Gena Lee Nolin: I battled thyroid illness in a Baywatch bathing suit
With an audience of more than a billion fans in 110 countries, it was one of the most touching and supposedly true-to-life scenes in television history.
Just 12 weeks after giving birth to her first child, a little boy called Spencer, Baywatch star Gena Lee Nolin agreed to appear with him in an episode in which she played a happy, healthy, curvaceous new mother.
The idea for the storyline came from David Hasselhoff, her Baywatch co-star, and the producer of the Nineties American drama series about a group of beach lifeguards.
Gena Lee, 39, a former Playboy cover girl, recalls: ‘I’d taken Spencer to the set in a papoose. David said, ‘‘We have to write him into the plot. He is adorable and you look so beautiful.’’ ’
Naturally, Gena Lee was flattered by the compliment. But she was starting to find that maintaining the perfectly sculpted looks on which her career depended was like fighting a losing battle.
No matter how little she ate and how much she exercised, she gained weight. Her once-silky blonde hair was becoming dry and brittle. She was constantly tired and, following Spencer’s birth in 1997, she was tearful and despondent.
Her doctor diagnosed postnatal depression and prescribed antidepressant medication.
In fact, she was suffering from Hashimoto’s disease, in which the immune system attacks and destroys the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck. But it took more than ten years, and the development of increasingly frightening symptoms, for doctors to discover the true cause of her problems.
The thyroid gland produces the hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine, which are released into the bloodstream to control growth and metabolism. They affect heart rate and body temperature and help convert food into energy. Normally, the levels of these hormones are carefully controlled so that these processes happen at a stable rate.
However, Hashimoto’s causes hypothyroidism, in which the thyroid gland produces insufficient thyroxine, which means many of the body’s processes slow down.
Commonly, this results in tiredness, weight gain and depression. Often, there is a swelling in the neck – known as a goitre – caused by the enlargement of the gland and, more rarely, pain.
Patients may also experience constipation, dry skin, hair loss, cold intolerance, mild deafness, menstrual irregularities and memory loss. In severe cases, if left untreated, kidney and heart failure can occur.
Hypothyroidism affects almost one million British women, with Hashimoto’s the cause in about one in ten of these cases. Other causes include the side effect of some medicines and an iodine deficiency.
The condition occurs especially between the ages of 30 and 50, but may be seen in any age group, including children.The disease is ten times as common in women as in men, although it is not fully understood why.
‘It probably has to do with the interplay between female reproductive hormones – particularly oestrogen and progesterone – and thyroid hormones,’ says Mark Vanderpump, consultant endocrinologist at the Royal Free Hospital, London.
‘This is why menopausal women are often affected. It’s also commonly first seen after pregnancy because of changes to a woman’s immune system at that time.’
As the symptoms of Hashimoto’s disease are similar to other common ailments, it is often misdiagnosed. Having suffered for years without treatment, Gena Lee, who was 23 when she was cast as Baywatch lifeguard Neely Capshaw, is campaigning for routine thyroid testing.
‘I now believe my thyroid began to malfunction when I was 18,’ she says. ‘That was when the fatigue started, as well as the depression, some hair loss and mood swings. I would get a puffy face, puffy eyes.
‘It didn’t relate to how much sleep I had. The low moods wouldn’t be related to anything happening in my life. In fact, everything else was going so well, which made it all the more odd.’
She would yo-yo in weight by as much as 50lb. ‘I’m a tall girl at 5ft 9in,’ Gena Lee continues. ‘I’d range between 120lb and 140lb while filming. After my second baby, I got up to 170lb. And not through lack of exercise or eating right either.’
She blamed her constant tiredness on gruelling working hours. Three days a week, Gena Lee would report to the Baywatch set at 4am. Production finished at sunset.
‘The weight issue was made worse as I also had to pour myself into a bathing suit. So I would starve myself. I’d eat a salad or a can of tuna a day and that was it. I was exhausted. I soldiered on with the help of anti-depressants.’
After marrying a second time, to professional ice-hockey player turned sports commentator Cale Hulse, she became pregnant again.
Their son, Hudson, was born in 2006. ‘I’d put on 35lb and getting it off was very hard,’ says Gena Lee, from Scottsdale, Arizona. ‘I was eating tiny meals and working out five or six days a week and I was depressed, weepy, sad and helpless.
‘I went to my doctor and said, ‘‘something is not right’’ and he said I was experiencing postnatal depression again.
‘Then I got pregnant with my third child. I was at eight weeks, when my heart suddenly started to race at a terrifying speed. This happened three times while I was pregnant. It was so scary.’ Arrhythmia – disturbance of the normal electrical rhythm of the heart, which causes it to beat quickly or out of time – is a known symptom of an overactive thyroid – a condition in which the gland produces too much hormone, rather than too little.
These symptoms prompted Gena Lee’s doctors to investigate her hormone levels, and five months after Gena Lee gave birth to a daughter, Stella, in 2008, her disorder was finally diagnosed.
‘I was still suffering fatigue and putting on weight. The doctors finally decided to check my thyroxine level with a blood test – they were worried I was producing too much, but in fact found it to be very low. I was diagnosed there and then.
‘It was a huge relief to finally know what had caused me so much misery. My doctors tried a number of different medications before finding one that finally worked – and within three days of taking it, I was almost symptom-free.’
Today, Gena Lee, who is now in talks with the producers of the BBC show Strictly Come Dancing, takes hormone replacement drugs but it’s likely her condition will worsen.
‘Hashimoto’s is a progressive disease,’ says Dr Vanderpump. ‘Usually, when patients are diagnosed, their thyroid is still producing some thyroxine, but gradually the natural reservoirs are exhausted, so medication needs to be adjusted over time.’
Gena Lee, who is working on a book with US thyroid expert Mary Shomon, to help other sufferers, says: ‘Anyone who is suffering from similar symptoms to the ones I had should get to a doctor as soon as possible. A simple blood test can check your thyroid health.
‘My journey with this disease has been scary but it’s liberating to finally know that I can control it.’