I wasn”t lovesick …I was dying: Hannah Waterman on her devastating weight loss

Hannah Waterman posed on the cover of her exercise DVD, bronzed, beaming and dressed in a midriff-revealing yellow top. The petite 5ft 3in actress had undergone a remarkable transformation – shedding 3st and dropping five dress sizes to a six in just five months – and she wanted to tell the world.

Yet behind the glossy, air-brushed photographs things were starting to go wrong. Although healthy at the time of the DVD launch, soon Hannah – daughter of Minder actor Dennis Waterman, and a former star of BBC soap EastEnders – was spotted looking worryingly gaunt.

When her weight plummeted to just a few pounds above 7st, her concerned personal trainer stopped her exercising so hard. There was some speculation that her appearance was down to the strain of the break-up of her marriage to EastEnders co-star Ricky Groves.

Survivor: Hannah Waterman suffered from the life-threatening complications of type 1 diabetes and was only diagnosed when she was 24 weeks pregnant

Survivor: Hannah Waterman suffered from the life-threatening complications of type 1 diabetes and was only diagnosed when she was 24 weeks pregnant

‘People were saying in the press that I was setting unrealistic, unhealthy standards and that I’d lost too much weight,’ admits the 36-year-old, who gave birth to her first child in June.

‘But I was eating tons and I wasn’t overdoing the exercise – I was training only three times a week. But I just kept losing weight. And if I looked exhausted, well, I was. But I just put it down to stress.’

In fact, Hannah was suffering from the life-threatening complications of type 1 diabetes. She was finally diagnosed in February this year while on holiday in Australia and 24 weeks pregnant. She may have been unknowingly suffering from the incurable auto-immune disease for months, or even years.

‘The penny dropped,’ says Hannah. ‘Now I know my pancreas was slowly packing in and one of the symptoms is losing weight.

‘I wish I had known it at the time – I could have told the world, “Back off – I’m ill.” ’

While Hannah was in Australia visiting family, showbiz observers spotted her developing baby bump and were speculating about who the father might be, as she had left Groves in 2010.

During that eight-week break Hannah developed a strong thirst and began draining cartons of orange juice and litre bottles of water at a time. She put it down to the intense heat and thought her growing tiredness and frequent night-time trips to the lavatory were to do with her pregnancy.

Hannah in January 2010. Her weight plummeted to just a few pounds above 7st

Hannah in January 2010. Her weight plummeted to just a few pounds above 7st

But the symptoms were the onset of type 1 diabetes, which affects one in ten of Britain’s 2.5 million diabetics. Under normal circumstances, the hormone insulin, which is made by the pancreas, carefully regulates how much glucose is in the blood, stimulating cells to absorb it when needed.

Aftera meal, the amount of glucose in the blood rises, prompting the release of insulin. When blood glucose levels fall – during exercise, for example – insulin levels fall, too.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when insulin is still present in the body, but it has stopped working properly. This form of the disease is often triggered by being overweight. But in type 1diabetes, antibodies mistakenly attack and destroy cells in the pancreas, preventing it from producing enough insulin.

In Hannah’s case, tests showing high levels of antibodies in her blood confirmed her diagnosis.

Thecause is not fully understood and there is no cure, but by injecting insulin diabetics can manage their condition and live completely normal lives.

In the short term, if untreated the disease causes increased thirst – the body interprets high blood sugar as dehydration – and subsequent increased trips to the lavatory. As glucose can no longer be absorbed, the body begins to break down fat for energy, at first, and then muscle – a condition known as ketosis. This leads to rapid weight loss, no matter what is eaten, and fatigue. Eventually this can lead to coma and death.

Break-up: Hannah Waterman and Ricky Groves in 2003

Break-up: Hannah Waterman and Ricky Groves in 2003

As Hannah was about to enter her third trimester, an ache under her ribs on her right side prompted a visit to a GP in Sydney. The doctor took a blood test, and when the results came back they showed very high blood sugar levels. She called Hannah at midnight, telling her to go to hospital immediately.

‘I felt awful, but I didn’t realise how ill I was,’ says Hannah. ‘Apparently, my liver was producing its own insulin to compensate for my failing pancreas and this was causing the ache in my side.’

Hannah was taken to intensive care, as she was in danger of having a brain seizure. ‘Once they got me on insulin, I realised how much of my tiredness had been caused by the diabetes, and I felt a lot better. I was shocked – if I hadn’t had gone to a doctor I would have fallen into a coma. My pancreas was always going to fail, but they said being pregnant had triggered the final stage and brought the problem to light.’

Hannah was kept in hospital for five days, during which time dieticians helped her understand the glucose content of foods so she could calculate how much insulin she needed to inject at mealtimes. Like most type 1 diabetics, she takes a dose of slow-acting insulin every morning and at bedtime, and a further injection before or after every meal, depending on what she is eating.

‘I had to be extremely disciplined while still in hospital because I was pregnant and it was vital to keep my blood sugar levels as normal as possible for the baby,’ adds Hannah. ‘I quickly overcame my fear of needles.’

After returning to England in March, Hannah stayed with her father and his second wife, Patricia Maynard, for two months while her partner, actor Huw Higginson, was away working, so she wouldn’t be on her own while getting used to her regime.

If treated properly, diabetes is no obstacle to healthy pregnancy, but diabetic mothers who have poor control of their condition are at greater risk of high blood pressure, premature birth, miscarriage and stillbirth.

Hannah was assigned a specialist midwife who continued to help her adjust, and prepare her for the birth at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, Essex. The baby boy was born in June weighing 6lb 14oz. Hannah and Huw have chosen not to reveal his name, but say he settled quickly into a regular feeding routine and sleeps well.

Hannah has suffered a handful of hypoglycaemic episodes, or ‘hypos’, when too much insulin in the system sends blood sugar levels plummeting. This can lead to fits and coma.

‘It’s like a mix between a hangover and the feeling when you are so hungry you need to eat and you are shaking,’ she says. ‘Picture that and multiply it by a factor of ten. You are sweating and shaking and going pale and it’s horrible.

‘I drink a sugary drink or eat a glucose tablet, which sorts it out.’

Dr Gerry Rayman, consultant endocrinologist at Ipswich Hospital in Suffolk, says the antibody test Hannah was given is not routinely performed in British hospitals.

‘All diabetes causes high blood sugar, but this test is helpful in distinguishing type 1 from type 2 and gestational diabetes, which affects pregnant women,’ he says. ‘If a type 1 diabetic is assumed type 2 or gestational, they will be instructed to diet and exercise. Their doctor will be pleased to see they are losing weight but, in fact, they need insulin to avoid becoming ill and falling into a coma.’

For Hannah, her diagnosis marks the end of a turbulent two years. ‘At first it was a shock, but my main concern was for the baby,’ she says. ‘My family and friends have been supportive, which is great.

‘And I feel very positive. I know so many people with far worse to deal with, and I consider myself lucky.’