‘I was told my weight gain was due to depression – but it was an underactive thyroid’

When Nicky James began experiencing weight gain, low mood and tiredness, she put it down to stress. In her last year at university, she didn’t seek help for a year – until she realised she’d gone up five dress sizes.

“I realised then something wasn’t right, I was always a slim girl, around a size 8 to 10. Then I was a size 18 within less than a year and I knew my diet hadn’t changed,” she said.

But Nicky spent a further year suffering with her symptoms until she was eventually diagnosed with an underactive thyroid aged 21.

“My GP kept telling me I was depressed and was offering me anti-depressants. I was getting emotional in the doctor’s room because I knew there was something else wrong and nothing was being done about it.”

The branding coach suffered for two years before her condition was detected through a blood test (Photo: Nicky James)
The branding coach suffered for two years before her condition was detected through a blood test (Photo: Nicky James)

Napping every day

An underactive thyroid (known as hypothyroidism) affects about one in 20 people but is more common in older age and among women.

It was when Nicky, now 29, from Tilbury, Essex, saw another GP that she had a blood test and the condition was detected. She says it was a relief to finally understand the problem. “I knew I wasn’t just depressed,” she said. “I was having to nap every day.

“My hair is very brittle and tends to suffer breakages and falls out more easily. I get aching joints too.”

Do you have an underactive thyroid?

Symptoms usually develop slowly and you may not realise you have a medical problem for several years.

Common symptoms include: tiredness; being sensitive to cold; weight gain; constipation; depression; slow movements and thoughts; muscle aches and weakness; muscle cramps; and dry and scaly skin.

It can also cause brittle hair and nails; loss of libido; pain, numbness and a tingling sensation in the hand and fingers (carpal tunnel syndrome); and irregular periods or heavy periods.

Elderly people with an underactive thyroid may develop memory problems and depression. Children may experience slower growth and development. Teenagers may start puberty earlier than normal.

Source: NHS Choices

Avoided serious complications

Nicky was treated with levothyroxine, a synthetic version of the hormone thyroxine (T4) produced by the thyroid gland. Low levels of this, and another hormone triiodothyronine (T3), can change the way the body processes fat. This can cause high cholesterol and atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries), which can potentially lead to serious heart-related problems, such as angina and a heart attack.

The 29-year-old says she lives a healthy, active life thanks to her medication (Photo: Nicky James)
The 29-year-old says she lives a healthy, active life thanks to her medication (Photo: Nicky James)

If untreated, hypothyroidism can also cause goitre (an abnormal swelling of the thyroid gland that causes a lump to form in the throat), pregnancy problems and a life-threatening condition called myxoedema coma. Patients can also develop a low-pitched and hoarse voice; a puffy-looking face; thinned or partly missing eyebrows; a slow heart rate; hearing loss; and anaemia.

Nicky says thanks to the medication, she’s managed to go on to run a six-figure business as a branding coach.

“I’m on tablets for life now and while I still struggle with my weight and I still have some off days, I’ve been able to live a healthy, active life. I’m nowhere near as exhausted as I used to be and I’m just so glad my condition was finally found and I haven’t had any of the complications.”

Thyroid disease ‘being over-treated’

Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK are being prescribed thyroid drugs unnecessarily, according to researchers.

A group of doctors advise against lifelong hormone treatment for mild underactive hypothyroidism as they warn there is not enough evidence it helps in these cases.

The daily tablets do not appear to ease symptoms such as tiredness, low mood and weight gain, they wrote in an article published in the BMJ. Almost all adults with mild or “subclinical” underactive thyroid patients will not benefit from hormone treatment, they claim.

They warn there is “uncertainty” over potential harms and that taking a pill and attending lifelong check-ups is burdensome.

NHS guidelines currently acknowledge that many patients will not need treatment but add that for some trying medication may be worthwhile.

Patients should not stop taking their medication, the experts stressed. Anyone who has concerns should discuss them with their GP.

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‘I kept getting déjà vu and put it down to the stress of studying – but I had a brain tumour that had been growing for years’

Many of us have experienced déjà vu, an overwhelming sense that what you’re currently doing has already happened. The words translate as “already seen” and, according to one expert, 60 to 70 per cent of healthy people experience this transitory mental state.

Neurologist Professor Patrick Y Chauvel also notes that among students, fatigue or stress may cause the phenomenon.

When 21-year-old undergraduate Emeline Gilhooley began experiencing it daily, that’s exactly what she brushed it off as.

The student with her sister Clarisse (Photo: Emeline Gilhooley)
The student with her sister Clarisse (Photo: Emeline Gilhooley)

I put it all down to the stress of reading and studying a lot

Emeline Gilhooley

“I had been getting déjà vu and headaches for several years,” she told i. “I put it all down to the stress of reading and studying a lot.”

But the sensation can also be a symptom of a neurological disorder. After having a large epileptic fit in her sleep last year, Emeline discovered she had a malignant brain tumour, that may have been growing for the previous five to ten years.

‘I thought it was common’

Emeline, from Sheffield, explained: “I’d been getting déjà vu every day. I was in a restaurant with my mum and I had this intense feeling I’d had the conversation I was having with her already.

“I didn’t worry about it though as I thought it was common, which déjà vu is. But now I know it’s not normal to get it that often.”

Her first MRI scan in March 2018 (Photo: Emeline Gilhooley)
Her first MRI scan in March 2018 (Photo: Emeline Gilhooley)

The déjà vu episodes were me having five or six little seizures a week. I had no idea

Emeline Gilhooley

And while headaches associated with brain tumours tend to be severe, persistent and not managed by pain killers, Emeline’s were milder but regular.

“I didn’t worry about them either because they were never that bad and they went away with Ibuprofen,” she said. “Again I just thought they were due to stress.”

Then in February 2018 the University of Leeds student was sharing a bed with a friend who called an ambulance when she had an epileptic attack, and she was taken to hospital where the mass in her brain was discovered.

“The doctors say the epilepsy is likely caused by the tumour. I only had one big fit. The déjà vu episodes were me having five or six little seizures a week. Because I thought fits were always the stereotypical thrashing around on the floor types I had no idea.”

Surgery while awake

Emeline lost her hair during radiotherapy (Photo: Emeline Gilhooley)
Emeline lost her hair during radiotherapy (Photo: Emeline Gilhooley)

Last July, Emeline had life-saving brain surgery to remove the tumour while she was awake, as there was a danger her right side could be paralysed.

“I was put asleep while they opened up my skull, then woken up so they could work on removing the tumour while I moved my right side to check they weren’t causing any damage.

“I was absolutely convinced I could hear my skull being drilled back into place but the surgeons told me it was just the suction to keep my brain dry while they were operating.”

Emeline’s tumour is called an anaplastic astrocytoma. She was told it had been slow growing, but after a biopsy it was categorised as a faster-growing grade 3.

She was also given a six-week course of radiotherapy which made her lose her hair and is three-quarters of the way through a year long chemotherapy treatment, which has caused her nausea and fatigue.

Young ambassador

Emeline took part in a photography exhibition called Behind The Scars (Photo: Sophie Mayanne)

Read more: ‘My stress headaches turned out to be a brain tumour’: Woman, 33, reveals how the time of day she had migraines were a telltale sign

But now she is planning to return to university in September to finish her Sociology and Social Policy degree.

Emeline has also become a young ambassador for the Brain Tumour Charity, and she has taken part in photographer Sophie Mayanne’s Behind The Scars exhibition, which is aiming to end the stigmas around scars. She sailed with the Ellen MacArthur Trust too – all things she says have helped restore her confidence.

“The Brain Tumour Charity events have been fantastic as it meant I could meet other young people who have gone through the same thing. I met a girl who had the same surgery while being awake and she and she talked me through what to expect. Now I hope to do the same for others. Without that it’s easy to feel so alone.”

When déjà vu signals a problem

According to Professor Patrick Y. Chauvel, a neurologist at Cleveland Clinic, déjà vu occurs most often between 15 and 25 and decreases progressively with age.

Experts aren’t quite sure why, but one theory is that as we age, we’re less likely to spot memory mistakes.

Chauvel says that people who are more susceptible to it it are those who are educated, travel, remember their dreams and hold liberal beliefs.

But déjà vu may suggest a neurological problem when it:

  • Occurs frequently (a few times a month or more often versus a few times a year)
  • Is accompanied by abnormal dream-like memories or visual scenes
  • Is followed by loss of consciousness and/or symptoms such as unconscious chewing, fumbling, racing of the heart, or a feeling of fear

If there is any doubt about the cause of déjà vu, it is important to consult a neurologist.

Source: Cleveland Clinic

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How you can avoid being the victim of road rage, according to a road safety expert

A road safety specialist has offered guidance to drivers on how to change their behaviour in order to reduce their chances of becoming a road rage victim.

GEM Motoring Assist is encouraging drivers to protect themselves by being alert to early signs of road rage and Neil Worth, road safety officer at GEM, has offered five pieces of advice for drivers to consider in the hope of avoiding confrontation on the roads.

Neil comments: “Most of us will have some experience of being on the receiving end of someone else’s aggression. Thankfully, violent and unprovoked attacks are rare, but it pays to be observant and if possible to recognise signs of trouble at their earliest stages.”

“We encourage drivers to leave plenty of time for their journeys, which means they can feel calm and in control at the wheel. Stress can lead to risk taking, and this in turn increases the likelihood of aggressive incidents.

“We also urge drivers to avoid becoming involved in situations they recognise as dangerous or risky. If you’re worried about another driver who may be in danger, then stop and call the police.”

Read more: Jaw-dropping dash cam video shows car flipped onto its roof in 100mph road rage crash

How serious an issue is road rage in the UK?

Road rage incidents can be extremely distressing for victims. The RAC reported in December 2018 that almost half of UK drivers had been a victim of road rage (43 per cent), with female drivers most likely to be targeted. Eighty per cent of women responding to the RAC survey said that the incident ‘stayed with them’ hours after the incident itself, while 63 per cent of men agreed.

As well as being distressing, aggressive behaviour on the roads can be fatal. Department for Transport figures from 2018 showed that more than 5,000 people were either killed or injured in collisions where aggressive driving was a contributing factor in a three-year period.

Commenting on the RAC  report, Richard Gladman, head of driving and riding standards at road safety charity IAM Roadsmart, called on motorists to look at their own behaviour, saying: “Road rage does not affect everyone every day. If you’re finding it is happening very often, you might want to think about how you engage with other road users.”

How can I avoid being a victim of road rage?

While victims should not feel that they are at fault if they have been targeted by an aggressive driver, here are some behaviours that Neil Worth, from GEM, says can help you avoid becoming a victim:

  • Keep calm and show restraint. Every journey brings the risk of frustration and conflict. Make a pledge to be patient. Avoid using your horn or making gestures in anger.
  • Avoid competition and resist the desire to ‘get even’. If the standard of someone else’s driving disappoints you, don’t attempt to educate or rebuke them.
  • Don’t push into traffic queues. If you wait and clearly signal, you won’t wait long before another drive lets you in.
Busy traffic in the UK
Waiting for someone to let you change lanes is less likely to annoy other drivers. Credit: Shutterstock
  • Say thank you, say sorry. Courtesy encourages co-operation on the road. If you make a mistake (and we all do!) or perhaps cut things a bit fine, then a gesture of apology avoids confrontation and helps defuse anger.
  • Move away from trouble. If you feel seriously threatened by another driver, then ensure your car doors are locked and drive (at legal speed) to the nearest police station or busy area (petrol station forecourts are ideal). Use your mobile phone to alert the police. Pressing the horn repeatedly or continuously is likely to deter a potential attacker.

I’m an angry driver, how can I avoid succumbing to my rage?

If a significant proportion of British drivers are reporting that they have been victims of road rage, it stands to reason that many have also been the perpetrator. Advice from the RAC on how to avoid becoming the wrongdoer in a road rage incident is markedly similar to the advice on how to avoid becoming a victim:

  • Stay calm, and if you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed by the stress of a drive, consider pulling over.
  • Don’t retaliate to aggressive or bad driving.
  • Ignore aggressive behaviour from other road users. It’s safer to let someone past rather than matching a dangerous driver’s behaviour.
  • Acknowledge your mistakes and even if you’re not in the wrong, consider apologising.

Read more: Stressed? Here’s the best advice on coping that science has to offer

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