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A few days into January, I noticed I was getting tired and sleepy easily. My concentration level was low and it was tough staying active all day.
At first, I didn’t think it was a problem until I talked to consultant nutritionist Kepha Nyanumba, of Crystal Health Consultants who recommended I go for a check–up.
He suspected my cholesterol level was higher than normal. Some common symptoms of high cholesterol include shortness of breath, chest pain, extreme fatigue, all of which I experienced.
Cholesterol, naturally available in our bodies, has various roles including ensuring normal functioning of cells and in the formation of hormones. The liver produces majority of it and only about 20 per cent comes from food we consume. High cholesterol level, also known as hypercholesterolemia, is harmful.
“Excess cholesterol deposits in the blood vessels and clogs arteries, making it difficult for enough blood to flow to different parts of the body. Some common complications that result include heart attacks where the heart does not get enough blood supply and stroke when the blood vessels in the brain are affected,” explains Dr Lilian Mbau, CEO Kenya Cardiac Society.
Sometimes, the fatty deposits can break suddenly and result in a clot that causes a heart attack or stroke. Treatments include medication, a healthy diet and exercise.
One cause of high cholesterol is poor diet. For instance, eating saturated fat found in animal products, or even trans fats, found in some snacks, can raise the cholesterol level.
Lack of exercises, too, is dangerous as it assists in boosting the body while increasing size of particles that make up your Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or ‘bad,’ cholesterol.
High cholesterol levels is also caused by smoking, which damages the walls of blood vessels, making them more prone to accumulate fatty deposits. It might also lower good cholesterol level. The third factor is age: as one ages, so does the cholesterol go higher.
“To prevent this, avoid foods with saturated fats such as red meat, doughnuts, sausages, butter, bacon and so on. Studies have shown increasing foods rich in fibre reduces risk of high cholesterol levels,” Nyanumba explains.
Body Analysis The nutritionist conducted an analysis, and discovered my body fat percentage was elevated, thus increasing my risk of high cholesterol, something I did not expectconsidering my size.
He asked me about the kind of foods I had been taking and about my meal times. Needless to say, my diet has been far from healthy: I have recently been an addict of junk food particularly soft drinks and crisps which, according to him, is what accelerated my body fat.
I also have been eating at odd times: I would take breakfast at 11 in the morning or dinner at 10 at night, which he said was not the recommended time. He recommended a personalised meal plan to address the issue.
“It’s important for everyone to understand that anybody can have high cholesterol levels, including people who are not overweight. However, studies have shown that obesity increases risk of hyperlipidemia and it’s advisable to maintain a normal body mass index and regularly check your cholesterol levels,” he says.
Globally, according to a 2018 World Health Organisation (WHO) report, a third of ischemic heart diseases are attributable to high cholesterol. Overall, raised cholesterol is estimated to be the cause of 2.6 million deaths (4.5 per cent) and 29.7 million disability adjusted life years.
Kenya is presently experiencing a rising burden of Non Comunicable Diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and mental illnesses. High death rates Research from Non-Communicable Disease Alliance estimates that 39 per cent of deaths currently are associated with NCDs.
It is also estimated that these conditios make up half of all hospital admissions. “NCDs have a significant economic impact on the country due to their chronic nature and high cost of managing them. Families are subjected to catastrophic expenditure due to NCDs spiraling them in a vicious cycle of poverty,” says Dr Mbau.
While everyone can be affected, the most atrisk population is older people. WHO indicates a 10 per cent reduction in blood cholesterol in men aged 40 has been said to reduce heart disease by 50 per cent within five years. For men aged 70 years, the same reduction can result in an average 20 per cent reduction in heart disease in the next five years.
“As we age, our risk of developing NCDs increases. It is however, important to note younger persons are also affected. Important factors that contribute to development of NCDs are lifestyle related,” she explains.
In terms of socioeconomic status, Dr Mbau says individuals at all levels are affected and NCDs is no longer considered a disease of the affluent as previously thought.
“One of the main challenges is lack of awareness of these conditions, which means patients get diagnosed late when complications have already set it. Access to treatment remains a challenge since a majority of these conditions are managed at large hospitals.
This means patients need to travel long distance to access care, and in many cases are unable to afford treatment. The NHIF insurance cover has played a key role in improving access to care and I encourage everyone to enroll.
Lastly, despite knowing that NCDs are lifelong illnesses, some patients stop taking their medication when they feel better without consulting their health providers,” she says.
These patients eventually develop complications, some of which lead to death. Dr Mbau encourages all patients to continue with treatment unless advised otherwise by a health professional.
“I urge government to ensure these conditions prioritised and adequate resources are allocated so that all patients can access affordable and quality health care. Universal Health Care in Kenya will not be achieved unless NCDs are adequately catered for,” she asserts.
Prevention and management The most important aspect in prevention and management of NCDs is adoption of healthy lifestyles. This includes consumption of healthy diet low in bad fats and sugar, and increased intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Dr Mbau advises people to be less sedentary and participate in exercises for at least 30 minutes daily.
“These exercises include activities such as brisk walking, dancing, cycling, jogging, gardening and swimming. We encourage those who use tobacco to quit, and those who consume alcohol to reduce to moderate amounts or preferably, do away with altogether.
"In addition, it is important to maintain a healthy weight. For those who have already been diagnosed, continue taking medication and attending clinic visits as advised. It is also important that member of the public visit health facilities for regular checkups and screening so that these diseases can be diagnosed early before complications set in,” she says.
Among the changes I made to my diet included getting rid of processed foods such as white bread and sausages, eating more organic meals such sweet potato and arrowroots, and fruits after a meal.
Other changes I made include changing meal times, which means I take breakfast before 8am instead of 11am. I have increased my intake of water from two to six glasses a day, and incorporated physical activities by walking at least three times a week. So far, a month since my diagnosis, I have seen an improvement.