Gina Rodriguez's Experience With Hashimoto's Disease Explained

Actress Gina Rodriguez has taken control of her health over recent years, becoming a passionate boxer and even studying Muay Thai in Thailand with her now-husband, fellow actor Joe LoCicero (via Vogue). But it hasn't always been that way. After years of struggling with her health and weight, Rodriguez was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disorder that impacts your thyroid.

In 2014 the "Jane the Virgin" star was training for a half marathon, running as many as 20 miles per week to prepare for the race. But she wasn't noticing any difference in her body despite the intense exercise, which can be common in those with Hashimoto's. Exercise intolerance and weight gain can be typical symptoms, according to the American Thyroid Association. At first, Rodriguez was in denial about her diagnosis. "I rejected the fact that I had a disease," she told Vogue. "I went against the current by saying, 'Hollywood has to accept me because I'm curvy, and that's just the way it is.' But I wasn't accepting me."

What is Hashimoto's disease?

Hashimoto's disease, sometimes referred to as Hashimoto's thyroiditis, happens when the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, causing inflammation (via American Thyroid Association). The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the front of the neck which creates hormones that help keep our bodies warm, use energy well, and help important organs like the brain and heart work properly. When the thyroid becomes inflamed, it isn't able to produce thyroid hormones, which causes hypothyroidism. Those with hypothyroidism can experience constipation, fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold, weight gain, dry skin and hair, depression, irregular or heavy menses, and muscle aches. If you have these symptoms, your doctor might test you for Hashimoto's by doing blood work and measuring your levels of the thyroid peroxidase (TPO) antibody.

You're more at risk to develop Hashimoto's if you're female, between the ages of 30 and 50, have other autoimmune conditions, or if it runs in your family, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). In fact, women are approximately 4-10 times more likely to have the disease than men. While it's unclear how many Americans experience Hashimoto's, about 1 in 20 people is affected by hypothyroidism, which is most often caused by Hashimoto's.

Rodriguez's diagnosis and denial

The "Annihilation" actress, who recently welcomed her first baby with husband Joe LoCicero, was first diagnosed with hypothyroidism when she was in college (via Vogue). She began taking medication as her doctor instructed, but didn't explore her illness any further. After her diagnosis of Hashimoto's when she was 26, it felt like "the curse of a lifetime," she told Self Magazine. Rodriguez, who is now 38, felt defeated by the disease that was causing her to have difficulty losing weight, particularly because of her work in Hollywood. "To the core of my being, I know what it's like to feel like there is no way I can win this, so where do I even begin," she said.

That sense of hopelessness initially led her to rebel against taking care of herself. She wouldn't take her medication on time, thought exercise was pointless, and ate foods that she knew would make her feel worse, like dairy. "[Hashimoto's] affects so many aspects of your life. I've had it for so many years ... that rebellion of not taking care of myself can't exist anymore," she shared. So she decided to manage her disease in new ways, finally feeling determined to take care of her body.

Troubling symptoms and complications of Hashimoto's

While Hashimoto's is treatable, it can cause complications if you don't get treatment for it (via NIDDK). If left untreated, hypothyroidism caused by Hashimoto's can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, problems during pregnancy, and even heart failure.

For Rodriguez, one of her troubling symptoms of Hashimoto's was memory trouble, which impacted her relationship with her then-boyfriend. "I can't remember maybe a sweet thing my boyfriend has said to me a week ago. Or what we ate yesterday," she shared with Self. "It makes me feel shame. I don't want him to think that I'm not remembering our special moments together. And that stinks." Luckily, having issues with her memory didn't impact her work, which consists of memorizing plenty of lines.

Rodriguez has shared that LoCicero, whom she met on the set of "Jane the Virgin," helped her deal with her feelings around how her disease impacted her weight. "[He] has really helped me have a healthier perspective on [weight], that stupid number that can destroy us and feel like it's equivalent to our self-worth," she said.

Getting serious about her health

In 2017, Rodriguez decided to get serious about managing her disease and figuring out what felt best for her body (via Vogue). She was shooting the film "Miss Bala," starring as a contestant in a beauty pageant who gets involved with a Tijuana drug cartel, when she started working with a nutritionist to overhaul her diet. Her nutritionist wanted her to support her gut, since much of the immune system is based in the gastrointestinal area. She also wanted Rodriguez to eat foods that would maximize her energy, since fatigue can be such a prominent symptom.

Still, Rodriguez says her diet is far from perfect. "I can't say I'm on point, always on it, because, man, I'm flawed," she told Self. "I want the burger and the ice cream and the red velvet cupcakes. I want the croissant with my coffee, even though gluten doesn't do me justice." But she focuses on making small changes each day, taking it one day at a time. "When you say, just today, I'm going to choose this because I know it's going to make me feel better, that's not such a crazy Mount Everest," Rodriguez shared.

The actress also said that a huge part of managing Hashimoto's is having awareness. "It is really important for us to be super self-aware. I wasn't banking on that. I wasn't like, hey, yeah, let me get a disease that makes me have to be super aware. I don't want to be super aware of myself all of the time."

Using medication carefully to treat Hashimoto's

While there's no current expert guidance on how Hashimoto's can be treated through diet, there are medications recommended that can help treat symptoms of hypothyroidism, according to NIDDK. Levothyroxine is a drug that's nearly identical to T4, a thyroid hormone that our bodies normally produce. While it can be taken as a pill, it's now also available as a liquid or softgel capsule, which may be easier for some patients to digest. After taking the medication for 6-8 weeks, your doctor will order a blood test to see how well that dosage is working for you, adjusting if needed. Taking too much of the medication can cause serious issues, like atrial fibrillation or osteoporosis.

In Rodriguez's case, she was taking too high a dose. "I've just recently started getting really debilitating panic attacks and anxiety," she told Self in 2018. At first she thought they were related to the pressure of being a director for the first time, and even worried that they were also being caused by things like "balancing reality with fiction, and reality with the bulls*** of social media, the kind of psychological change that's happening in our climate, period." Eventually she realized she was actually taking too high a dose of thyroid medication, which was causing her to experience heart palpitations and, subsequently, panic attacks. Once she decreased the dose, the issues resolved.