Gena Lee Nolin: Changing the Way we Look at Thyroid Disease
[Posted originally in Yahoo! Health on Apr 05, 2013]
In the 90s, actor Gena Lee Nolin’s life was filled with red bathing suits, sand, and sun. And despite seeming to ‘have it all’ the then 20-year-old Baywatch beauty and model was battling a silent enemy.
“I knew something wasn’t right. But yet at the same time, I didn’t think anything was really wrong,” says Nolin. “I was always tired or felt a little sluggish. I just was not as into it as my friends and colleagues my age.”
After years of fatigue, Nolin started experiencing a host of debilitating symptoms. “That’s when I kind of knew something might be wrong.”
More than just “The Baby Blues”
Nolin gave birth to her first child in 1997, while still on Baywatch. “I was working 15 hour days and had to be back in a bathing suit seven weeks after having a baby,” she says.
A bout of post partum depression (often called “the baby blues”) sent Nolin to the doctor. She was prescribed antidepressants and exercise to treat the depression, and says she maintained her demanding work schedule along with a rigorous training regimen.
“The blues wet away, but the weight didn’t come off as quickly as it should, or as it did a few years earlier even though I was working out everyday with a trainer and was on a diet. Things weren’t lining up.”
The following few years had Nolin dealing with facial bloating, weight issues, brittle and thinning hair, depression, and extreme chills.
“I was always freezing cold, even when the temperature was normal in the room. There were so my signs of thyroid disease that kept creeping up,” she says.
The forgotten thyroid
Nolin says through three pregnancies, she maintained the pre-natal schedule of doctor visits and had the typical pre-natal tests and screenings. But no one connected the dots between her symptoms and her thyroid.
Six months after having her third child, Nolin, then 38, went to her family doctor for a physical.
“He called and told me my TSH, the thyroid stimulating hormone in the blood that indicates the function of the thyroid, was high. I had no idea what the thyroid really even was or where it was,” she says.
Nolin says her doctor didn’t suggest medicine or a course of action. “He said he didn’t want me to start medicine because I would have to take it the rest of my life.”
A second opinion in November 2009 confirmed that Nolin’s thyroid wasn’t functioning properly and she was prescribed medication as well as a battery of tests. “My blood work was normal, but an ultrasound showed I had Hashimoto’s disease.”
“It was a relief to be diagnosed with something because I knew something was ailing me. It felt good to know I’m really not a hypochondriac,” says Nolin
When the body and thyroid don’t get along
Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune disease in which the body thinks the thyroid gland (which is located at the base of your neck just about the collarbone) is foreign and attacks it until the thyroid finally dies off. It was the first disease to be recognized as an autoimmune disease.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Hashimoto’s disease is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States. It primarily affects middle-aged women, but can occur in men and women of any age as well as children.
The Mayo Clinic says signs and symptoms can include:
- Fatigue and sluggishness
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Pale, dry skin
- A puffy face
- Hoarse voice
- An elevated blood cholesterol level
- Unexplained weight gain — occurring infrequently and rarely exceeding 10 to 20 pounds, most of which is fluid
- Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness, especially in shoulders and hips
- Pain and stiffness in your joints and swelling in knees or the small joints in the hands and feet
- Muscle weakness, especially in your lower extremities
- Excessive or prolonged menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia)
Thyroids are sexy
Following the diagnosis, one of the first things Nolin did was start the popular Thyroid Sexy community at Facebook, where she answers questions and shares her ideas, and patients share support with each other.
“When the news first came out, people said ‘you do not look ill.’ And that’s one of the reasons I have a letter on Thyroid Sexy, because it’s so hard for people to understand that even though this is somewhat of an invisible disease, it’s still there. And people suffering need to know they’re not alone,” says Nolin.
They also need support.
“No one should feel like they’re going through any sort of thyroid disease alone,” says Nolin.
Nolin says she’s feeling well despite Hashimoto’s being a tricky disease. “Sometimes my thyroid works and spurts out the proper level of hormones. That can throw things out of whack and put my body into a state where I have hyperthryrodism, or an overactive rather than an underactive, thyroid.”
Switching medicine also helped Nolin, who says those dealing with thyroid disease shouldn’t be afraid to ask their doctor for options. “I’m taking a natural thyroid hormone instead of a synthetic—the synthetic made me very sick. But I’m happy that I’m no longer piling on sweaters! I was always so cold and now my temperature is regulated. I feel 100 times better than I did.”
In addition to raising her three kids and working, Nolin is busy writing a book, Beautiful Inside and Out: Conquering Thyroid Disease with a Happy, Healthy (Thyroid Sexy) Life, which is due out in October.
“Thyroid disease isn’t sexy, but that’s the point. My entire career I had to rely on how look—whether I look sexy. And ironically, that was the most unsexy I felt in my life. I was battling weight issues or depression and that was hard. It’s great to finally feel sexy and healthy!”