6 January 2015
On the surface, everything appears to be going well for 27-year-old actress-host Vanessa Vanderstraaten.
She's got the looks, a good career, and a sweet relationship with fellow Fly Entertainment artiste Andrew Lua to boot.
Watching her radiate such energy and positivity on set and off, it's hard to imagine Vanessa has been battling the disease, hyperthyroidism, since last April.
According to the Health Promotion Board of Singapore, some common signs and symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- Anxiety, shaking, feeling nervous or irritated
- Fast heartbeat or palpitations
- Feeling hot - Loss of weight
- Fatigue, exhaustion
- Increased frequency of bowel movements
- Changes in menstrual periods
When did Vanessa Vanderstraaten first notice the signs of the disease?
It all began when Vanessa started losing weight without changing her lifestyle. Despite eating more than usual, the numbers on the scale kept dropping.
"Back in April, I was really eating like a pig," she says with a laugh.
"I was hungry every two hours, and my typical daily meal plan went like this: breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, tea, dinner, snack, snack, supper!"
Despite her voracious appetite, she lost 4kg within a month. Vanessa also noticed uncontrollable shaking in her hands, which hindered her work.
"I remember presenting a show where the setting was intimate, and the audience stood close to me. I had the mic in one hand, and cue cards in the other. Both my hands wouldn't stop trembling. I was so embarrassed, I tried crossing my arms to stop them from shaking so much."
She also experienced irritability, heart palpitations and a higher than usual body temperature.
"It felt as though I was perpetually experiencing PMS. Nothing I did would make me calm down."
Then, there were also two worrying episodes where her heart started hammering hard and fast while she was lying down in bed. Her arms tingled from the elbows to her hands, and the sensation lingered for a long time before she eventually fell asleep.
Vanessa Vanderstraaten on getting diagnosed with hyperthyroidism
Although a seasoned performer, Vanessa wondered if her frequent trembling was because she'd suddenly developed an anxiety disorder or stage fright - until a friend pointed out that she might be experiencing symptoms of hyperthyroidism.
Vanessa realised that what she had could be something more serious, and sought help in May.
After a thorough examination, she was diagnosed with Graves' disease - an immune system disorder that results in the overproduction of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism) triggered by a malfunction in the body's immune system.
Secreted by the thyroid gland, these hormones are meant to regulate the metabolism - the rate at which food is converted into energy.
They also affect one's heartbeat, body temperature, muscle strength and appetite.
Excess thyroid hormones speed up metabolic functions and cause symptoms Vanessa experienced, like heart palpitations, sweating, trembling and weight loss.
She was shocked when the doctor told her she had Graves' disease. "I didn't expect this to happen to anyone my age."
However, she soon learnt that the condition is actually the most common cause of hyperthyroidism - and it usually affects younger women.
Vanessa Vanderstraaten's lifestyle changes since the diagnosis
Since the diagnosis, Vanessa has made multiple lifestyle adjustments.
As part of her treatment plan, she has a year-long course of medication that she's taking.
She also has to go for blood tests every other month to check her thyroid hormone levels.
In most cases of hyperthyroidism, the first line of treatment is anti-thyroid medication to prevent the thyroid gland from over-producing hormones.
Once thyroid hormone levels are within the normal range and the condition is in remission, it's possible to stop medication completely unless a relapse occurs.
"Whenever I'm filming outdoors, I feel warmer than usual, so I make sure I'm adequately hydrated," she says.
"My basal body temperature is now higher than usual as my body is working at super speed."
And since her body now burns calories faster and longer than it normally should, Vanessa has had to cut back on cardio activity to avoid overworking her heart and body.
She has also traded her favourite zumba sessions for lower-impact Body Balance classes, as well as slow jogs and walks on the treadmill.
"I choose workouts that let me control how fast I go. This is so I can bring the speed down and control my breathing any time I feel like my heart is racing too fast," she says.
The illness has not only impacted her physically, but psychologically as well. Her self-esteem definitely took a hit.
"While I didn't become depressed about my condition, I didn't feel great about it either. After losing so much weight, my boobs shrank, my butt disappeared, and my favourite clothes no longer fit. I also lost all my muscle tone, and didn't feel sexy anymore."
In a world where celebrities are often judged by their appearances, Vanessa has, ironically, received many positive comments about her recent weight loss.
"People kept telling me I was sample size, and that I looked amazing," says Vanessa.
"I found myself in situations where I'd be complimented on how slim I was, and when I tried to explain that I had hyperthyroidism and was on medication, I'd get inappropriate responses like 'You're so lucky! Now you can eat whatever you want.' It was bizarre."
This made Vanessa wonder why people prioritised looks over health - it seemed so superficial.
How Vanessa Vanderstraaten copes with hyperthyroidism
Despite this curveball, Vanessa embraces life as her usual, cheerful self.
She attributes her jovial attitude to the support she's received from loved ones. "My parents have been very concerned about my well-being, and Andrew's been extra caring as well.
He's extremely bubbly. Negativity just bounces off him through sheer force of positive thinking, and that really keeps me going," says Vanessa.
Playing with her two cats, Bugger and Bella, keeps her calm and happy, too.
"The small things in life keep me sane."
Vanessa is also focused on seeing the silver lining. "Being diagnosed with hyperthyroidism was a wakeup call for me to be more attuned to my body, and not take it for granted," says Vanessa.
"I encourage everyone to be aware of what your body is like when it's functioning normally. That way, it's easier to notice if something is amiss."
Beyond that, Vanessa also hopes that speaking up about her experience will lessen the stigma surrounding disease.
"People need to understand that this is something that can happen to anyone, and they shouldn't be embarrassed when something's not right. You've only got one body - and you have to take good care of it."
This article was first published on Shape Singapore on Jan 1.