Hypersexuality and Huntington’s Disease
By Sharon McClellan Thomason
Of the troubling behavioral changes that occur with the onset of Huntington’s disease (HD) and Juvenile Huntington’s disease (JHD), and there are many, one of the most troublesome can be hypersexuality. It’s important to realize that this is a part of the disease, that there is no shame or embarrassment in talking about it, and that there are treatments that can help resolve the problem.
According to an article in Huntington’s Disease News, “Studies have found that up to 75 percent of women and 85 percent of men with Huntington’s report difficulties in their sexual relations.” (https://huntingtonsdiseasenews.com/sexual-problems-huntingtons-disease/)
While a loss of interest in sexual relations is openly discussed in the literature, hypersexuality and inappropriate sexual behavior are not frequently talked about. In fact, when they are discussed, they are downplayed as something that doesn’t occur very often. The same article in Huntington’s Disease News says,
Less frequently, Huntington’s disease may also cause an increased sex drive and inappropriate sexual behavior. Such disinhibition is thought to be due to damage to the caudate nucleus, a deep area of the brain that controls behavior.
Some patients may be more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, such as one-night stands or sex under the influence of alcohol or illicit substances. It is important to always ensure that safe sexual practices are upheld, including using condoms and taking oral contraceptive pills to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unexpected pregnancies.
Families will tell you, though, that an increased sex drive and inappropriate sexual behavior are NOT rare; it’s just rarely discussed openly, perhaps because of embarrassment.
In fact, the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences reports, “Psychiatric syndromes (present in up to 79% of patients) most commonly include impulse control disorders, depression, personality changes, and, more rarely, psychosis or mania. Symptoms include disinhibition, irritability, aggression, apathy, and neurovegetative markers of depression. The suicide rate has been reported to be up to 20 times that of the general population over age 50.1 Increased criminal behavior and hypersexuality have often been reported in HD patients.” (https://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/jnp.11.2.173)
Recently, one woman posted in a Facebook caregivers’ group, “I’ve (yet again) been approached by a Facebook friend, and my brother has been harassing women. Young, old, married, or single. He begs for dates and tells them all the same lines about how attractive they are. So far, all I know it that he compliments them ‘sexy or beautiful’ and how he dreams about them. I would be uncomfortable if a man sent these messages to me. He has been doing his for years, and it is getting more frequent. Can I report him to Facebook? He won’t listen to me. I’ve begged, yelled, and threatened, to no avail. Maybe therapy? He’s so lonely. But he’s losing the few contacts that he still has!”
Several people responded with empathy. One said, “Dealing with the same issue with my son. Like many others dealing with this disease, the impulsive behavior is out of control. I have been dealing with this for years. Sometimes it is worse than others. We deal with it as we go. I will send messages and explain the circumstances, and most people understand. As the disease progresses, there will be different things you have to deal with. This is just a stage. Look at it as unfortunately at some point they will not be able to do it at all … deal as it comes is my outlook. It’s temporary, unfortunately.”
Another commented, “I reported my ex (we have two daughters). It’s sad, but I did not want them to see it.”
One woman wrote about the potential consequences. “My son has definitely changed. His mind has taken him to all kinds of stuff … porn from women, men, transvestites, gay, anything he can watch …. very scary to think what’s going on in his mind. However, I have to remember he’s 24, trapped in a body that is not functioning properly. He is not living a normal life, and that is his outlet, I would assume–so it’s definitely a fine line. He’s usually good about keeping within his bedroom and closing the door, so I don’t bother him too much unless he starts texting and sending inappropriate pictures to people. I explain to him that some people will not understand or do not care; it’s inappropriate, and you will go to jail, and at that point, I will not be able to help you … with Huntington’s and especially Juvenile Huntington’s it doesn’t matter how many times you say it; it’s in and out of the brain. It’s a constant battle [because] they cannot manage thoughts like they used to.”
Another woman shared, “My husband is starting to be the same way. He sends messages to my friends all the time, even if he hasn’t met them. He has no concept of it being awkward and weird. He even got blocked too many times on a dating app.”
I went through similar problems with my ex, back before we had Internet and dating sites. He once picked up a strange woman and brought her to our home, even gave her some of my clothes, and sent our young four-year-old son off in her care, not knowing her last name or how to contact her. Another time, he went to my son’s first grade Christmas party and gave the teacher a very sexy piece of lingerie, which she opened in front of students and parents, something that was incredibly embarrassing for her and for the parents and the students who realized something inappropriate was happening.
The problem with hypersexuality and inappropriate sexual behavior does not occur only with males affected by HD. One man shared, “I have been having a similar issue with my wife. She claims that she has no sex drive due to all the medications that she is on for her mood, and her doctors verify her claims of reduced libido. Yet she keeps reaching out to her ex-boyfriend from almost 20 years ago, trying to hook up with him. She claims it was a one-time thing and apologized, yet I have caught her calling him or messaging him many times now. I even checked the GPS history on her phone and found out that she left the house one night after I fell asleep. Sure enough, when I checked the call history on that day, her ex called her, and within minutes, she left the house and went to a local park for about an hour. When confronted with all this, she confessed to meeting him, yet she SWEARS that they just met up to ‘talk,’ yet according to the phone records they talk on the phone all the time (even though she keeps telling me that she doesn’t really talk to him anymore). I just don’t understand how if she supposedly has no sex drive, then why does she keep trying to hook up with this guy?? I finally called his wife and told her what was going on. Now I have seen messages between her and another guy (her friend’s 27-year-old son) that were VERY sexually explicit. This caused a huge argument and nearly ended our marriage.”
The problem, when it’s a woman sending sexually explicit messages and invitations, seems to be quite different than when it’s a man doing the same thing. The same poster added, “If a man with HD sends a woman a sexually explicit message, or flat out asks for sex, 99% of women would be very offended and even get angry. But if a woman offers a man sex or a ‘sexual favor,’ a LOT of men will actually entertain it to see if she is serious and possibly even take her up on it. I have heard of MANY female HD patients being taken advantage of by men because they are hypersexual and being VERY flirty with men.”
In another caregivers’ group, someone shared how his wife enjoyed masturbation with a vibrator so much that when the batteries ran out, she went to the neighbors’ house, naked, and threatened to set their house on fire if they didn’t give her new batteries for the vibrator.
Another woman shared, “My Phd sister-in-law (now passed) was very sexually promiscuous, to the extreme of bringing home men from the bar with her husband and son right there in the house and also taking off with men she met for days at a time.”
The fear that a loved one will go to jail because of inappropriate sexual behavior is real. The tragic story of Joseph Heverin in Delaware serves as a reminder of just how dangerous it can be. Joseph was convicted twice of unlawful sexual contact, something that his family believes stemmed from the effects of Juvenile Huntington’s disease—hypersexuality and poor impulse control. His mother, Dianne says she had reached out to mobile crisis and mental health before the police became involved. Because he had just turned 18, Joseph was considered an adult, even though he was disabled, and he spent about nine months in jail, waiting for sentencing. At 21, he was admitted to Dover Health Behavioral Systems for depression. Dover Behavioral, a short-stay psychiatric facility, tried for a year to move Joseph but was unable to find a place that would accept him because he’d been labeled a sex offender. At the age of 22, Joseph choked to death on a grilled cheese sandwich while eating without supervision at Dover Behavioral. Although his mother fought hard for justice, no one was ever found culpable for his death.
So what can we do about hypersexuality and inappropriate sexual behavior with our loved ones? First, we must recognize that it’s not their fault; this is the HD/JHD brain acting. While it involves problems with executive functioning (lack of judgement, poor impulse control), Dr. LaVonne Goodman considers it a part of OCB (Obsessive Compulsive Behaviors). Goodman, an internal medicine doctor in Washington state who lost her first husband to HD and is the founder of Huntington’s Disease Drug Works, notes that, “These behaviors rarely occur in isolation and are associated with anxiety, depression, agitation and can occasional [sic] be associated with delusional thoughts.” (http://hddrugworks.org/treatments/obsessive-compulsive-behavior)
Her approach to treatment includes both behavioral and pharmacologic approaches. Behavioral strategies include both a “do” and “don’t” list:
“Do” behavioral strategies include modifying the environment by simplifying life:
- Regular schedules/routines. If change is necessary give advance warning
- Allow more time for accomplishing activities
- Identify triggers of overstimulation like noise, too rapid requests/demands
- Non judgemental response
- Give time to cool down
Don’t behavioral strategies:
- Don’t try to rationalize or convince
- Don’t respond with anger
First line treatments are SSRI antidepressant drugs, several of which have been FDA approved for obsessive compulsive symptoms. These include fluoxetine (Prozac®), paroxetine (Paxil®), sertraline (Zoloft®), and fluvoxamine (Luvox®). The NSRI antidepressant drug venlafaxine (Effexor®) has been approved for severe anxiety and is also used for obsessive compulsive symptoms. Duloxetine (Cymbalta®) is a good alterntative NSRI. Often higher doses of these drugs are needed than those used for depression. Clomipramine (Anafranil®) that has combined SSRI and tricyclic that can be used in more severe presentation, but is not used first due to greater side effects than SSRI or NSRI drugs. Mirtazepine (Remeron®) is an atypical antidepressant that is FDA approved for obsessive compulsive disorders.
Antipsychotic are not the drugs of choice for obsessive compulsive symptoms, but are often added if this symptom causes agitation.
Another article in Huntington’s Disease News concurs:
Disinhibition can be one of the most troublesome symptoms in Huntington’s disease, particularly for the family and caregivers. Milder symptoms can include speaking out of turn, embarrassing remarks, and childish behavior. More socially compromising behaviors, such as inappropriate sexual remarks, hypersexual behavior or exhibitionism can be particularly troubling.
Studies also show that disinhibition is closely linked to delusions, irritability, and agitation, suggesting that the symptoms may be on a spectrum of more classical psychotic symptoms, also commonly seen in Huntington’s.
The problems may also be more severe in younger Huntingtin gene carriers. The reviewers noted that disinhibition can be treated both with behavioral interventions and with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Drugs used for behavioral problems in frontotemporal dementia might also be valuable. (https://huntingtonsdiseasenews.com/2016/09/29/psychiatric-and-behavioral-symptoms-in-huntingtons-ignored-in-research-review-finds/)
Others report having their loved ones put on a medication that lowers the sex drive. As always, consult with your loved one’s doctor before making any medication changes.
Most importantly, recognize that it’s okay to talk about this problem, that it’s a symptom that, if left unchecked, can lead to legal problems, and that it IS treatable! Keep talking because this subject is no longer taboo!/* Custom Archives Functions Go Below this line */ /* Custom Archives Functions Go Above this line */
Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Huntington’s Disease
Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Huntington’s Disease
By Katrina Hamel, Katie Jackson, and Sharon Thomason
Let’s talk about one of the “untalked about” symptoms of Huntington’s disease: gastrointestinal (GI) issues. According to Dr. LaVonne Goodman’s article “Gastrointestinal Problems in Huntington’s Disease,” “Human study shows that inflammation in the esophagus (swallowing tube) and stomach is common and occurs more frequently in Huntington’s disease (HD) as it progresses. Study also shows that individuals often do not complain. Lower GI function has not been investigated in individuals with HD, but if mouse models of HD are predictive, we can expect problems there, too. But the biggest contributor to gut distress in HD is likely due to medication side effects, less intake of water and more sedentary lifestyle as the disease progresses.” More details, including suggested treatments, can be found here: http://hddrugworks.org/dr-goodmans-blog/gastrointestinal-problems-in-huntingtons.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that lower GI function is indeed a problem for many with HD, just as upper GI function is. Three of the members of Help 4 HD International’s Executive Board (Katrina Hamel, Vice President and CFO; Katie Jackson, President and CEO; Sharon Thomason, Executive Secretary and Director of Education) decided to share their stories.
Sometimes, people with Huntington’s Disease experience gastrointestinal complications due to medications, which is common in people outside of the HD community as well. In my mother’s case, she took zero medications. Believe me when I say she needed them, because she truly did, but medications were not the reason for her gastro discomfort.
As my mom’s disease progressed, she had many body systems change and slowly fail her. Before she had psychiatric issues, before she had behavioral issues, and before her chorea, she seemed to have an “upset stomach”; we ALWAYS had Imodium and Pepto in our medicine cabinet. As time moved on, and she continued to physically change, so did her bowels. Some days, my mom would go to the bathroom several times with no results. This would frustrate her to no end. Her stomach would become distended, and she would have trouble eating. Can you imagine? This must have been so uncomfortable and was also something that triggered perseveration.
This wasn’t always the case, though; she would also have days where she would go too frequently. On these days, we needed to stay close to home because her bowel movements were constant. Her skin would become raw. We needed to clean the bathroom several times a day, and I could always hear her growling, upset stomach. Some days, she wouldn’t be able to get from her room to the toilet quickly enough, and she would leak or have full blown accidents on the way there. This caused her so much shame, even though we tried hard to avoid her feeling that way. My mom ate a balanced diet, and despite our efforts, we never did find any type of food that made the GI issues better or worse.
Dr. Goodman suggests that gut motility and absorption of nutrients are both impaired in patients with HD because of a compromised lower GI function. This was the case with Katrina’s mother. Dr. Goodman also cites a 2009 study which shows that 32 percent of HD patients had an inflammation of the esophagus (esophagitis), and almost an equal number had inflammation of the stomach (gastritis). Many experienced both. This is the case with Katie’s husband.
I remember when I first found out my husband was at risk of inheriting Huntington’s disease I went to town, looking up as much as I could to learn more about HD. What I read was terrifying. To think my husband was going to have to endure the suffering I was reading was an indescribable feeling. My husband now has been living with Huntington’s disease for over 13 years. Little did I know upon that first google search that all the symptoms I was reading about weren’t going to be some of the most challenging symptoms we would have to deal with.
One of the most extreme struggles we’ve dealt with is issues with my husband’s stomach. That first google search, I didn’t see anything about gastrointestinal problems. Even when my husband started experiencing severe stomach pains and excessive diarrhea, I could still find very little information about this in the searches I did. The one place I was able to find a lot of information about GI issues associated with Huntington’s disease was in the support groups on social media. It was a common topic. Caregivers are constantly talking about how their loved ones are suffering with GI problems.
The symptom my husband was experiencing was not only incredibly uncomfortable and sometimes painful for him, but it also scared me. I was constantly wondering if he was dehydrated, and keeping my husband at a stable weight once the GI problems really kicked in was impossible.
My husband has been on anti-diarrhea medication now for over six years, and even with that medication on board, he still has problems daily. We have had him see our primary care doctor as well as a GI specialist, and no one can figure out what is wrong. They thought he may have Crohn’s disease, but they ruled that out. When they couldn’t figure it out, his primary care doctor said he was probably dealing with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). I accepted that diagnosis until I started seeing things pop up all over the internet from HD families living with the same problem I was seeing.
A little over a year ago, we placed Mike in a care home, partially because of the severity of GI symptoms. Around Christmas time this year, we noticed that my husband started throwing up. Not only was he throwing up, but he was intentionally making himself throw up. I brought my husband home for Christmas to make sure he was here when the kids woke up Christmas morning. Right when we woke up, Mike started throwing up everywhere. I decided to send my kids to my mom’s for the day. They deal with HD already, and I wasn’t willing to let the memory of Christmas with their dad throwing up all day be a memory they had of him. My mom came and picked my kids up, and I spent all day in a dark room holding my husband as he made himself throw up all day. He is pretty much nonverbal at this point, but he did express to me that his stomach hurt, and when I asked him how he felt, he responded, “like crap.” That is a Christmas I will never forget. In order to protect our children, my husband and I weren’t able to spend Christmas with them that year. Was it hard spending Christmas isolated away from our children and family? Of course, it was. The isolation wasn’t the hardest part, though; the hardest part was watching my husband suffer the way he was with stomach pains all day.
The throwing up and stomach pains continued for about a month. We talked to our specialist about what was going on. One doctor thought it may be a psychiatric symptom, kind of like an OCD behavior. I still, to this day, believe that may have been part of it. When I asked Mike why he was making himself throw up, he told me it was because his stomach hurt all the time, and it was the only thing that made him feel better. So now, myself, my mother-in-law, and the nursing staff at the facility my husband is at have really started watching him closely. We are concerned about dehydration and weight loss, but our biggest concern is Mike’s comfort. Can you imagine having to make yourself throw up multiple times a day to try to get some relief from the stomach pains you’re experiencing? It’s awful. We put Mike on Protonix as well as anti-nausea medication to see if that would help. After a while, we think it helped because we don’t see him making himself throw up anymore. I am not sure if this is because of the medication or because he has really cut back his eating to hardly anything now.
If your loved one living with HD is experiencing GI problems, please know you are not alone. There are a lot of us out there trying to help our loved ones on our own with this symptom because it is rarely talked about, and no one really knows how to help our loved ones.
Like any of the untalked about symptoms of HD (hypersexuality, suicide, psychiatric), GI falls into this category as well. It is hard to talk about these things, but you are not alone, and we need more research about HD and the gut. Like all HD symptoms, your loved ones may not experience GI problems, just like your loved one may never manifest chorea over the course of the disease. I am just noticing there are a lot of common stories out there, and I think we need to talk about this issue.
My husband and two of his brothers suffered from HD. Paul and his youngest brother both had severe problems with vomiting. No matter what they ate, or when, chances were, it was coming back up. Their mother, Gwen, was the caregiver for both, and she was from the old school South where we believe that one of the ways you show love for people is by feeding them. It was so frustrating for her not to be able to feed “her boys” the way she wanted. Paul stopped eating because he either choked on or vomited up his food. Paul was still mobile at that time, so the decision was made to insert a feeding tube so that he wouldn’t choke or vomit anymore. Unfortunately, a feeding tube does NOT prevent vomiting, and with vomiting comes aspiration. With aspiration comes pneumonia. Paul continued to vomit and aspirate, even with the feeding tube and not eating. The same was true of his brother, who also had a feeding tube and went through a continuous cycle of vomiting, aspiration, and pneumonia. Both ultimately passed away from pneumonia, a direct result of the GI symptoms.
As always, if your loved one is experiencing GI issues, contact your care team right away. It must be terribly uncomfortable for our loved ones to have to deal with these issues, and if there is anything we can do to relieve some of the pain, we should try. Until then, families will continue to help each other through these symptoms, giving advice to each other like we always do!
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