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9 Foods that Help Stroke Recovery (and Why BDNF Matters)

flatlay of healthy foods that help stroke recovery

Your diet can have a great impact on your overall health, especially during stroke recovery. By knowing the right foods that help stroke recovery, you can make positive choices that help the body heal.

Adjusting your diet after a stroke should be done carefully, though. Some survivors have preexisting health conditions, such as diabetes or high cholesterol, that can be improved or worsened by the foods you eat. Therefore, do not make any radical changes to your diet without consulting with your doctor or dietician first.

How Your Diet Can Aid Stroke Recovery

After scouring the latest scientific journal articles, we found that the best foods that help stroke recovery are foods that promote brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

BDNF is a protein that supports the growth of new neurons and synapses in the brain. This is critical for neuroplasticity, which is the mechanism the brain uses to recover after injury like stroke.

Neuroplasticity is how you can recover lost skills and regain independence after stroke. It’s activated by experience and practice, which is why your therapists ask you to do many repetitions of rehab exercises.

While neuroplasticity is activated by experience and practice, you can boost the effects by eating foods that boost BDNF.

Before you make any changes to your diet, though, be sure to check with your dietician or doctor. They can help make sure you’re not exacerbating any preexisting medical conditions or stroke risk factors like high cholesterol.

Now, without further ado, let’s dig into the list of foods for stroke patients that help enhance recovery.

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Best Foods that Help Stroke Recovery

Here are the healthiest foods that help stroke recovery — all of which are supported by clinical evidence.

1. Flaxseeds (Alpha-Linolenic Acid)

Flaxseeds are a great source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is a plant-based essential omega-3 fatty acid that must be obtained through the diet. Your body cannot produce ALA on its own – it must be eaten.

A recent review article highlighted that ALA boosts brain-derived neurotrophic factor and boosts neuroprotection and neuroplasticity.

Not only can ALA help with stroke recovery, but it can also help protect against stroke, too. This is critical for stroke patients who are at a higher risk of having another stroke.

2. Salmon (EPA)

platter of salmon and foods that help stroke recovery

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help normalize BDNF levels and protect against reduced neuroplasticity. That’s why they are one of the top 7 vitamins for stroke recovery.

However, if you can get your vitamins from food, that’s the better choice. Fatty fish like salmon contain an omega 3 called EPA, which your body needs. Your body does produce some EPA on its own, so it’s a good idea to add natural sources of it to your diet.

3. Blueberries (Flavonoids)

Blueberries have been shown to improve cognitive abilities likely due to their flavonoids, which are known to boost BDNF. If your doctor has suggested a reduced-fat diet to help manage stroke risk factors like high cholesterol, blueberries could make a great addition to your diet.

4. Pomegranate (Antioxidants)

Whether you’re eating them or drinking their juice, pomegranates are high in potent antioxidants, which help protect you from the damage caused by free radicals. Since the brain is most sensitive to free radical damage, pomegranates easily make the list of best foods for stroke recovery.

5. Tomatoes (Lycopene)

bowl of tomato soup diet for stroke patients

Tomatoes became a fad once they were discovered to be a rich source of the antioxidant lycopene. Although the buzz has faded, it’s still a great dietary choice for stroke patients.

Lycopene was found to provide neuroprotective benefits and reduce the effect of brain damage due to ischemic stroke in rats.

Many lycopene supplements now exist, but we recommend getting your lycopene straight from the source: tomatoes. If you opt for tomato soup, be careful to avoid brands with lots of added sugars.

6. Nuts and Seeds (Vitamin E)

Nuts and seeds are a good source of vitamin E, an antioxidant that corresponds with less cognitive decline as we get older. Although more studies are needed to prove that vitamin E specifically helps with recovery from stroke, it made the list because the brain-boosting benefits are clear.

7. Avocados (Oleic Acid)

The grey matter in your brain that processes information relies on oleic acid to perform at optimal speed, and avocados are an excellent source of oleic acid. It’s also a great source of antioxidants.

One review article claimed that the unique antioxidants in avocados “may be promising as effective neuroprotective agents.”

Try adding a quarter of an avocado to your sandwich, salad, or smoothie.

8. Beans (Magnesium)

Magnesium offers “significant neuroprotection” in different models of stroke in rats. While more studies are needed to prove its benefit for stroke recovery in humans, magnesium makes the list due to its role in neuromuscular function.

Beans are an excellent source of magnesium. Some tasty ways to get them into your diet include hummus and black bean dip.

Learn about magnesium oil for stroke recovery »

9. Red Wine (Polyphenol)

Research has shown that the relative risk of developing ischemic stroke is lowered by moderate alcohol consumption. However, it’s still unclear if the benefit comes from alcohol itself or red wine in particular, which contains a well-known polyphenol called resveratrol.

One study found significant increases in BDNF concentration in rats treated with resveratrol, which puts red wine on the list of foods that help stroke recovery. Ask your doctor if a glass of wine a day could benefit your unique health conditions.

What Foods to Avoid During Stroke Recovery

what to eat after a stroke

Now that you know what to eat during stroke recovery, let’s discuss what you shouldn’t eat.

Saturated fat and sugar should be limited during stroke recovery because studies have shown that they reduce BDNF, neuroplasticity, and learning.

This means that eating saturated fat and sugar reduces BDNF and limits your brain’s ability to grow new brain cells, which is the opposite of your stroke recovery goals.

Plus, saturated fat and sugar promote weight gain, which is a stroke risk factor.

Some common foods that contain saturated fat are dairy, red meat, processed meats, and palm oil. Try to avoid these foods.

Sugar can be trickier to avoid because it’s hidden under different names like evaporated cane juice, corn syrup, and brown rice syrup. If you’re unsure of an ingredient, it’s probably not fresh.

By limiting your intake of these foods, you give the brain the best chance at recovery.

The “MIND Diet” for Stroke Patients

healthy stroke patient eating wholesome foods for recovery

Everyone will have different dietary needs during stroke recovery, and there’s one diet that stands out above the rest: the MIND diet.

The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet is clinically proven to improve stroke recovery. It’s a hybrid of the DASH and Mediterranean diets – two diets that are shown to protect against neurodegenerative diseases, among many others.

The MIND diet is simple, too. It encourages the consumption of 10 foods and discourages 5.

Foods you should eat on the brain-healthy MIND diet are:

  1. Green, leafy vegetables
  2. All other vegetables
  3. Berries
  4. Nuts
  5. Olive oil
  6. Whole grains
  7. Fish
  8. Beans
  9. Poultry
  10. Wine

This list closely resembles all the best foods for stroke recovery mentioned above!

Foods that should be avoided on the MIND diet are:

  1. Butter and margarine
  2. Cheese
  3. Red meat
  4. Fried food
  5. Pastries and sweets

This diet is also good for limiting the risk of certain stroke risk factors like atherosclerosis and obesity.

Things to Consider When Choosing the Best Diet for Stroke Patients

Finally, if you’re considering adding or subtracting anything from your diet, be sure to check with your doctor first.

Although the foods on this list are proven in some way to benefit the brain and body, everyone is different. Your doctor can assess your preexisting medical conditions and make sure you’re making safe changes.

Overall, we hope you enjoy adding these delicious and nutritious foods that help stroke recovery to your diet. Enjoy!

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