(Men, too!) Did I get your attention? Sorry for the bait and switch: I put a royalty-free pic of Tom Brady and Giselle here for my New Englander audience (does it even show up??) because if I had instead titled this post as a personal story about stroke awareness and prevention- you would have just scrolled on…. admit it! And how do I know this?
Because last spring, shortly after my dear friend from college, Lauren, suffered a massive stroke, I participated in a health fair bringing all kinds of materials about stroke awareness and prevention, offered blood pressure readings, and generally mingled with attendees. Now, when a naturopathic doctor sets up at a health fair, people love to ask questions about things like cleanses, or whether there are supplements for weight loss, or to tell me amazing healing stories, chat about recipes, and ask me “Can you treat….?” And this is usually great! I have a lot of information and opinions about these things. But, they demurely shuffle (or flat out run) away when confronted with any stroke awareness mention or materials. Even when someone admittedly has risk factors such as hypertension and/or a family history for cardiovascular disease, they are loathe to discuss the “S” word. Talking about trendy eating plans, like whether Tom Brady’s lectin-free diet is really “a thing”- these are definitely more comfortable and sexy topics, and far less confrontational.
And I get it. When you’ve had a history of high blood pressure, it makes you feel out of control, which is a really helpless and frightening feeling. People interested in natural medicine like to do their own research and want to feel empowered about caring for their own health and wellness as much as possible. And the subject of stroke? Well, that is so exceptionally frightening and seemingly random that no one wants to think about it. But we have to. Because up to 80% of the time, it’s not random, it is preventable. Over a third of people (CDC statistics-2009) were under age 65 at the time of stroke, and it is a leading cause of death and long term disability.
Hypertension is an all-too-common condition in modern times, and while it can be successfully treated, by the time new patients come to see me about it, it is often after prior prescribed medications have failed or under-performed, or have unintended side effects, or both. The important thing, and this is coming from me, a naturopathic doctor who values natural, empowering, self-sustaining approaches to successful healthcare, is that it is important to keep working with your primary care doctor and/or cardiologist to get the right pharmacological combination whenever your risk is high; this means it’s been going on for a long time, you have second stage or above hypertension, or you have a family or personal history that puts you in a high risk category for stroke. The longer you wait, the more damage that accumulates from the constant pounding to the delicate blood walls of your blood vessels, and to your organs:
In the mean time, you can still work on the lifestyle and nutritional changes that can also reduce your blood pressure and stroke risks. Medications can then be reduced, and sometimes, completely eliminated with careful teamwork with your doctors. And it helps to be aware that they DO often need to be adjusted, especially when there is weight loss, because blood pressure can get too low on the same dose of medicine(s) when the body goes through changes. Hypertension, as outlined by the American Heart Association, begins at 140 systolic, and 90 diastolic. But the absolute best time to start working on prevention is when it just starts to get over the high 120’s systolic and mid 80’s diastolic, when it is still classified as a “pre-hypertensive” category. This is the time when you have the best chance of managing things from the start, over the long term, with lifestyle and dietary modifications alone.
My friend Lauren has always been an independent, energetic, driven, and creative woman who seemed happiest juggling multiple projects at once. And she was usually highly successful at the endeavors she threw herself at. Always an optimist, she never wanted to bring up things that were negative or frustrating. When she got engaged, she was so happy about her life and her soon-to-be husband, and she was ready for motherhood. She cautiously mentioned her concerns to me that she had had hypertension and headaches for some time, especially with stress, but that the medications she was prescribed weren’t working. She had tried several different kinds. This was over a decade ago. I was fresh out of my graduate training. She was open to trying some lifestyle and nutritional approaches, and going back to her doctor (or a different doctor) for an opinion about a another pharmaceutical approach. And she worked hard, and it seemed to be working well for her! Then, marriage, 2 children arrived, time passed, moves happened, and Lauren remained optimistic and busy as ever throughout in her many roles. In our annual group girls’ trips over the next decade, we really didn’t talk much more about it. It seemed like things were going well for her, and she felt her health was being managed well enough. And then, the unthinkable happened.
We met as freshmen in college. Lauren helped introduce me to my future husband; she and her roommate shared a calculus class with him and were study partners. We became volunteer rescue squad members for 3 years together, often running on the same shifts. She could remain cool under pressure through (many) motor vehicle accident scenes, violence, maiming, death, and even through physical threat of harm from suicidal people who did not want to be rescued! There was the time we responded to a scene involving a young dying child. After we stabilized and secured our little patient for transport, I remember I felt myself beginning to lose my composure- this had never happened to me on duty. I whispered this to her and she quickly assumed the lead with all further communications, collected and calm in her demeanor with all points of contact. She’s a hero. But even Wonder-Women sometimes need help with things.
So, if you currently have high blood pressure, but figure you will address it some other time, it is time to do the uncomfortable thing of accepting the feelings of fear and lack of control and getting help NOW to treat it with the best blend of available tools out there for you. And it may take an aggressive mix of both pharmacological and lifestyle for complicated cases. It may take time and effort, to get the right balance, but you are very much worth it. For Lauren, she never knew until after the stroke that she has a renal anatomical variation that was a complication to the efforts to treat the hypertension.
She is now on the long road of recovery, and her husband has been keeping a raw daily blog for over 4 months about the trials, difficulties, and even the rare humor in the difficult, ongoing path for Lauren and her family in his dedicated full-time daily care of her while also parenting their young children. It began as a source of release and a way of disseminating updates to anxious friends and family members, but has also developed as his mission to convince others to take necessary steps to help prevent going through this. He mentions getting feedback from many who have begun taking their medication after reading his story. You can read it and follow it here: “Stroked Out” Blog
Cora Rivard is licensed naturopathic doctor at Seasons Natural Healthcare, LLC in southern NH.