Zoe Saldana: Action Hero

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 13, 2017
7 min read

You may know them as the blue-skinned creature Neytiri from the highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar. Or as Lt. Uhura from the rebooted, out-of-this world Star Trek movie franchise. Or even as killer comic book assassin Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy and its super successful sequel, Vol. 2.

Seems Zoe Saldana, 39, has the market cornered on space heroines with universal appeal.

The busy actor acknowledges how triumphing in Hollywood has its perks, yet the old adage holds true: Nothing is as important or as coveted as good health. And Saldana takes hers seriously.

From a young age Saldana knew she was predisposed to developing Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disorder where antibodies attack and inflame the thyroid. The thyroid is a gland in the neck that secretes hormones and controls metabolism, affecting the body's heart rate, energy levels, and how quickly you burn calories. Her mother has Hashimoto's, as do her two sisters, with whom she recently launched a production company, Cinestar Pictures.

"My mother struggled with Hashimoto's early on in her life -- fighting fatigue, wanting to live a more active life, constantly feeling like her body was inflamed -- and we were already showing markers for it from bloodwork [we had done] as teenagers," Saldana says of herself and her siblings. "At [age] 17, I showed signs of an overactive thyroid."

This is called hyperthyroidism, and its symptoms can show up in the earliest stages of Hashimoto's. As the thyroid is attacked, it releases too much of the hormone thyroxine, bringing weight loss, rapid heartbeat, nervousness, and sometimes panic attacks.

"I had normal anxiety," says the actor, who spent her teen years studying dance. "I was just super-curious about life, eager to conquer the world. I never felt unhappy or felt heart problems. I was always on the slender side. Then, talking to doctors, I learned how the thyroid can burn out quickly [from over-activity]. That was my case. I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's in my 30s."

When the thyroid "burns out," the condition flips to hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid. Symptoms often reverse, too: slowed heart rate, sluggishness, unexplained weight gain, a feeling of being inflamed, not being able to get warm, joint and muscle pain, and stubborn, sometimes difficult-to-treat depression.

Her diagnosis led her to become vigilant about her health. "I learned the importance of a healthy diet and exercise, to avoid certain foods, and to make sure not to be deficient in selenium and vitamin D to assist my body so it doesn't feel like it has to fight."

Saldana credits her mother for being a health pioneer and a role model, describing her as "the only mom in Queens back in the 1980s questioning all the chemicals in our products. She stopped buying canned goods and frozen meat and would take two trains and a bus to go to the organic butcher and buy from local farmers, doing that at a time when no one was."

Nutrition is important when it comes to managing Hashimoto's, says Kent Holtorf, MD, director of Holtorf Medical Group in Los Angeles, which specializes in treating thyroid disorders and other autoimmune diseases.

"Diet plays a big role," he says. "So much so that eating differently can make a huge difference" in how patients with thyroiditis feel. This may be due to food sensitivities that trigger the immune system and lead to inflammation. Holtorf points to obvious culprits such as gluten and dairy -- both of which Saldana has erased from her diet -- and advises allergy testing for anyone who might have a thyroid disorder.

"Food allergies can help drive it, and it becomes a vicious cycle: The food allergy inflames the gut, the gut gets leaky, then big proteins get in to create an autoimmune response," Holtorf says. "Different people develop different autoimmune responses based on genetic predispositions. Some get Hashimoto's, others lupus or rheumatoid arthritis."

Hashimoto's main causes? Heredity is one, and women are more likely than men to get it. The condition often first shows up in middle age. Pregnancy, radiation exposure, and other autoimmune disorders can also trigger it. Holtorf says chemical exposure and chronic, undiagnosed infections that can set off the immune system are also causes. Plus, "stress, toxins, pesticides, parasites -- all those things may be involved."

Saldana, who split her childhood between the Dominican Republic and New York City, wonders if parasitic infection might have played a role in her family's diagnoses. "I lived half my life in the Caribbean and was exposed to so many things," she says. "And I'm an adventurous eater. I travel all the time, and I've got a little Anthony Bourdain in me!"

Hashimoto's can't be cured, but once hypothyroidism sets in, doctors prescribe thyroid replacement therapy to help restore normal metabolism. Holtorf also prescribes dietary supplements vitamin D and selenium, in addition to a revamped diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables and other unprocessed foods.

"I eat 'clean,' " says Saldana, whose symptoms are now largely under control. In fact, following the advice of, and then befriending, nutritionist Alejandro Junger, author of Clean: The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body's Natural Ability to Heal Itself, is how she met her husband, Italian artist Marco Perego. He and Junger are longtime close friends.

"If your diet is consistently healthy," Saldana says, "your body will have your back."

Sleep and regular exercise also are vital to keeping your immune system healthy, yet Saldana says she struggles to find enough time for either.

"Never a gym person," she says she likes to do Pilates on occasion but prefers "not to stop life to go exercise. I'd rather meet friends and go for a hike, or chase around my kids for hours." She juggles toddler twin boys, Cy and Bowie (2), and newborn Zen (6 months) while jetting between film sets, never known for their steady 9-to-5 hours.

"I'm not gonna lie," she says. "I'm a working mom with three kids under 3, in a high-intensity business with a great amount of stress. Lately, I'm not getting enough sleep. That's when I have to become more disciplined about my diet and not overbook myself. If I can't afford to cancel a work obligation, I can afford to cancel social engagements that require me to stay up. I sleep when my kids sleep, and eat when they eat. It's a constant negotiation."

Still, she says it's vital for women to chase their goals, which in turn nurtures emotional health. "I'm blessed," she says. "I have a partner who teaches our sons every day, 'Mom's going to work! Look at what Mama does!' It's important for us to know the boys we're raising into men have a natural understanding that women as well as men must fight for their dreams."

Her female fans see her fight -- and win -- on film, making her a real role model for girls everywhere. "It feels great, but there's a lot of room for growth in this industry, the way women are portrayed in stories," she says. "We need more female directors, writers, and producers for more projects. The way Wonder Woman killed at the box office is a testament that women can provide action-driven movies, kick ass, and be amazing!"

Saldana fights for personal causes, too, including Shot@Life, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that gets vaccinations for kids in developing countries.

"Our twins were born 8 weeks early," she says of Cy and Bowie. "They were susceptible to getting [certain diseases] that could actually kill them. We understood through a lot of research the vaccines they needed, even for play dates, so they could be around other kids. I grew up half my life in a developing country, where a child there -- or in Thailand or Africa -- can die from diarrhea. Or the common cold. Or not having the polio vaccine. Understanding that, we need to educate people on the fact medicine has been developed and evolved for our betterment.

"I united with Shot@Life to help it grow, so we can get more access for kids who need our help from diseases they shouldn't be dying from."

Spoken like a true action hero -- with an unwavering mission to succeed.

Hashimoto's disease can be tricky to diagnose, says Holtorf. That's because this condition can include many general symptoms, making it easy to miss the root cause. According to Holtorf, standard thyroid tests can sometimes come back as "normal," even when inflammation is on the gland, with symptoms beginning to show. Among the conditions associated with Hashimoto's:

Fibromyalgia. Unexplained, chronic joint pain and stiffness can signal Hashimoto's; so can constant fatigue and mood and memory issues.

Heart problems. Episodes of a racing heart may mean the disease is in its earlier stages, or hyperthyroidism. An underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism, left untreated can lead to an enlarged heart and, possibly, heart failure.

Goiter.Overstimulation can leave the thyroid inflamed and enlarged, with swelling in the neck.

Depression. Those with Hashimoto's can have sharp mood swings due to a thyroid hormonal imbalance. Anxiety, panic disorder, shaking hands, low energy, sweating, and feelings of being deeply depressed are all attributed to this condition.

Weight gain. When the metabolism slows from an underactive thyroid gland, weight gain follows, even when diet and calorie intake have not changed.

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