While competing on Dancing with the Stars in 2018, Suzy Cato was the fittest and slimmest she'd ever been, dropping two whole dress sizes during her seven weeks on the show.
But soon after returning to her usual exercise routine – "absolutely nothing except prancing around the house with the kids" – the TV star started feeling utterly exhausted, with a bad case of brain fog.
"I'd get up, have a bowl of porridge, then need another sleep by 10am and a nap in the afternoon," she tells Woman's Day. "I was becoming very, very tired and the worst thing was, I couldn't string a sentence together.
"I did wonder whether it was the stresses that Dancing put on my body physically, mentally and emotionally, as well as the massive weight loss. But the dullness of the head really gave me a fright. Those symptoms do lend themselves to early on-set dementia."
Suzy, 52 – a mother to daughter Riley, 15, and son Morgan, 13 – had blood tests at a clinic near her home on Auckland's North Shore, but there was no obvious cause. Then things came to a head on a trip to Geraldine, in Canterbury, where she speaking to a women's group.
"I'd had a big cheese scone, so I should've been full of energy, but as I was driving down from Christchurch, all I wanted to do was sleep," she recalls. "I was very grateful for a huge hailstorm, which meant I could pull over to the side of the road and close my eyes for 20 minutes. Then when I finally got down there, I had another sleep and got all my notes together, but I was still all over the place.
"My job is being a communicator – I've been speaking in public for decades – but whenever I opened my mouth, I'd just ramble. I thought there was something terribly wrong with me."
Then, early this year, Suzy took her son, who'd been suffering from rashes, to a kinesiologist, who did a muscle test and found Morgan was gluten intolerant – and when she took a test herself, she got the same result.
Grinning, Suzy tells, "I was heartbroken at first because, as a family, we love our food and our baking. No cake! But we just started adapting recipes and using gluten-free flour. And as soon as I took the gluten out of my diet, I didn't need to sleep several times a day I was able to think clearly and could read books out loud quite coherently."
The latter, in particular, came in quite handy when she was home-schooling the nation during lockdown. Suzy adds, "It's made a massive difference. I still walk into a room and immediately forget what I've gone in there for, and I'm struggling with my sentences today because I had soy sauce on my sushi for lunch, but I've got so much more energy and focus!"
Suzy has channelled this newfound vigour into her books, with a new one, Christmas In Summer – inspired by a song she recorded with fellow children's artists Itty Bitty Beats on that disastrous trip to Canterbury – which was released earlier this month.
"It's that quintessential Kiwi Christmas," tells Suzy. "Santa arrives in New Zealand, has a rest on the beach and cooks a BBQ. For me, Christmas is glazed ham and salads, but most importantly, it's about whanau and bringing the family together. Kids are at the centre of it all."
Asked if she ever gets bored of children, she giggles, "Hmmm, no! I love what I do and I'm so grateful for it. Just before I fell pregnant with Riley, I was made redundant by TV3. Suzy's World was cancelled and I had the opportunity to have a complete career change.
"I contemplated doing natural therapies and I did a couple of massage courses, but then a radio opportunity came up and I was always talking about what you can do with your kids, to the point where I got told off. But for me, that's what it's all about.
"If we encourage people to spend more time with their kids – reading, talking, listening and helping to bring a sense of community – then we're going to have a thriving country. That's where my heart lies. That's where I'll stay."
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