Former Baywatch star Gena Lee Nolan blows the whistle on this often undiagnosed disease

By Jené Luciani
May 24, 2012
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You might remember her as one of those red-swimsuit-wearing hotties running in slow motion on the hit 1990's show Baywatch. These days, Gena Lee Nolan is on a crusade to save lives just like her character-but it's not on the beach. Nolan is one of 22 million Americans who suffer from weight gain, fatigue, hair loss, and other symptoms caused by poor thyroid function. Behind the scenes of her hit TV show, no matter how little she ate and how much she exercised, Nolan continued to gain weight. Her once-silky blonde hair became dry and brittle, and she was constantly tired.

After a long journey, the actress discovered she suffers from Hashimoto's disease, in which the immune system attacks and eventually destroys the thyroid. It took more than 10 years–not to mention the development of increasingly frightening symptoms–for doctors to discover what was really wrong with her.

In honor of World Thyroid Day (Friday, May 25th), Nolan has teamed up with Dr. Alan Christianson, NMD (as seen on CBS's The Doctors), who is also the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Thyroid Disease. They're raising awareness for a disease that's actually more common than diabetes, heart disease, and breast cancer-to help the millions of people who remain undiagnosed and untreated.

We spoke one-on-one with Nolan and Christianson to find out how to know if you're at risk for this disease and what to do about it.

SHAPE: Let's start with Dr. Christianson. Can you give us an overview of what exactly thyroid disease is?

Dr. Christianson (DC): It's a condition in which the thyroid gland makes the incorrect amount of hormones for the body's needs. Most commonly it makes too little hormone, but it can also make too much. This effects how every cell in the body forms energy.

SHAPE: Who's most at risk and how do they know if they should get tested?

DC: Thyroid disease affects eight times as many women as men. It can happen any time in life, but it gets more common with age and is especially common after pregnancy or menopause.

SHAPE: What are the warning signs?

DC: You need to be on the lookout for new and persistent unexplained symptoms such as weight gain, hair loss, fatigue, muscle pain, constipation, irregular menstrual cycles, and depression. Also, someone that is seemingly ‘binge' eating and can't control it points towards some combination of poor blood sugar control, glandular abnormalities, and unresolved psychological stressors.

SHAPE: After I had my daughter, a friend who works in healthcare warned me some women can develop thyroid disorders after pregnancy and suggested I get tested. Do you

think this is a legitimate concern?

DC: During or after pregnancy are very common times for thyroid disease to come on. During pregnancy there are big swings in estrogen and progesterone and also changes in how the immune system works. All of these factors strain the thyroid and cause it to quit working properly in those who are susceptible to it.

SHAPE: Now a few questions for Gena: What was it like living in Hollywood with this disease and working grueling hours on set?

Gena Lee Nolan (GLN): I love working in such an exciting industry, but while you're on a TV series, it's very difficult dealing with the symptoms I had. The most frustrating part was that I did not know what was making me so ill.

SHAPE: How did you finally find out you had it?

GLN: I had gone through several doctors that basically said I was fine and sent me on my way with an antidepressant prescription. It's extremely frustrating to be told that you're fine, when clearly you're NOT! I was experiencing weight ups and downs, anxiety, heart palpitations, and more. Something went off in me when a family doctor said, "Gena, your thyroid levels are really high, but I'm not going to medicate you because you'll have to take this for the rest of your life." I was like, ‘Okay, are you serious?!!' I was finally diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease and properly medicated in November 2009.

SHAPE: Did it affect your career at all?

GLN: Thankfully, it didn't affect my career. I had stepped away [from the limelight] to be with my son Spencer and went on to have two more children, so I've been a busy bee. However, had I kept going at that pace without being diagnosed, it most definitely would have affected everything in my world. Once you're treated with the proper medication and as I say, keep "listening" to your body, you can live a healthy, happy life. It's the untreated folks that I want so desperately to help!

Now I have three beautiful children that keep me going. I've been busy creating thyroid awareness with my Facebook page "Thyroid Sexy" and working on my Thyroid Bootcamp with Dr. Alan Christianson. I'm also currently writing a book called Thyroid Sexy with NY Times bestselling author Mary J. Shomon. At the end of the day, I want to help others who are suffering the way I did. It's a personal mission!

SHAPE: Besides medication, do you fight your disease through diet and exercise? If so, what are your favorite workout routines? Any special diets you follow?

GLN: I've been gluten free for over a year now, which I love! Juicing three times a week and eating clean has helped a lot as well. I try to get in at least three to four days of exercising per week. Some weeks I don't do anything at all…I go by how I feel!

SHAPE: What message do you have for women who might be battling thyroid disorders?

GLN: You need to know that you're not alone! Don't give up and never take no for an answer, even if that means you have to fire your doctor! Educate yourself through sites like my Facebook page "Thyroid Sexy" to help direct you to the right doctor, labs, medication, etc...There's always help around the corner!