowering omega-3 fats, like flaxseed
  • Engaging in moderate exercise; walking 30 to 40 minutes a day

3. Cultivate a positive attitude.

After controlling for many probable confounders, a Finnish study showed that individuals who had less dispositional pessimism had a 48% less risk of stroke compared to those who had high levels of pessimism.3

Optimism protects against stroke. Researchers from the University of Michigan looked at the results of standard optimism tests for 6,044 men and women. All were free of stroke at the study’s start. The optimism score was on a 16-point scale. After adjusting for age, each unit increase in their optimism score reduced stroke risk about 9 percent. Even when the researchers also adjusted for other factors such as smoking, alcohol use, race, gender, hypertension, mental illness, body mass index and level of physical activity, the association between optimism and reduced risk of stroke remained robust.4  By cultivating gratitude and focusing on life’s positives, we encourage optimism.

4. Get sufficient sleep.

Sleep if you want to prevent a stroke. Even in normal-weight, middle-aged or older individuals, insufficient sleep increases the risk for stroke. A University of Birmingham study showed that middle-aged and older individuals who had normal BMI and habitually slept less than six hours had a 4.5 fold increased risk for stroke symptoms than those who slept 8 to 9 hours.5  Regularity in sleep hours reduces fatigue, too.

5.  Breathe fresh air.

Moderate air pollution increases the risk for stroke within hours. Researchers who studied more than 1,700 stroke patients in the Boston area over a 10-year period found exposure to ambient fine particulate matter, (generally from vehicle traffic, factories, and the burning of wood), was associated with a significantly higher risk of ischemic strokes on days when the EPA’s air quality index for particulate matter was yellow instead of green.6  Perhaps those who are at risk for stroke should exercise inside (with an air purifier) on code yellow and code orange days.

We might also emphasize that it is extremely important to prevent diabetes, atherosclerosis, and hypertension. These conditions seriously increase one’s risk for stroke.  If you have these conditions, please get your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol within your doctor’s recommendation.



  1. J Karppi, J. A. Laukkanen, J. Sivenius, K. Ronkainen, S. Kurl. Serum lycopene decreases the risk of stroke in men: A population-based follow-up study. Neurology, 2012; 79 (15): 1540 DOI: 10.1212
  2. J. S. Berger, et al., Lipid and Lipoprotein Biomarkers and the Risk of Ischemic Stroke in Postmenopausal Women. Stroke, 2012; Apr;43(4):958-66.
  5. American Academy of Sleep Medicine (2012, June 11). Top risk of stroke for normal-weight adults: Getting under 6 hours of sleep.
  6. Ref. G. A. Wellenius, et al., Ambient Air Pollution and the Risk of Acute Ischemic Stroke. Archives of Internal Medicine, 2012; 172 (3): 229 DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2011.732