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Belfast mother-of-three Gillian Killiner: My body was destroying my thyroid... it was a battle

 

Married mother-of-three Gillian Killiner, from east Belfast, was diagnosed with hypothyroidism six years ago, due to an auto-immune disorder called Hashimoto’s disease. She runs her own business, 121 Dietitian, based at Bannatyne Health Club in Belfast.

Gillian (45) believes her hypothyroidism stems back to an illness she contracted during her third pregnancy. 

"When I was pregnant with my child I had a condition called quinsy which sent me into the Royal Victoria Hospital as an emergency case," she says.

"Quinsy is a rare and potentially serious bacterial swelling of the tonsils to the point where you can't breathe. I was admitted to the Royal in the middle of the night and given high doses of antibiotics."

In the end, medical staff had to burst Gillian's tonsils and use high doses of antibiotics to clear the infection, but she continued to suffer medical problems.

"It was a slippery slope from there. I wasn't feeling brilliant for a number of years, but you put it down to stress," she says.

"Symptoms included brain fog, not being able to string a sentence together, fatigue but not being able to sleep and constipation, which I'd never had before. I had a low body temperature and was feeling freezing, my nails were weak and brittle and my hair was dry. 

"These are all the symptoms of hypothyroidism, but you don't think about the fact that you might have an actual medical condition that needs addressing as an underlying problem."

Gillian says the symptoms reached their peak around 2012 when she was finally diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Bloods testing revealed that it was an autoimmune illness called Hashimoto's disease.

"My body was destroying my thyroid - I feel it was stemming from my original illness. It was very much a battle," she says.

Unfortunately Gillian found her medication wasn't really working for her and she carried out research which allowed her to figure out a lifestyle and dietary regime that helped to counteract her autoimmune disorder.

""You learn every year what works and what doesn't," she says.

"I did have a healthy diet beforehand, but it was still skewed towards the healthy eating guidelines and I use a variation of that.

"In my own business I don't recommend nutritional guidelines for everybody - I personalise everyone's nutrition to their health and requirements.

"It's always a challenge for me, but I gauge it on how I am feeling and how I work."

Over the weekend Gillian completed the 10K Seeley Cup in Ormeau Park in 51 minutes.

"I'm not an athlete. But to be able to walk away and know I did that at age 45, when I wasn't able to get out of the car and walk into the supermarket before I hit 40, was a huge boost. And now I feel great and my life is back on track."

Gillian says there is a tendency for people to blame themselves for symptoms which may often turn out to be linked to an underlying condition which has yet to be diagnosed.

"I have been ill myself and so now fix others," she says.

"When patients come to me I ask them to complete a questionnaire and a food diary and get them to have bloods tested. They then come back to me and I work out the best programme for them.

"This can be for various illnesses - young and old - as I ensure I fix their gut issues, sleep, mood, anxiety, weight, exercise performance and so on.

"I have teamed up to provide a health and performance clinic Fit for Life with a physiologist and physiotherapist - the first of its kind in Northern Ireland."

20 things you didn’t know about thyroid disorders

Thyroid disorders are believed to affect around one in 20 people in the UK, yet because the symptoms - such as weight changes, depression and fatigue - can often be vague (or overlap with other conditions), it's not uncommon for thyroid disorders to go undetected for a long time.

"The only way to be sure you have a thyroid condition is with blood tests, as the symptoms can be quite vague and aren't specific," says Dr Steven Hurel, a consultant endocrinologist at London Bridge Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK (hcahealthcareuk.co.uk).

Here, he joins the British Thyroid Foundation (BTF; btf-thyroid.org) to outline 20 important points about the thyroid gland and thyroid disorders...

1. Where is the thyroid?

The butterfly-shaped thyroid gland lies at the front of the neck (just below the Adam's apple), and is part of the endocrine system (responsible for producing hormones).

2. What does it do?

The thyroid produces the hormones T4 (levothyroxine) and T3 (liothyronine) that regulate the body's metabolic rate as well as heart and digestive function, muscle control, brain development, mood, and bone maintenance.

3. Screening for thyroid problems

TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) is made by the pituitary gland in the brain and stimulates the thyroid gland to produce both hormones. Measuring TSH is used to screen for thyroid problems. If thyroid function fails, TSH rises - and if the thyroid stops producing enough thyroxine, then the TSH rises further and hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) develops.

4. More common in women

Although both women and men can develop thyroid conditions, they're more common in women.

5. Family history can count

Thyroid problems often run in families, so if one of your close blood relatives has been diagnosed, you might be more likely to develop a thyroid disorder too - although this is not always the case.

6. Have you got hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism symptoms include fatigue, lethargy, cold intolerance, dry skin, brittle hair, weight gain, a hoarse voice, constipation, lower libido, muscle weakness, heavier periods, a puffy face and bags under the eyes, slow speech, movements and thoughts, depression, memory problems, difficulty concentrating, a slow heartbeat, slightly raised blood pressure and raised cholesterol.

7. Immune involvement

There are different types and causes of thyroid dysfunction. The BTF says autoimmune thyroid disease, in which the immune system attacks the thyroid cells, is the biggest cause of hypothyroidism. The most common form is Hashimoto's thyroiditis.

8. Getting the balance right

Hypothyroidism is treated with synthetic levothyroxine. Cheryl McMullan, CEO of the BTF, says: "The correct dose of levothyroxine is one that restores good health. If you feel your dose isn't correct, make a note of each of your symptoms and discuss them with your doctor. They can advise you about tweaking your dose as a way of helping you feel better."

9. Beware grapefruit!

Grapefruit is known to increase the absorption of levothyroxine, as it increases acidity in the stomach.

10. Be careful with cough medicine

Some cough medicines containing large amounts of iodine can interfere with thyroid function too.

11. Go easy on the seaweed

The BTF says some health foods taken in excess - for example, kelp, a form of seaweed - can cause hypothyroidism.

12. Brain malfunction may be a factor

Hypothyroidism can also be caused by a malfunction of the pituitary gland in the brain, which regulates thyroid hormones.

13. Congenital hypothyroidism can also happen

Sometimes babies are born with hypothyroidism, possibly because the thyroid hasn't developed or because it doesn't form thyroid hormones properly. This is known as congenital hypothyroidism.

14. Overactive thyroid

The thyroid gland can also become overactive, so TSH usually falls and becomes undetectable, as the body tries to stop the thyroid from working. This is hyperthyroidism, which leads to an increase in metabolism.

15. Have you got hyperthyroidism?

Hyperthyroidism symptoms can include weight loss despite an increased appetite, palpitations/a racing heart, sweating and heat intolerance, tiredness and weak muscles, irritability, shakiness, mood swings, thirst, loose bowels, thyroid eye disease (prominent eyes that feel gritty and sore, double vision), and an enlarged thyroid gland.

16. Graves' disease

When hyperthyroidism is associated with thyroid antibodies in the blood, it's known as Graves' disease, an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, which becomes overactive in response.

17. Stress can be a trigger

People with Graves' disease may have experienced some sort of major stress a year or so before their actual diagnosis. It's believed that people who are predisposed can develop some autoimmune conditions following exposure to a trigger.

18Treatment options

Hyperthyroidism treatment can include drugs or surgery, and Dr Hurel says: "It may be very transient and settle without the need for medication, but, depending on the cause, tablets may be needed or it may be necessary to remove the thyroid gland with surgery or using radioactive iodine treatment."

19. Not smoking is very important

Hyperthyroidism is exacerbated by smoking, and smokers are up to eight times more likely to develop thyroid eye disease than non-smokers.

20. Enlarged thyroid

The thyroid can also be enlarged as a result of general swelling in one or more nodules. This is common and around 5-10% of adults have a palpable nodule, with many more detectable on scans. An enlarged thyroid gland is known as a goitre. However, it's always a good idea to get any swellings or lumps in the throat checked by a doctor, as they may sometimes be a sign of cancer.

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