How search for perfect physique led to Scottish bodybuilder's death

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LOUISE Nuttall-Halliwell was a vibrant woman pursuing her dream of creating the perfect body.

The pursuit of excellence robbed her of her greatest asset - life.

And in her tragic death is a cautionary tale to those who seek perfection through the short-cut of drugs.

After a long period of secrecy over the whereabouts and condition of "Scotland’s strongest woman", The Scotsman has learned that Ms Nuttall-Halliwell, 38, died four months ago from a streptococcal infection allied to a hypoxic brain injury.

Her death is consistent with a non-diabetic person taking insulin, a drug known to be used by many bodybuilders.

It has become increasingly popular with bodybuilders and other sportsmen and women because it is undetectable in testing. And in conjunction with anabolic steroids it maintains new muscle mass and "fuels" the body with carbohydrate energy.

The drug is a life preserver for diabetics, but in a healthy person, energy and oxygen to the brain are severely restricted.

It was yesterday likened to dicing with death.

Ms Nuttall-Halliwell, a competitor at world bodybuilding championships and Miss Universe competitions, collapsed two years ago, reportedly from an overdose of the drug.

At the time, she was a partner, with her bodybuilding brother, Paul, and a coach, in their Future Bodies Gym in Elgin.

As a holder of several bodybuilding and powerlifting titles, she was sought after as a personal trainer.

After the collapse in her Elgin home, she was taken to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary on 19 April, 2002, where she lapsed into a coma. She was later transferred, still in the coma, to the city’s Woodend Hospital, which specialises in long-term care.

Aberdeen Hospitals NHS Trust refused "to discuss anything relating to this matter under patient confidentiality and at the wishes of the family".

But it has emerged that she was taken "home" by her family while still in the coma and died in a house in Nairn.

It also emerged that Grampian Police and the Northern Constabulary have ended inquiries into her death.

Grampian Police had at the time of Ms Nuttall-Halliwell’s collapse launched an investigation, which is understood to have focused on the supply of insulin, quantities of which, it is believed, may have been found at the gym and at her home.

The force refused to comment further on the investigation, but a spokesman for Northern Constabulary, which covers the area where the woman died, added: "We can confirm that a 38-year-old female of that name [Nuttall-Halliwell] was pronounced dead at an address in Nairn on 10 December."

"Our understanding is her death was a result of brain injuries caused by a suspected insulin overdose at her home in 2002."

The athlete’s family has steadfastly maintained its silence over her death.

Her sister, Julie Bain, a Grampian police officer, is "on long-term sick leave" and was not available.

Her brother, Paul, was also unavailable, as was her father, Michael, a retired policeman, and her mother, Kathryn.

Her death has shocked, but hardly surprised the bodybuilding community.

Mike Mitchell from Aberdeen, the reigning Mr Universe and World Bodybuilding Champion, is an advocate of drug-free sport.

He said: "It is a tragedy for Louise, her family and her brother Paul, who told me that he was sure she was not using performance-enhancing drugs. I really do advocate that anyone taking, or considering taking, performance-enhancing substances should not take the risk."

Mr Mitchell’s message is apparently not being listened to. A report by the British Medical Association (BMA) concluded that the use of performance-enhancing drugs was "most acute in amateur bodybuilders" and most prevalent in Wales, Merseyside, London and Scotland.

It was estimated that "at least 150,000 recreational sportsmen and women [in Britain] were risking their health with substances to improve their appearance".

The report suggested almost 50 per cent of members in dedicated gyms and 13 per cent of high street fitness centres were using illegal substances. The users, added the report, typically take doses up to 30 times greater than their intended use.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA’s head of ethics, said: "Insulin is terribly dangerous, especially when taken in the doses used by bodybuilders, and in tandem with other substances. It is literally dicing with death."

Insulin can, as appears to have happened in Ms Nuttall-Halliwell’s case, prove fatal by taking so much sugar from the blood that the brain receives too little energy, causing hypoxic brain injury.

Her death is the latest in a series among the fraternity.

Tom Hawk, 21, a bodybuilder, died in Stirling during rehearsals for the Pure Strength television series. Jon Pall Sigmarsson, from Iceland, "the world’s strongest man", died from a heart attack aged 32. In 2001, Chris Sneddon and Richie Dickson, friends and bodybuilding colleagues in their twenties, died in Fauldhouse. Two years ago, the United States former world champion powerlifters, Rick "Grizzly" Brown and Johnny Perry, died.

Dr Clive Brewer, a consultant sports scientist, said: "The desire to win is not a normal mindset. Bodybuilding is an environment often free of normal checks and balances, which is highly dangerous."

The scale of the problem is difficult to measure, but the perception is that drug abuse is the rule.

Dr Rob Dawson, a GP near Newcastle, who controversially set up a needle exchange for bodybuilders, believes 10 per cent of his regular patients use insulin. "It’s spreading and most people get it from diabetic friends," he said.

The charity Diabetes UK disputes that contention, and believes the internet is the more likely source.