Graves’ Disease, Subclinical Hyperthyroidism, and Everything I Have Learned About It (So Far)

TLDR: I have newly diagnosed Graves’ Disease, I have associated eye stuff (called “Graves’ orbitopathy” or “Graves’ ophthalmopathy” or “thyroid eye disease”), subclinical hyperthyroidism, and a new learning curve. Below is what I’ve learned so far and what I’m still exploring.

As a person with type 1 diabetes (T1D) – which is an autoimmune disease – I am screened yearly for various high-risk related conditions. For example, celiac disease and thyroid issues, because those are fairly common in people with type 1 diabetes. I already have celiac disease (developed ~6 years after I developed T1D), but we have continued to screen every year in my annual blood work for thyroid markers, usually by screening T4 and TSH. Occasionally, T3 and/or TPO antibodies are also screened.

I remember vividly the chortle that my prior endocrinologist made after we diagnosed my celiac disease in college, probably in response to my comment about being frustrated of having “another” thing to deal with in addition to T1D. He chortled and said something like “once you have one (autoimmune thing), you’re likely to have two. Once you have two, you’ll be likely to have three.”

I didn’t like it at the time, and I don’t like it now. However, he’s not wrong. When your immune system has a little extra kick in it and you develop one autoimmune disease, the rates of having another autoimmune thing are increased. Thus, the typical yearly screening in T1D for celiac & thyroid.

I went 6 years between T1D and celiac, then almost 12-13 years to discover I now have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). That’s not necessarily an autoimmune thing but may be a side effect of long-term T1D. Regardless, I was still thankful for the long period of time between T1D and celiac, then T1D+celiac and EPI. I was assuming that something else was coming eventually, but that I’d likely have a few years before the shoe dropped.

Nope.

I wasn’t terribly surprised when I scheduled my annual endocrinology appointment and did my annual blood work to find that one of my thyroid values was off. Specifically, my TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) was low / below normal range. However, my T4 was smack dab in the middle of normal range. I got my blood work back Tuesday and waited for my virtual appointment on Friday to discuss in detail with my endocrinologist.

Since I’m me, I was curious about the interplay between normal thyroid levels (T4, and I suspected my T3 was likely still in range) but a low TSH value. What did that mean? General consensus seems to define this as “subclinical hyperthyroidism”. It’s not always treated, unless you are older (>65), have osteoporosis or heart disease, or TSH levels are <0.1.

I’m <65, don’t (as far as I know) have osteoporosis or heart disease, and my TSH levels are between 0.1 and 0.4, which is the low end of the normal range. So general treatment guidelines (see this example from the AAFP) suggest treatment isn’t necessarily warranted.

However…there’s more information that factors into the decision making. First, I had my last annual eye exam in October. All was well. Yet in November, I developed really gritty, dry eyes and went in for an appointment. I was diagnosed with dry eyes (gee, thanks!) and recommended to use gel drops at night before bed and regular eye drops during the day as needed. I did end up needing eye drops several times every day.

Then at the end of December or early January, we realized I had exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). I had been wondering if my dry eyes was related to the lack of digestion and absorption of nutrients, which also influences how my body uses the water content from food. It did seem to get a little better in the following months, because while I still needed the eye gel at night, I eventually moved to several days a week where I didn’t seem to need the eye drops during the day – yay!

However, in February and early March, I started to physically notice a shift in my resting overnight heart rate (HR). My Pebble 2+ HR watch and my Oura ring, both of which measure HR and heart rate variability (HRV), confirmed that both metrics were getting worse. I had a slowly increasing overnight HR and associated decrease in HRV. I am used to fluctuations, because the intensity of my ultrarunning can also influence HR the next day as a signal for whether my body has recovered yet or not. But instead of a day or two of increased numbers, I had an increasing trend line over several weeks, and it started to physically become bothersome. I actually raised the idea of getting my thyroid blood work done early this year, and was about to request the lab work, when after ~6 weeks or so the trend seemed to reverse and things (HR-wise) went back to “normal” for me.

Then I broke my toe in July and the same thing happened, but I chalked it up to sleep disruption from the pain and recovering from the fracture. My HR was continuing to rise even as the pain subsided and my toe was clearly healing. And looking back at my HR data, I can see it actually started to rise at the beginning of July, about two weeks before I broke my toe, so it’s not solely influenced by my broken toe.

As a result of these HR increases (that are noticeable and bothersome because I’m also not sleeping well at night and I physically feel the higher HR during the day), and the ongoing dry/gritty eyes, I suspected that the cause of my “subclinical hyperthyroidism” was Graves’ disease.

I’ve seen estimates that ~30% of people with Graves’ disease have what is called “Graves’ orbitopathy” (and other estimates suggest 20-50%, like this one), so the combination of my ongoing eye symptoms and the low TSH suggested that further lab work assessing various thyroid antibody levels would be able to confirm whether Graves’ disease was the likely source of the subclinical hyperthyroidism.

Therefore, I wasn’t surprised during my virtual visit that my endocrinologist ordered additional labs (repeat of T4 and TSH; adding in T3, TPO antibodies, and TSI (Thyroid Stimulating Immunoglobulin), Thyrotropin Receptor Ab, and Thyroglobulin Ab). Treatment plan, if any, would be based on these results.

I managed to get in that (Friday) afternoon for the repeat lab work, and my results started trickling in by the time I woke up Saturday morning. First, T3, T4, TPO, and TSH came back. T4 was still normal; as I expected, T3 was also normal. TPO antibodies were high, as expected, TSH was still low, as I expected. Saturday night, Thyroglobulin Ab came back high, as expected. Monday, TSI came back high, as expected. Tuesday, my last test result of Thyrotropin Receptor Ab came back, also high as expected.

The summary was: all antibodies high; TSH low; T3/T4 normal.

My endocrinologist messages me Tuesday afternoon confirming mild Graves’ disease with subclinical hyperthyroidism.

The challenge is that I have normal T3/T4 levels. If those were high, we’d treat based on those levels and use those levels coming back into normal range and any change in antibody levels to assess that things were going well.

But the guidelines for subclinical hyperthyroidism don’t really indicate treatment (except on an individual level based on age, other conditions, or undetectable TSH <0.1, as I mentioned).

However, from what I’ve read, the “eye stuff” seems to be driven not by thyroid levels but by the presence of the increased thyroid antibodies. Treatment would possibly bring down the thyroid antibody levels, which might help with the eye disease progression. But not a guarantee. So my doctor left it up to me to decide whether to treat it or not.

Given the ongoing presence of active eye disease (I haven’t been able to wear my contacts for two weeks right now due to swelling/pain in the eyes, plus itching and redness), and the bothersome heart rate feeling, I have decided to try antithyroid medication. I’ll be on a relatively low dose of an “antithyroid” drug, again with the goal of trying to reduce my antibody levels.

This is why I ended up deciding to write this blog post after all: I have not been able to find any clear treatment guidelines for subclinical hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease with active eye symptoms (from Graves’ orbitopathy). The literature does suggest that treatment to reduce thyroid antibodies even with in-range T3 and T4, targeting a return to normal TSH levels, may be helpful in reducing Graves’ orbitopathy symptoms. This isn’t well known/established enough to have been documented in treatment guidelines, but does seem to occur in many people who are treated.

So hopefully, anyone else with low TSH and high antibodies suggesting Graves’ disease but normal T3 and T4 levels that suggests subclinical hyperthyroidism and also has other symptoms (whether that’s heart rate or other common hyperthyroid symptoms like increased sweating, shaking, heart palpitations, heat intolerance, sleep disturbances) that are bothersome, now have an example of what I chose, given my situation as described above.

I also thought sharing my question list at different stages for my endocrinologist would be helpful. After I saw that I had low TSH and in range T4, and suspected this meant I had subclinical hyperthyroidism from Graves’ disease, given my eye symptoms, the questions I asked my endocrinologist were:

  • What additional lab work did we need to confirm subclinical hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease as the cause? What additional information or lab work would give us a treatment plan?As expected, he repeated TSH and T4, added T3 and TPO and the other antibody tests described above: TGAb, TRab, TSI. This would confirm subclinical hyperthyroidism and Graves’ as the likely source.

     

  • Do I need treatment, since the guidelines generally don’t suggest treatment with normal T3/T4 and TSH between .1 and .4?Initially he suggested treatment would be an option, and after the repeat and expanded lab work, left it up to my decision. Given my symptoms that are actively bothering me, I’m choosing to try low-dose antithyroid medication.
  • For hyperthyroidism treatment, beta blockers seem to be part of treatment guidelines for managing symptoms in the short-term, since it takes ~6 weeks for antithyroid medication to show up in lab results. Were beta blockers warranted in my case?My endo typically doesn’t like to prescribe beta blockers unless there are extreme symptoms. He gave an example of someone with a T4 (I think) around 10 and extreme visible shaking. He left it up to me, but his opinion was the side effects, such as lethargy, would outweigh the benefits for mild symptoms, so it is better to treat the root cause. I agreed and did not ask for a beta blocker prescription.
  • I also asked if a DEXA scan was warranted to check my bone density.I haven’t had one in over a decade, and celiac and EPI and now Graves’ puts me at possible higher risk of bone density issues. And, since the presence of osteoporosis changes the treatment recommendation for subclinical hyperthyroidism, we agreed it was worth doing. I have it scheduled in a few weeks. My last one over a decade ago was normal.
  • Finally, I asked about my eye care, now that I have a known eye thing (Graves’ orbitopathy). Do I need to get referred to an ophthalmologist, or can I continue to see my existing optometrist for annual eye care (including diabetes eye exam) and contact fittings?My endocrinologist suggested that my optometrist can continue to manage my eye care, unless something changes significantly. Ophthalmologists, based on his response and my research, seem to handle severe eye disease treatments that aren’t likely warranted for me. I’ll probably need supportive eye care (e.g. gel drops, regular eye drops) for now. However, I’m planning to send a note to my eye doctor and flag that I want to talk about Graves’ eye things and a plan for monitoring severity and progression over time, and check whether she’s comfortable supporting me or if she prefers to refer me to someone else. 


After my repeat labs came back, my endocrinologist messaged me to confirm things and ask if I wanted him to send in the prescription as previously discussed. This exchanged answered the additional questions I had at this time:

  • What is the treatment timeline? How soon might I see results?He suggested repeat labs at the 2 month mark. Ideally, we’d see reduced antibody levels and my hope is that my eye symptoms will have also improved and/or I won’t have any additional weeks without being able to wear contacts.

    Given I have a clear impact to my heart rate, I’m hypothesizing that I might see changes to the trend in my heart rate data sooner than 6 weeks – 2 months, so that’ll be interesting to track!

     

  • Side effects?Common side effects with antithyroid drugs are rash/allergic type response, headache, or agranulocytosis. He told me to discontinue and contact the office if I had any of those symptoms.

    He didn’t go into detail, but I’ve read about agranulocytosis and it seems like if you have a fever and strong sore throat, you need to discontinue and probably will have blood work ordered to make sure your white blood cell counts are ok. Don’t google too much on this one as it sounds scary, but it’s also rare – less than 2% of people seem to have this.

     

  • The only question he didn’t answer was whether it makes a difference in efficacy to take the antithyroid drugs at night or in the morning.Probably, the answer is it doesn’t matter, and whatever time you can take it consistently is best. However, I want to optimize and get the best results from taking this, so I’m bummed that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence (let me know if you’ve found anything in medical literature) suggesting how to optimize timing of it. 

So that’s where I am today.

I now have type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, and Graves’ disease (contributing to subclinical hyperthyroidism). It’s possible that we can fix the subclinical hyperthyroidism, and that I won’t need to be on antithyroid medication long-term. However, the data for those of us with Graves’ orbitopathy isn’t super optimistic compared to those without Graves’ eye disease; so I am managing my expectations that managing my thyroid antibody and hormone levels will be an ongoing thing that I get to do along with managing insulin and blood sugars and managing pancreatic enzymes. We’ll see!

New Research on Glycemic Variability Assessment In Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) and Type 1 Diabetes

I am very excited to share that a new article I wrote was just published, looking at glycemic variability in data from before and after pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) was started in someone with type 1 diabetes with newly discovered exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI or PEI).

If you’re not aware of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, it occurs when the pancreas no longer produces the amount of enzymes necessary to fully digest food. If that occurs, people need supplementary enzymes, known as pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), to help them digest their food. (You can read more about EPI here, and I have also written other posts about EPI that you can find at DIYPS.org/EPI.)

But, like MANY medications, when someone with type 1 diabetes or other types of insulin-requiring diabetes starts taking them, there is little to no guidance about whether these medications will change their insulin sensitivity or otherwise impact their blood glucose levels. No guidance, because there are no studies! In part, this may be because of the limited tools available at the time these medications were tested and approved for their current usage. Also this is likely in part because people with diabetes make up a small fraction of the study participants that most of these medications are tested on. If there are any specific studies on the medications in people with diabetes, these studies likely were done before CGM, so little data is available that is actionable.

As a result, the opportunity came up to review someone’s data who happened to have blood glucose data from a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) as well as a log of what was eaten (carbohydrate entries) prior to commencing pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy. The tracking continued after commencing PERT and was expanded to also include fat and protein entries. As a result, there was a useful dataset to compare the impacts of pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy on blood glucose outcomes and specifically, looking at glycemic variability changes!

(You can read an author copy here of the full paper and also see the supplementary material here, and the DOI for the paper is https://doi.org/10.1177/19322968221108414 . Otherwise, below is my summary of what we did and the results!)

In addition to the above background, it’s worth noting that Type 1 diabetes is known to be associated with EPI. In upwards of 40% of people with Type 1 diabetes, elastase levels are lowered, which in other cases is correlated with EPI. However, in T1D, there is some confusion as to whether this is always the case or not. Based on recent discussions with endocrinologists who treat patients with T1D and EPI (and have patients with lowered elastase that they think don’t have EPI), I don’t think there have been enough studies looking at the right things to assess whether people with T1D and lowered elastase levels would benefit from PERT and thus have EPI. More on this in the future!

Because we now have technology such as AID (automated insulin delivery) and CGM, it’s possible to evaluate things beyond simple metrics of “average blood sugar” or “A1c” in response to taking new medications. In this paper, we looked at some basic metrics like average blood sugar and percent time in range (TIR), but we also did quite a few calculations of variables that tell us more about the level of variability in glucose levels, especially in the time frames after meals.

Methods

This person had tracked carb entries through an open source AID system, and so carb entries and BG data were available from before they started PERT. We call this “pre-PERT”, and selected 4 weeks worth of data to exclude major holidays (as diet is known to vary quite a bit during those times). We then compared this to “post-PERT”, the first 4 weeks after the person started PERT. The post-PERT data not only included BGs and carb entries, but also had fat and protein entries as well as PERT data. Each time frame included 13,975 BG data points.

We used a series of open source tools to get the data (Nightscout -> Nightscout Data Transfer Tool -> Open Humans) and process the data (my favorite Unzip-Zip-CSVify-OpenHumans-data.sh script).

All of our code for this paper is open source, too! Check it out here. We analyzed time in range, TIR 70-180, time out of range, TOR >180, time below range, TBR <70 and <54, the number of hyperglycemic excursions >180. We also calculated total daily dose of insulin, average carbohydrate intake, and average carbohydrate entries per day. Then we calculated a series of variability related metrics such as Low Blood Glucose Index (LBGI), High Blood Glucose Index (HBGI), Coefficient of Variation (CV), Standard Deviation (SD), and J_index (which stresses both the importance of the mean level and variability of glycemic levels).

Results

This person already had an above-goal TIR. Standard of care goal for TIR is >70%; before PERT they had 92.12% TIR and after PERT it was 93.70%. Remember, this person is using an open source AID! TBR <54 did not change significantly, TBR <70 decreased slightly, and TOR >180 also decreased slightly.

More noticeably, the total number of unique excursions above 180 dropped from 40 (in the 4 weeks without PERT) to 26 (in 4 weeks when using PERT).

The paper itself has a few more details about average fat, protein, and carb intake and any changes. Total daily insulin was relatively similar, carb intake decreased slightly post-PERT but was trending back upward by the end of the 4 weeks. This is likely an artifact of being careful to adjust to PERT and dose effectively for PERT. The number of meals decreased but the average carb entry per meal increased, too.

What I find really interesting is the assessment we did on variability, overall and looking at specific meal times. The breakfast meal was identical during both time periods, and this is where you can really SEE visible changes pre- and post-PERT. Figure 2 (displayed below), shows the difference in the rate of change frequency. There’s less of the higher rate of changes (red) post-PERT than there is from pre-PERT (blue).

Figure 2 from GV analysis on EPI, showing lower frequency of high rate of change post-PERT

Similarly, figure 3 from the paper shows all glucose data pre- and post-PERT, and you can see the fewer excursions >180 (blue dotted line) in the post-PERT glucose data.

Figure 3 from GV analysis paper on EPI showing lower number of excursions above 180 mg/dL

Table 1 in the paper has all the raw data, and Figure 1 plots the most relevant graphs side by side so you can see pre- and post-PERT before and after after all meals on the left, versus pre and post-PERT before and after breakfast only. Look at TOR >180 and the reduction in post-breakfast levels after PERT! Similarly, HBGI post-PERT after-breakfast is noticeably different than HBGI pre-PERT after-breakfast.

Here’s a look at the HBGI for breakfast only, I’ve highlighted in purple the comparison after breakfast for pre- and post-PERT:

High Blood Glucose Index (HBGI) pre- and post-PERT for breakfast only, showing reduction in post-PERT after breakfast

Discussion

This is a paper looking at n=1 data, but it’s not really about the n=1 here. (See the awesome limitation section for more detail, where I point out it’s n=1, it’s not a clinical study, the person has ‘moderate’ EPI, there wasn’t fat/protein data from pre-PERT, it may not be representative of all people with diabetes with EPI or EPI in general.)

What this paper is about is illustrating the types of analyses that are possible, if only we would capture and analyze the data. There are gaping holes in the scientific knowledge base: unanswered and even unasked questions about what happens to blood glucose with various medications, and this data can help answer them! This data shows minimal changes to TIR but visible and significant changes to post-meal glycemic variability (especially after breakfast!). Someone who had a lower TIR or wasn’t using an open source AID may have more obvious changes in TIR following PERT commencement.

This paper shows several ways we can more easily detect efficacy of new-onset medications, whether it is enzymes for PERT or other commonly used medications for people with diabetes.

For example, we could do a similar study with metformin, looking at early changes in glycemic variability in people newly prescribed metformin. Wouldn’t it be great, as a person with diabetes, to be able to more quickly resolve the uncertainty of “is this even working?!” and not have to suffer through potential side effects for 3-6 months or longer waiting for an A1c lab test to verify whether the metformin is having the intended effects?

Specifically with regards to EPI, it can be hard for some people to tell if PERT “is working”, because they’re asymptomatic, they are relying on lab data for changes in fat soluble vitamin levels (which may take time to change following PERT commencement), etc. It can also be hard to get the dosing “right”, and there is little guidance around titrating in general, and no studies have looked at titration based on macronutrient intake, which is something else that I’m working on. So, having a method such as these types of GV analysis even for a person without diabetes who has newly discovered EPI might be beneficial: GV changes could be an earlier indicator of PERT efficacy and serve as encouragement for individuals with EPI to continue PERT titration and arrive at optimal dosing.

Conclusion

As I wrote in the paper:

It is possible to use glycemic variability to assess changes in glycemic outcomes in response to new-onset medications, such as pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) in people with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) and insulin-requiring diabetes. More studies should use AID and CGM data to assess changes in glycemic outcomes and variability to add to the knowledge base of how medications affect glucose levels for people with diabetes. Specifically, this n=1 data analysis demonstrates that glycemic variability can be useful for assessing post-PERT response in someone with suspected or newly diagnosed EPI and provide additional data points regarding the efficacy of PERT titration over time.

I’m super excited to continue this work and use all available datasets to help answer more questions about PERT titration and efficacy, changes to glycemic variability, and anything else we can learn. For this study, I collaborated with the phenomenal Arsalan Shahid, who serves as technology solutions lead at CeADAR (Ireland’s Centre for Applied AI at University College Dublin), who helped make this study and paper possible. We’re looking for additional collaborators, though, so feel free to reach out if you are interested in working on similar efforts or any other research studies related to EPI!

A DIY Fuel Enzyme Macronutrient Tracker for Running Ultras (Ultramarathons)

It takes a lot of energy to run ultramarathons (ultras).

To ensure they have enough fuel to complete the run, people usually want to eat X-Y calories per hour, or A-B carbs per hour, while running ultramarathons. It can be hard to know if you’re staying on top of fueling, especially as the hours drag on and your brain gets tired; plus, you can be throwing away your trash as you go so you may not have a pile of wrappers to tell you what you ate.

During training, it may be useful to have a written record of what you did for each run, so you can establish a baseline and work on improving your fueling if that’s something you want to focus on.

For me specifically, I also find it helpful to record what enzyme dosing I am taking, as I have EPI (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, which you can read more about here) and if I have symptoms it can help me identify where my dosing might have been off from the previous day. It’s not only the amount of enzymes but also the timing that matters, alongside the timing of carbs and insulin, because I have type 1 diabetes, celiac, and EPI to juggle during runs.

Previously, I’ve relied on carb entries to Nightscout (an open source CGM remote monitoring platform which I use for visualizing diabetes data including OpenAPS data) as a record of what I ate, because I know 15g of carbs tracks to a single serving of chili cheese Fritos that are 10g of fat and 2g of protein, and I take one lipase-only and one pancrelipase (multi-enzyme) pill for that; and 21g of carbs is a Honey Stinger Gluten Free Stroopwaffle that is 6g of fat and 1g of protein, and I typically take one lipase-only. You can see from my most recent ultra (a 50k) where I manually took those carb entries and mapped them on to my blood sugar (CGM) graph to visualize what happened in terms of fuel and blood sugar over the course of my ultra.

However, that was “just” a 50k and I’m working toward bigger runs: a 50 mile, maybe a 100k (62 miles), and/or a 100 mile, which means instead of running for 7-8 hours I’ll be running for 12-14 and 24-30(ish) hours! That’s a lot of fuel to need to eat, and to keep track of, and I know from experience my brain starts to get tired of thinking about and eating food around 7 hours. So, I’ll need something better to help me keep track of fuel, enzymes, and electrolytes over the course of longer runs.

I also am planning on being well supported by my “crew” – my husband Scott, who will e-bike around the course of my ultra or my DIY ultra loops and refill my pack with water and fuel. In some cases, with a DIY ultra, he’ll be bringing food from home that I pre-made and he warms up in the microwave.

One of the strategies I want to test is for him to actually hand me the enzymes for the food he’s bringing me. For example, hand me a baggie of mashed potatoes and also hand me the one multi-enzyme (pancrelipase, OTC) pill I need to go with it. That reduces mental effort for me to look up or remember what enzyme amount I take for mashed potatoes; saves me from digging out my baggie of enzymes and having to get the pill out and swallow it, put the baggie away without dropping it, all while juggling the snack in my hands.

He doesn’t necessarily know the counts of enzymes for each fuel (although he could reproduce it, it’s better if I pre-make a spreadsheet library of my fuel options and that helps me both just pick it off a drop down and have an easy reference for him to glance at. He won’t be running 50-100 miles, but he will be waking up every 2-3 hours overnight and that does a number on his brain, too, so it’s easier all around if he can just reference the math I’ve already done!

So, for my purposes: 1) easy tracking of fuel counts for real-time “am I eating according to plan” and 2) retrospective “how did I do overall and should I do something next time” and 3) for EPI and BG analysis (“what should I do differently if I didn’t get the ideal outcome?”), it’s ideal to have a tracking spreadsheet to log my fuel intake.

Here’s what I did to build my ultimate fuel self-tracking self-populating spreadsheet:

First, I created a tab in my spreadsheet as a “Fuel Library”, where I listed out all of my fuel. This ranges from snacks (chili cheese Fritos; Honey Stinger Gluten Free Stroopwaffle; yogurt-covered pretzels, etc.); to fast-acting carbs (e.g. Airhead Minis, Circus Peanuts) that I take for fixing blood sugars; to other snack/treats like chocolate candy bars or cookies; as well as small meals and warm food, such as tomato soup or part of a ham and cheese quesadilla. (All gluten free, since I have celiac. Everything I ever write about is always gluten free!)

After I input the list of snacks, I made columns to input the sodium, calories, fat, protein, and carb counts. I don’t usually care about calories but a lot of recommendations for ultras are calories/hr and carbs/hr. I tend to be lower on the carb side in my regular daily consumption and higher on fat than most people without T1D, so I’m using the calories for ultrarunning comparison to see overall where I’m landing nutrient-wise without fixating on carbs, since I have T1D and what I personally prefer for BG management is likely different than those without T1D.

I also input the goal amount of enzymes. I have three different types of pills: a prescription pancrelipase (I call PERT, which stands for pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy, and when I say PERT I’m referring to the expensive, prescription pancrelipase that’s been tested and studied for safety and efficacy in EPI); an over-the-counter (OTC) lipase-only pill; and an OTC multi-enzyme pancrelipase pill that contains much smaller amounts of all three enzymes (lipase, protease, amylase) than my PERT but hasn’t been tested for safety and efficacy for EPI. So, I have three enzyme columns: Lipase, OTC Pancrelipase, and PERT. For each fuel I calculate which I need (usually one lipase, or a lipase plus a OTC pancrelipase, because these single servings are usually fairly low fat and protein; but for bigger meal-type foods with more protein I may ‘round up’ and choose to take a full PERT, especially if I eat more of it), and input the number in the appropriate column.

Then, I opened another tab on my spreadsheet. I created a row of headers for what I ate (the fuel); time; and then all the macronutrients again. I moved this down to row 3, because I also want to include at the top of the spreadsheet a total of everything for the day.

Example-DIY-Fuel-Enzyme-Tracker-ByDanaMLewis

In Column A, I selected the first cell (A4) for me, then went to Data > Data Validation and clicked on it. It opens this screen, which I input the following – A4 is the cell I’m in for “cell range”, the criteria is “list from a range”, and then I popped over to the tab with my ‘fuel library’ and highlighted the relevant data that I wanted to be in the menu: Food. So that was C2-C52 for my list of food. Make sure “show dropdown list in cell” is marked, because that’s what creates the dropdown in the cell. Click save.

Use the data validation section to choose to show a dropbox in each cell

You’ll want to drag that down to apply the drop-down to all the cells you want. Mine now looked like this, and you can see clicking the dropdown shows the menu to tap on.

Clicking a dropbox in the cell brings up the "menu" of food options from my Fuel Library tab

After I selected from my menu, I wanted column B to automatically put in the time. This gets obnoxious: google sheets has NOW() to put in the current time, but DO NOT USE THIS as the formula updates with the latest time any time you touch the spreadsheet.

I ended up having to use a google script (go to “Extensions” > Apps Script, here’s a tutorial with more detail) to create a function called onEdit() that I could reference in my spreadsheet. I use the old style legacy script editor in my screenshot below.

Older style app script editor for adding scripts to spreadsheet, showing the onEdit() function (see text below in post for what the script is)

Code I used, if you need to copy/paste:

function onEdit(e) {

var rr = e.range;

var ss = e.range.getSheet();

var headerRows = 2;  // # header rows to ignore

if (rr.getRow() <= headerRows) return;

var row = e.range.getRow();

var col = e.range.getColumn();

if(col == 1){

e.source.getActiveSheet().getRange(row,2).setValue(new Date());

}

}

After saving that script (File > Save), I went back to my spreadsheet and put this formula into the B column cells: =IFERROR(onEdit(),””). It fills in the current date/time (because onEdit tells it to if the A cell has been updated), and otherwise sits with a blank until it’s been changed.

Note: if you test your sheet, you’ll have to go back and paste in the formula to overwrite the date/time that gets updated by the script. I keep the formula without the “=” in a cell in the top right of my spreadsheet so I can copy/paste it when I’m testing and updating my sheet. You can also find it in a cell below and copy/paste from there as well.

Next, I wanted to populate my macronutrients on the tracker spreadsheet. For each cell in row 4, I used a VLOOKUP with the fuel name from A4 to look at the sheet with my library, and then use the column number from the fuel library sheet to reference which data element I want. I actually have things in a different order in my fuel library and my tracking sheet; so if you use my template later on or are recreating your own, pay attention to matching the headers from your tracker sheet and what’s in your library. The formula for this cell ended up being “=IFERROR(VLOOKUP(A4,’Fuel Library’!C:K,4, FALSE),””)”, again designed to leave the column blank if column A didn’t have a value, but if it does have a value, to prefill the number from Column 4 matching the fuel entry into this cell. Columns C-J on my tracker spreadsheet all use that formula, with the updated values to pull from the correctly matching column, to pre-populate my counts in the tracker spreadsheet.

Finally, the last thing I wanted was to track easily when I last ate. I could look at column B, but with a tired brain I want something more obvious that tracks how long it’s been. This also is again to maybe help Scott, who will be tasked with helping me stay on top of things, be able to check if I’m eating regularly and encourage me gently or less gently to be eating more as the hours wear on in my ultras.

I ended up creating a cell in the header that would track the last entry from column B. To do this, the formula I found is “INDEX(B4:B,MATCH(143^143,B4:B))”, which checks for the last number in column B starting in B4 and onward. It correctly pulls in the latest timestamp on the list.

Then, in another cell, I created “=NOW()-B2”, which is a good use for the NOW() formula I warned about, because it’s constantly updating every time the sheet gets touched, so that any time I go to update it’ll tell me how long it’s been since between now and the last time I ate.

But, that only updates every time I update the sheet, so if I want to glance at the sheet, it will be only from the last time I updated it… which is not what I want. To fix it, I need to change the autorefresh calculation settings. Go to File > Settings. Click “Calculations” tab, and the first drop down you want to change to be “On change and every minute”.

Under File > Settings there is a "Calculate" tab with a dropdown menu to choose to update on change plus every minute

Now it does what I want, updating that cell that uses the NOW() formula every minute, so this calculation is up to date even when the sheet hasn’t been changed!

However, I also decided I want to log electrolytes in my same spreadsheet, but not include it in my top “when did I last eat” calculator. So, I created column K and inserted the formula IF(A4=”Electrolytes”,””,B4), which checks to see if the Dropdown menu selection was Electrolytes. If so, it doesn’t do anything. If it’s not electrolytes, it repeats the B4 value, which is my formula to put the date and time. Then, I changed B2 to index and match on column K instead of B. My B2 formula now is INDEX(K4:K,MATCH(143^143,K4:K)), because K now has the food-only list of date and time stamps that I want to be tracking in my “when did I last eat” tracker. (If you don’t log electrolytes or don’t have anything else to exclude, you can keep B2 as indexing and matching on column B. But if you want to exclude anything, you can follow my example of using an additional column (my K) to check for things you do want to include and exclude the ones you don’t want. Also, you can hide columns if you don’t want to see them, so column K (or your ‘check for exclusions’ column wherever it ends up) could be hidden from view so it doesn’t distract your brain.

I also added conditional formatting to my tracker. Anytime A2, the time since eaten cell, is between 0-30 minutes, it’s green: indicating I’m on top of my fueling. 30-45 minutes it turns yellow as a warning that it’s time to eat. After 45 minutes, it’ll turn light red as a strong reminder that I’m off schedule.

I kept adding features, such as totaling my sodium consumption per hour, too, so I could track electrolytes+fuel sodium totals. Column L gets the formula =IF(((ABS((NOW()-B4))*1440)<60),F4,””) to check for the difference between the current time and the fuel entry, multiplying it by 1440 to convert to minutes and checking to see that it’s less than 60 minutes. If it is, then it prints the sodium value, and otherwise leaves it blank. (You could skip the ABS part as I was testing current, past, and future values and wanted it to stop throwing errors for future times that were calculated as negatives in the first argument). I then in C2 calculate the sum of those values for the total sodium for that hour, using =SUM(L4:L)

(I thought about tracking the past sodium per hour values to average and see how I did throughout the run on an hourly basis…but so far on my 3 long runs where I’ve used the spreadsheet, the very fact that I am using the tracker and glancing at the hourly total has kept me well on top of sodium and so I haven’t need that yet. However, if I eventually start to have long enough runs where this is an issue, I’ll probably go back and have it calculate the absolute hour sodium totals for retrospective analysis.)

This works great in the Google Sheets app on my phone, which is how I’ll be updating it during my ultras, although Scott can have it open on a browser tab when he’s at home working at his laptop. Every time I go for a long training run, I duplicate the template tab and label it with the date of the run and use it for logging my fueling.

(PS – if you didn’t know, you can rearrange the order of tabs in your sheet, so you can drag the one you want to be actively using to the left. This is useful in case the app closes on your phone and you’re re-opening the sheet fresh, so you don’t have to scroll to re-find the correct tab you want to be using for that run. In a browser, you can either drag and drop the tabs, or click the arrow next to the tab name and select “move left” or “move right”.)

Clicking the arrow to the right of a tab name in google sheets brings up a menu that includes the option to move the tab left or right

Click here to make a copy of my spreadsheet.

If you click to make a copy of a google spreadsheet, it pops up a link confirming you want to make a copy, and also might bring the app script functionality with it. If so, you can click the button to view the script (earlier in the blog post). If it doesn't include the warning about the script, remember to add the script yourself after you make a copy.

Take a look at my spreadsheet after you make a copy (click here to generate a copy if you didn’t use the previous mentioned link), and you’ll note in the README tab a few reminders to modify the fuel library and make sure you follow the steps to ensure that the script is associated with the sheet and validation is updated.

Obviously, you may not need lipase/pancrelipase/PERT and enzyme counts; if you do, your counts of enzymes needed and types of enzyme and quantity of enzymes will need updating; you may not need or want all of these macronutrients; and you’ll definitely be eating different fuel than I am, so you can update it however you like with what you’re eating and what you want to track.

This spreadsheet and the methods for building it can also be used for other purposes, such as tracking wait times or how long it took you to do something, etc.

(If you do find this blog post and use this spreadsheet concept, let me know – I’d love to hear if this is useful for you!)

2022 Strawberry Fields Forever Ultramarathon Race Report Recap

I recently ran my second-ever 50k ultramarathon. This is my attempt to provide a race recap or “race report”, which in part is to help people in the future considering this race and this course. (I couldn’t find a lot of race reports investigating this race!)

It’s also an effort to provide an example of how I executed fueling, enzyme dosing (because I have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, known as EPI), and blood sugar management (because I have type 1 diabetes), because there’s also not a lot of practical guidance or examples of how people do this. A lot of it is individual, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for anyone, but if anything hopefully it will help other people feel not alone as they work to figure out what works for them!

Context of my running and training in preparation

I wrote quite a bit in this previous post about my training last year for a marathon and my first 50k. Basically, I’m slow, and I also choose to run/walk for my training and racing. This year I’ve been doing 30:60 intervals, meaning I run 30 seconds and walk 60 seconds.

Due to a combination of improved training (and having a year of training last year), as well as now having recognized I was not getting sufficient pancreatic enzymes so that I was not digesting and using the food I was eating effectively, this year has been going really well. I ended up training as far as a practice 50k about 5 weeks out from my race. I did several more mid- to high-20 mile runs as well. I also did a next-day run following my long runs, starting around 3-4 miles and eventually increasing to 8 miles the day after my 50k. The goal of these next-day runs was to practice running on tired legs.

Overall, I think this training was very effective for me. My training runs were easy paced, and I always felt like I could run more after I was done. I recovered well, and the next-day runs weren’t painful and I did not have to truncate or skip any of those planned runs. (Previous years, running always felt hard and I didn’t know what it was like to recover “well” until this year.) My paces also increased to about a minute/mile faster than last year’s easy pace. Again, that’s probably a combination of increased running overall and better digestion and recovery.

Last year I chose to run a marathon and then do a 50k while I was “trained up” for my marathon. This year, I wanted to do a 50k as a fitness assessment on the path to a 50 mile race this fall. I looked for local-ish 50k options that did not have much elevation, and found the Strawberry Fields Forever Ultra.

Why I chose this race, and the basics about this race

The Strawberry Fields Forever Ultra met most of my goal criteria, including that it was around the time that I wanted to run a 50k, so that I had almost 6 months to train and also before it got to be too hot and risked being during wildfire smoke season. (Sadly, that’s a season that now overlaps significantly with the summers here.) It’s local-ish, meaning we could drive to it, although we did spend the night before the race in the area just to save some stress the morning of the race. The race nicely started at 9am, and we drove home in the evening after the race.

The race is on a 10k (6.2 miles) looped course in North Bonneville, Washington, and hosted a 10k event (1 lap), a 50k event (5 laps), and also had 100k (10 laps) or (almost) 100 miles (16 laps). It does have a little bit of elevation – or “little” by ultramarathon standards. The site and all reports describe one hill and net 200 feet of elevation gain and loss. I didn’t love the idea of a 200 foot hill, but thought I could make do. It also describes the course as “grass and dirt” trails. You’ll see a map later where I’ve described some key points on the course, and it’s also worth noting that this course is very “crew-able”. Most people hang out at the start/finish, since it’s “just” a 10k loop and people are looping through pretty frequently. However, if you want to, either for moral or practical support, crew could walk over to various points, or my husband brought his e-bike and biked around between points on the course very easily using a mix of the other trails and actual roads nearby.

The course is well marked. Any turn had a white sign with a black arrow on it and also white arrows drawn on the ground, and there were dozens of little red/pink fluorescent flags marking the course. Any time there was a fork in the path, these flags (usually 2-3 for emphasis, which was excellent for tired brains) would guide you to the correct direction.

The nice thing about this race is it includes the 100 mile option and that has a course limit of 30 hours, which means all the other distances also have this course limit of 30 hours. That’s fantastic when a lot of 50k or 50 mile (or 100k, which is 62 miles) courses might have 12 hour or similar tighter course limits. If you wanted to have a nice long opportunity to cover the distance, with the ability to stop and rest (or nap/sleep), this is a great option for that.

With the 50k, I was aiming to match or ideally beat my time from my first 50k, recognizing that this course is harder given the terrain and hill. However, I think my fitness is higher, so beating that time even with the elevation gain seemed reasonable.

Special conditions and challenges of the 2022 Strawberry Fields Forever Ultramarathon

It’s worth noting that in 2021 there was a record abnormal heat wave due to a “heat dome” that made it 100+ degrees (F) during the race. Yikes. I read about that and I am not willing to run a race when I have not trained for that type of heat (or any heat), so I actually waited until the week before the race to officially sign up after I saw the forecast for the race. The forecast originally was 80 F, then bounced around mid 60s to mid 70s, all of which seemed doable. I wouldn’t mind some rain during the race, either, as rainy 50s and 60s is what I’ve been training in for months.

But just to make things interesting, for the 2022 event the Pacific Northwest got an “atmospheric river” that dumped inches of rain on Thursday..and Friday. Gulp. Scott and I drove down to spend the night Friday night before the race, and it was dumping hard rain. I began to worry about the mud that would be on the course before we even started the race. However, the rain finished overnight and we woke up to everything being wet, but not actively raining. It was actually fairly warm (60s), so even if it drizzled during the race it wouldn’t be chilly.

During the start of the race, the race director said we would get wet and joked (I thought) about practicing our backstroke. Then the race started, and we took off.

My race recap / race report the 2022 Strawberry Fields Forever Ultramarathon

I’ve included a picture below that I was sent a month or so before the race when I asked for a course map, and a second picture because I also asked for the elevation profile. I’ve marked with letters (A-I) points on the course that I’ll describe below for reference, and we ran counterclockwise this year so the elevation map I’ve marked with matching letters where “A” is on the right and “I” is on the left, matching how I experienced the course.

The course is slightly different in the start/finish area, but otherwise is 95% matching what we actually ran, so I didn’t bother grabbing my actual course map from my run since this one was handy and a lot cleaner than my Runkeeper-derived map of the race.

Annotated course map with points A-I
StrawberryFieldsForever-Ultra-Elevation-Profile

My Runkeeper elevation profile of the 50k (5 repeated laps) looked like this:
Runkeeper elevation profile of 5 loops on the Strawberry Fields Forever 50k course

I’ll describe my first experience through the course (Lap 1) in more detail, then a couple of thoughts about the experiences of the subsequent laps, in part to describe fueling and other choices I made.

Lap 1:

We left the start by running across the soccer field and getting on a paved path that hooked around the ballfield and then headed out a gate and up The Hill. This was the one hill I thought was on the course. I ran a little bit and passed a few people who walked on a shallower slope, then I also converted to a walk for the rest of the hill. It was the most crowded race start I’ve done, because there were so many people (150 across the 10k, 50k, 100k, and 100 miler) and such a short distance between the start and this hill. The Hill, as I thought of it, is point A on the course map.

Luckily, heading up the hill there are gorgeous purple wildflowers along the path and mountain views. At the top of the hill there are some benches at the point where we took a left turn and headed down the hill, going down the same elevation in about half a mile so it was longer than the uphill section. This downhill slope (B) was very runnable and gravel covered, whereas going up the hill was more dirt and mud.

At the bottom of the hill, there was a hairpin turn and we turned and headed back up the hill, although not all the way up, and more along a plateau in the side of the hill. The “plateau” is point C on the map. I thought it would be runnable once I got back up the initial hill, but it was mud pit after mud pit, and I would have two steps of running in between mud pits to carefully walk through. It was really frustrating. I ended up texting to my parents and Scott that it was about 1.7 miles of mud (from the uphill, and the plateau) before I got to some gravel that was more easily runnable. Woohoo for gravel! This was a nice, short downhill slope (D) before we flattened out and switched back to dirt and more mud pits.

This was the E area, although it did feel more runnable than the plateau because there were longer stretches between muddy sections.

Eventually, we saw the river and came out from the trail into a parking lot and then jogged over onto the trail that parallels the river for a while. This trail that I thought of as “River Road” (starting around point F) is just mowed grass and is between a sharp bluff drop with opening where people would be down at the river fishing, and in some cases we were running *underneath* fishing lines from the parking spots down to the river! There were a few people who would be walking back and forth from cars to the river, but in general they were all very courteous and there was no obstruction of the trail. Despite the mowed grass aspect of the trail, this stretch physically and psychologically felt easier because there were no mud pits for 90% of it. Near the end there were a few muddy areas right about the point we hopped back over into the road to connect up a gravel road for a short spurt.

This year, the race actually put a bonus aid station out here. I didn’t partake, but they had a tent up with two volunteers who were cheerful and kind to passing runners, and it looked like they had giant things of gatorade or water, bottled water, and some sugared soda. They probably had other stuff, but that’s just what I saw when passing.

After that short gravel road bit, we turned back onto a dirt trail that led us to the river. Not the big river we had been running next to, but the place where the Columbia River overflowed the trail and we had to cross it. This is what the race director meant by practicing our backstroke.

You can see a video in this tweet of how deep and far across you had to get in this river crossing (around point G, but hopefully in future years this isn’t a point of interest on the map!!)

Coming out of the river, my feet were like blocks of ice. I cheered up at the thought that I had finished the wet feet portion of the course and I’d dry off before I looped back around and hit the muddy hill and plateau again. But, sadly, just around the next curve, came a mud POND. Not a pit, a pond.

Again, ankle deep water and mud, not just once but in three different ponds all within 30 seconds or so of each other. It was really frustrating, and obviously you can’t run through them, so it slowed you down.

Then finally after the river crossing and the mud ponds, we hooked a right into a nice, forest trail that we spent about a mile and a half in (point H). It had a few muddy spots like you would normally expect to get muddy on a trail, but it wasn’t ankle deep or water filled or anything else. It was a nice relief!

Then we turned out of the forest and crossed a road and headed up one more (tiny, but it felt annoying despite how small it looks on the elevation profile) hill (point I), ran down the other side of that slope, stepped across another mud pond onto a pleasingly gravel path, and took the gravel path about .3 miles back all the way to complete the first full lap.

Phew.

I actually made pretty good time the first loop despite not knowing about all the mud or river crossing challenges. I was pleased with my time which was on track with my plan. Scott took my pack about .1 miles before I entered the start/finish area and brought it back to me refilled as I exited the start/finish area.

Lap 2:

The second lap was pretty similar. The Hill (A) felt remarkably harder after having experienced the first loop. I did try to run more of the downhill (B) as I recognized I’d make up some time from the walking climb as well as knowing I couldn’t run up the plateau or some of the mud pits along the plateau (C) as well as I had expected. I also decided running in the mud pits didn’t work, and went with the safer approach of stepping through them and then running 2 steps in between. I was a little slower this time, but still a reasonable pace for my goals.

The rest of the loop was roughly the same as the first, the mud was obnoxious, the river crossing freezing, the mud obnoxious again, and relief at running through the forest.

Scott met me at the end of the river road and biked along the short gravel section with me and went ahead so he could park his bike and take video of my second river crossing, which is the video above. I was thrilled to have video of that, because the static pictures of the river crossing didn’t feel like it did the depth and breadth of the water justice!

At the end of lap 2, Scott grabbed my pack again at the end of the loop and said he’d figured out where to meet me to give it back to me after the hill…if I wanted that. Yes, please! The bottom of the hill where you hairpin turn to go back up the plateau is the 1 mile marker point, so that means I ran the first mile of the third lap without my pack, and not having the weight of my full pack (almost 3L of water and lots of snacks and supplies: more on that pack below) was really helpful for my third time up the hill. He met me as planned at the bottom of the downhill (B) and I took my pack back which made a much nicer start to lap 3.

Lap 3:

Lap 3 for some reason I came out of the river crossing and the mud ponds feeling like I got extra mud in my right shoe. It felt gritty around the right side of my right food, and I was worried about having been running for so many hours with soaked feet. I decided to stop at a bench in the forest section and swap for dry socks. In retrospect, I wish I had stopped somewhere else, because I got swarmed by these moth/gnat/mosquito things that looked gross (dozens on my leg within a minute of sitting there) that I couldn’t brush off effectively while I was trying to remove my gaiters, untie my shoes, take my shoes off, peel my socks and bandaids and lambs wool off, put lubrication back on my toes, put more lambs wool on my toes, put the socks and shoes back on, and re-do my gaiters. Sadly, it took me 6 minutes despite me moving as fast as I could to do all of those things (this was a high/weirdly designed bench in a shack that looked like a bus stop in the middle of the woods, so it wasn’t the best way to sit, but I thought it was better than sitting on the ground).

(The bugs didn’t hurt me at the time, but two days later my dozens of bites all over my leg are red and swollen, though thankfully they only itch when they have something chafing against them.)

Anyway, I stood up and took off again and was frustrated knowing that it had taken 6 minutes and basically eaten the margin of time I had against my previous 50k time. I saw Scott about a quarter of a mile later, and I saw him right as I realized I had also somewhere lost my baggie of electrolyte pills. Argh! I didn’t have back up for those (although I had given Scott backups of everything else), so that spiked my stress levels as I was due for some electrolytes and wasn’t sure how I’d do with 3 or so more hours without them.

I gave Scott my pack and tasked him with checking my brother-in-law’s setup to see if he had spare electrolytes, while he was refilling my pack to give me in lap 4.

Lap 4:

I was pretty grumpy given the sock timing and the electrolyte mishap as I headed into lap 4. The hill still sucked, but I told myself “only one more hill after this!” and that thought cheered me up.

Scott had found two electrolyte options from my brother-in-law and brought those to me at the end of mile 1 (again, bottom of B slope) with my pack. He found two chewable and two swallow pills, so I had options for electrolytes. I chewed the first electrolyte tab as I headed up the plateau, and again talked myself through the mud pits with “only one more time through the mud pits after this!”.

I also tried overall to bounce back from the last of mile 4 where I let myself get frustrated, and try to take more advantage of the runnable parts of the course. I ran downhill (B) more than the previous laps, mostly ignoring the audio cues of my 30:60 intervals and probably running more like 45:30 or so. Similarly, the downhill gravel after the mud pits (D) I ran most of without paying attention to the audio run cues.

Scott this time also met me at the start of the river road section, and I gave him my pack again and asked him to take some things out that he had put in. He put in a bag with two pairs of replacement socks instead of just one pair of socks, and also put in an extra beef stick even though I didn’t ask for it. I asked him to remove it, and he did, but explained he had put it in just in case he didn’t find the electrolytes because it had 375g of sodium. (Sodium is primarily the electrolyte I am sensitive to and care most about). So this was actually a smart thing, although because I haven’t practiced eating larger amounts of protein and experienced enzyme dosing for it on the run, I would be pretty nervous about eating it in a race, so that made me a bit unnecessarily grumpy. Overall though, it was great to see him extra times on the course at this point, and I don’t know if he noticed how grumpy I was, but if he did he ignored it and I cheered up again knowing I only had “one more” of everything after this lap!

The other thing that helped was he biked my pack down the road to just before the river crossing, so I ran the river road section like I did lap 3 and 4 on the hill, without a pack. This gave me more energy and I found myself adding 5-10 seconds to the start of my run intervals to extend them.

The 4th river crossing was no less obnoxious and cold, but this time it and the mud ponds didn’t seem to embed grit inside my shoes, so I knew I would finish with the same pair of socks and not need another change to finish the race.

Lap 5:

I was so glad I was only running the 50k so that I only had 5 laps to do!

For the last lap, I was determined to finish strong. I thought I had a chance of making up a tiny bit of the sock change time that I had lost. I walked up the hill, but again ran more than my scheduled intervals downhill, grabbed my bag from Scott, picked my way across the mud pits for the final time (woohoo!), ran the downhill and ran a little long and more efficiently on the single track to the river road.

Scott took my pack again at the river road, and I swapped my intervals to be 30:45, since I was already running closer to that and I knew I only had 3.5 or so miles to go. I took my pack back at the end of river road and did my last-ever ice cold river crossing and mud pond extravaganza. After I left the last mud pond and turned into the forest, I switched my intervals to 30:30. I managed to keep my 30:30 intervals and stayed pretty quick – my last mile and a half was the fastest of the entire race!

I came into the finish line strong, as I had hoped to finish. Woohoo!

Overall strengths and positives from the race

Overall, running-wise I performed fairly well. I had a strong first lap and decent second lap, and I got more efficient on the laps as I went, staying focused and taking advantage of the more runnable parts of the course. I finished strong, with 30:45 intervals for over a mile and 30:30 intervals for over a mile to the finish.

Also, I didn’t quit after experiencing the river crossing and the mud ponds and the mud pits of the first lap. This wasn’t an “A” race for me or my first time at the distance, so it would’ve been really easy to quit. I probably didn’t in part because we did pay to spend the night before and drove all that way, and I didn’t want to have “wasted” Scott’s time by quitting, when I was very capable of continuing and wasn’t injured. But I’m proud of mostly the way I handled the challenges of the course, and for how I readjusted from the mental low and frustration after realizing how long my sock change took in lap 3. I’m also pleased that I didn’t get injured, given the terrain (mud, river crossing, and uneven grass to run on for most of the course). I’m also pleased and amazed I didn’t hurt my feet, cause major blisters, or have anything really happen to them after hours of wet, muddy, never-drying-off feet.

The huge positive was my fueling, electrolytes, and blood glucose management.

I started taking my electrolyte pills that have 200+mg of sodium at about 45 minutes into the race, on schedule. My snack choices also have 100-150mg of sodium, which allowed me to not take electrolyte pills as often as I would otherwise need to (or on a hotter day with more sweat – it was a damp, mid-60s day but I didn’t sweat as much as I usually do). But even with losing my electrolytes, I used two chewable 100mg sodium electrolytes instead and otherwise ended up with sufficient electrolytes. Even with ideal electrolyte supplementation, I’m very sensitive to sodium losses and am a salty sweater, and I have a distinct feeling when my electrolytes are insufficient, so not having that feeling during after the race was a big positive for me.

So was my fueling overall. The race started at 9am, and I woke up at 6am to eat my usual pre-race breakfast (a handful of pecans, plus my enzyme supplementation) so that it would both digest effectively and also be done hitting my blood sugar by the time the race started. My BGs were flat 120s or 130s when I started, which is how I like them. I took my first snack about an hour and 10 minutes into the race, which is about 15g carb (10g fat, 2g protein) of chili cheese flavored Fritos. For this, I didn’t dose any insulin as I was in range, and I took one lipase-only enzyme (which covers about 8g of fat for me) and one multi-enzyme (that covers about 6g of fat and probably over a dozen grams of protein). My second snack was an hour later, when I had a gluten free salted caramel Honey Stinger stroopwaffle (21g carb, 6 fat, 1 protein). For the stroopwaffle I ended up only taking a lipase-only pill to cover the fat, even though there’s 1g of protein. For me, I seem to be ok (or have no symptoms) from 2-3g of uncovered fat and 1-2g of uncovered protein. Anything more than that I like to dose enzymes for, although it depends on the situation. Throughout the day, I always did 1 lipase-only and 1 multi-enzyme for the Fritos, and 1 lipase-only for the stroopwaffle, and that seemed to work fine for me. I think I did a 0.3u (less than a third of the total insulin I would normally need) bolus for my stroopwaffle because I was around 150 mg/dL at the time, having risen following my un-covered Frito snack, and I thought I would need a tiny bit of insulin. This was perfect, and I came back down and flattened out. An hour and 20 minutes after that, I did another round of Fritos. An hour or so after that, a second stroopwaffle – but this time I didn’t dose any insulin for it as my BG was on a downward slope. An hour later, more Fritos. A little bit after that, I did my one single sugar-only correction (an 8g carb Airhead mini) as I was still sliding down toward 90 mg/dL, and while that’s nowhere near low, I thought my Fritos might hit a little late and I wanted to be sure I didn’t experience the feeling of a low. This was during the latter half of loop 4 when I was starting to increase my intensity, so I also knew I’d likely burn a little more glucose and it would balance out – and it did! I did one last round of Fritos during lap 5.
CGM graph during 50k ultramarathon

This all worked perfectly. I had 100% time in range between 90 and 150 mg/dL, even with 102g of “real food” carbs (15g x 4 servings of Fritos, 21g x 2 waffles), and one 8g Airhead mini, so in total I had 110g grams of carbs across ~7+ hours. This perfectly matched my needs with my run/walk moderate efforts.

BG  and carb intake plotted along CGM graph during 50k ultramarathon

I also nailed the enzymes, as during the race I didn’t have any GI-related symptoms and after the race and the next day (which is the ultimate verdict for me with EPI), no symptoms.

So it seems like my practice and testing with low carbs, Fritos, and waffles worked out well! I had a few other snacks in my pack (yogurt-covered pretzels, peanut butter pretzel nuggets), but I never thought of wanting them or wanting something different. I did plan to try to do 2 snacks per hour, but I ended up doing about 1 per hour. I probably could have tolerated more, but I wasn’t hungry, my BGs were great, and so although it wasn’t quite according to my original plan I think this was ideal for me and my effort level on race day.

The final thing I think went well was deciding on the fly after loop 2 to have Scott take my pack until after the hill (so I ran the up/downhill mile without it), and then for additional stretches along river road in laps 4 and 5. I had my pocket of my shorts packed with dozens of Airheads and mints, so I was fine in terms of blood sugar management and definitely didn’t need things for a mile at a time. I’m usually concerned about staying hydrated and having water whenever I want to sip, plus for swallowing electrolytes and enzyme pills to go with my snacks, but I think on this course with the number of points Scott could meet me (after B, at F all through G, and from I to the finish), I could have gotten away with not having my pack the whole time; having WAY less water in the pack (I definitely didn’t need to haul 3L the whole time, that was for when I might not see Scott every 2-3 laps) and only one of each snack at a time.

Areas for improvement from my race

I trained primarily on gravel or paved trails and roads, but despite the “easy” elevation profile and terrain, this was essentially my first trail ultra. I coped really well with the terrain, but the cognitive burden of all the challenges (Mud pits! River crossing! Mud ponds!) added up. I’d probably do a little more trail running and hills (although I did some) in the final weeks before the race to help condition my brain a little more.

I’ll also continue to practice fueling so I can eat more regularly than every hour to an hour and a half, even though this was the most I’ve ever eaten during a run, I did well with the quantities, and my enzyme and BG management were also A+. But I didn’t eat as much as I planned for, and I think that might’ve helped with the cognitive fatigue, too, by at least 5-10%.

I also now have the experience of a “stop” during a race, in this case to swap my socks. I’ve only run one ultra and never stopped before to do gear changes, so that experience probably was sufficient prep for future stops, although I do want to be mentally stronger/less frustrated by unanticipated problem solving stops.

Specific to this course, as mentioned above, I could’ve gotten away with less supplies – food and water – in my pack. I actually ran a Ragnar relay race with a group of fellow T1s a few years back where I finished my run segment and…no one was there to meet me. They went for Starbucks and took too long to get there, so I had to stand in the finishing chute waiting for 10-15 minutes until someone showed up to start the next run leg. Oh, and that happened in two of the three legs I ran that day. Ooof. Standing there tired, hot, with nothing to eat or drink, likely added to my already life-with-type-1-diabetes-driven-experiences of always carrying more than enough stuff. But I could’ve gotten away very comfortably with carrying 1L of water and one set of each type of snacks at a time, given that Scott could meet me at 1 mile (end of B), start (F) and end of river road (before G), and at the finish, so I would never have been more than 2-2.5 miles without a refill, and honestly he could’ve gotten to every spot on the trail barring the river crossing bit to meet me if I was really in need of something. Less weight would’ve made it easier to push a little harder along the way. Basically, I carried gear like I was running a solo 30 mile effort at a time, which was safe but not necessary given the course. If I re-ran this race, I’d feel a lot more comfortable with minimal supplies.

Surprises from my race

I crossed the finish line, stopped to get my medal, then was waiting for my brother-in-law to finish another lap (he ran the 100k: 62 miles) before Scott and I left. I sat down for 30 minutes and then walked to the car, but despite sitting for a while, I was not as stiff and sore as I expected. And getting home after a 3.5 hour car ride…again I was shocked at how minimally stiff I was walking into the house. The next morning? More surprises at how little stiff and sore I was. By day 3, I felt like I had run a normal week the week prior. So in general, I think this is reinforcement that I trained really well for the distance and my long runs up to 50k and the short to medium next day runs also likely helped. I physically recovered well, which is again part training but also probably better fueling during the race, and of course now digesting everything that I ate during and after the race with enzyme supplementation for EPI!

However, the interesting (almost negative, but mostly interesting) thing for me has been what I perceived to be adrenal-type fatigue or stress hormone fatigue. I think it’s because I was unused to focusing on challenging trail conditions for so many hours, compared to running the same length of hours on “easy” paved or gravel trails. I actually didn’t listen to an audiobook, music, or podcast for about half of the race, because I was so stimulated by the course itself. What I feel is adrenal fatigue isn’t just being physically or mentally tired but something different that I haven’t experienced before. I’m listening to my body and resting a lot, and I waited until day 4 to do my first easy, slow run with much longer walk intervals (30s run, 90s walk instead of my usual 30:60). Day 1 and 2 had a lot of fatigue and I didn’t feel like doing much, Day 3 had notable improvement on fatigue and my legs and body physically felt back to normal for me. Day 4 I ran slowly, Day 5 I stuck with walking and felt more fatigue but no physical issues, Day 6 again I chose to walk because I didn’t feel like my energy had fully returned. I’ll probably stick with easy, longer walk interval runs for the next week or two with fewer days running until I feel like my fatigue is gone.

General thoughts about ultramarathon training and effective ultra race preparation

I think preparation makes a difference in ultramarathon running. Or maybe that’s just my personality? But a lot of my goal for this race was to learn what I could about the course and the race setup, imagine and plan for the experience I wanted, plan for problem solving (blisters, fuel, enzymes, BGs, etc), and be ready and able to adapt while being aware that I’d likely be tired and mentally fatigued. Generally, any preparation I could do in terms of deciding and making plans, preparing supplies, etc would be beneficial.

Some of the preparation included making lists in the weeks prior about the supplies I’d need in my pack, what Scott should have to refill my pack, what I’d need the night and morning before since we would not be at home, and after-race supplies for the 3.5h drive home.

From the lists, the week before the race I began grouping things. I had my running pack filled and ready to go. I packed my race outfit in a gallon bag, a full set of backup clothes in another gallon bag and labeled them, along with a separate post-run outfit and flip flops for the drive home. I also included a washcloth for wiping sweat or mud off after the run, and I certainly ended up needing that! I packed an extra pair of shoes and about 4 extra pairs of socks. I also had separate baggies with bandaids of different sizes, pre-cut strips of kinesio tape for my leg and smaller patches for blisters, extra squirrel nut butter sticks for anti-chafing purposes, as well as extra lambs wool (that I lay across the top of my toes to prevent socks from rubbing when they get wet from sweat or…river crossings, plus I can use it for padding between my toes or other blister-developing spots). I had sunscreen, bug spray, sungless, rain hat, and my sunny-weather running visor that wicks away sweat. I had low BG carbs for me to put in my pockets, a backup bag for Scott to refill, and a backup to the backup. The same for my fuel stash: my backpack was packed, I packed a small baggie for Scott as well as a larger bag with 5-7 of everything I thought I might want, and also an emergency backup baggie of enzymes.

*The only thing I didn’t have was a backup baggie of electrolyte pills. Next time, I’ll add this to my list and treat them like enzymes to make sure I have a separate backup stash.

I even made a list and gave it to Scott that mapped out where key things were for during and after the race. I don’t think he had to use it, because he was only digging through the snack bag for waffles and Fritos, but I did that so I didn’t have to remember where I had put my extra socks or my spare bandaids, etc. He basically had a map of what was in each larger bag. All of this was to reduce the decision and communication because I knew I’d have decision fatigue.

This also went for post-race planning. I told Scott to encourage me to change clothes, and it was worth the energy to change so I didn’t sit in cold, wet clothes for the long drive home. I pre-made a gluten free ham and cheese quesadilla (take two tortillas, fill with shredded cheese and slices of ham, microwave, cut into quarters, stick in baggies, mark with fat/protein/carb counts, and refrigerate) so we could warm that up in the car (this is what I use) so I had something to eat on the way home that wasn’t more Fritos or waffles. I didn’t end up wanting it, but I also brought a can of beef stew with carrots and potatoes, that I generally like as a post-race or post-run meal, and a plastic container and a spoon so I could warm up the stew if I wanted it. Again, all of this pre-planned and put on the list weeks prior to the race so I didn’t forget things like the container or the spoon.

The other thing I think about a lot is practicing everything I want to do for a race during a training run. People talk about eating the same foods, wearing the same clothes, etc. I think for those of us with type 1 diabetes (or celiac, EPI, or anything else), it’s even more important. With T1D, it’s so helpful to have the experience adjusting to changing BG levels and knowing what to do when you’re dropping or low and having a snack, vs in range and having a fueling snack, or high and having a fueling snack. I had 100% TIR during this run, but I didn’t have that during all of my training runs. Sometimes I’d plateau around 180 mg/dL and be over-cautious and not bring my BGs down effectively; other times I’d overshoot and cause a drop that required extra carbs to prevent or minimize a low. Lots of practice went into making this 100% TIR day happen, and some of it was probably a bit of luck mixed in with all the practice!

But generally, practice makes it a lot easier to know what to do on the fly during a race when you’re tired, stressed, and maybe crossing an icy cold river that wasn’t supposed to be part of your course experience. All that helps you make the best possible decisions in the weirdest of situations. That’s the best you can hope for with ultrarunning!

Reflecting on 4 months with Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) and Experiences with Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT)

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI or PEI) is an invisible disease – you don’t see or hear much of it and there’s not a lot of information for patients online, nor information written by people with EPI. (That’s in part why I’ve been documenting my experiences with EPI – more at DIYPS.org/EPI if you want to see the other EPI-related posts that I’ve written).

I’ve now spent more than 4 months with (known) EPI and taking pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), and I’m sharing what I’ve found so far that’s worked for me. I also wanted to share an update on my experiences and what I wish I had known at the start that I know now.

Mainly, it gets better. It gets easier.

4 months on PERT for EPI

“It” being how I felt and now feel, and the process of figuring out how much enzymes to take, and the process of working more math into the choices of what, when, and how I was eating. It’s a lot of work, but it has gotten easier. And I feel a lot better. I now have multi-week streaks where I have perfect dosing for everything that I eat and dose for, and it’s rare to not get it right.

The early weeks were not this great: I definitely felt better than before, but not “back to normal”.

Now, I feel “back to normal” like I think I did 2-3 years ago before symptoms became noticeable. When I don’t manage to dose perfectly, the symptoms are way more minimal than previously, in part due to the fact that I’ve had so many days of feeling great and in part due to the fact that the margin of error is a lot smaller since I’ve figured out a good ratio of lipase:fat and protease:protein that works well and reliably for me.

This has confirmed for me that titrating doses of enzyme does matter. I documented everything I was eating (including listing out the amount of fat and protein) and the amount/level of enzymes I was taking. Over time, I was able to see a general threshold above/below which dosing usually worked or didn’t work, and then test slightly smaller amounts of fat and/or protein to get to an amount that reliably “worked” with that size of enzyme dose. From there, it was simple math to divide the thousand units of lipase in that size of enzyme dose by the grams of fat or protein to identify the ratio of fat:lipase or protein:protease that I needed. This has helped me get the right dose of enzymes for every meal. It has also enabled me to then choose between the more expensive and higher-dose prescription enzyme pills I have, or choose a combination of prescription and smaller-dose single or multi-enzyme over the counter pills. This ends up giving me more flexibility in the cost of enzymes it takes to cover the food I want to eat (or snack, or treat, or whatever) as well as more precision with dosing the right level of enzyme instead of 1x, 2x, 3x (etc.) a single dose size prescription pill.

In addition to feeling a lot better simply by having better GI-related outcomes and massive reduction in symptoms 95% of the time, my energy levels are way up. I’m also training to run an ultramarathon again this year, and the way I feel during training this year (with enzymes) compared to last year is startling. Even though I have another year’s worth of experience running that I didn’t have last year, the way I feel during and after runs is likely more attributable to the fact that I’m now digesting what I’m eating.

Additionally, the diversity of food that I’m choosing to eat is increasing constantly. I started conservatively, in part due to trying to figure out if I still had any FODMAP-related sensitivity, and also to make it easier to get the math “right” to figure out my optimal dose. As I got confident with my ratios and dosing PERT, I began eating a wider selection of foods, and finally have eaten my way back to eating actual onions (!) in the form of gluten free onion rings. They were delicious, and gave me zero problems. So I’m now confident the FODMAP-perceived sensitivities was really the increasing sensitivity to fat and protein as my elastase levels were dropping. It’s wonderful to not be as restricted in my food options. (I still have celiac disease and eat 100% gluten free and can’t have any cross-contamination, but after almost a year of not eating onion or garlic in any form including “natural flavors” of foods… “just” eating gluten free feels amazingly plentiful in options now.)

And because I’ve eaten more and a greater selection of foods, the thought of eating food doesn’t scare me anymore. I don’t cringe at the thought of actually eating, like I used to. I know it’s a matter of estimating or counting the fat and protein and dosing for it. If in doubt, I try to round up the number of pills I’m taking to provide a buffer. Unlike insulin, taking a little too much enzyme doesn’t hurt (other than the cost). But also like insulin (after almost 20 years), I am no longer counting the cost of every dose in my head with every meal. That definitely took over 3 months, because before then I was swallowing a PERT pill and knowing each and every one costs $9. Ugh. So that’s an improvement, even though I’m still aware of the cost, it’s not quite as bothersome to me on an every-instance basis.

Things aren’t perfect, though, despite it being a lot better. I still get overwhelmed sometimes by the amount of work to decide what I want to eat and how I’m going to estimate what is in it to try to figure out how much PERT to dose.

Some of the strategies I’ve identified that help reduce being overwhelmed include:

  • Asking for help when I can. I ask Scott (my husband) when he’s standing in the kitchen to glance at a label of a food and tell me the counts (grams of fat and protein per serving), so I can decide if I want to build a meal with that item in it. I also sometimes ask him to help me portion out individual servings of foods, such as taking a larger bag of chips and telling him the serving size that I want and asking him to weigh them out.
  • Separate the work of preparing (and counting) food from the process of deciding what to eat. (I hate using a scale and weighing things out, but it’s been really helpful to pre-portion snacks and other items). Having the pre-portioned and pre-counted amounts helps me then more easily incorporate them on the fly, because I’ve already done the counting work of figuring out what’s in them. (I either make a note on my phone in a spreadsheet or write with a marker on the baggie what the counts are.) Separating the work in advance from the decision of what to eat when it’s time to eat helps me cut down on the decision fatigue that occurs a lot for me.
  • Buying individual portions and “snack size” items of things I regularly eat. When I can find them, and thankfully I can afford to, I try to buy individual sizes of things that are pre-packaged and have the nutrition label for that serving size. It’s less work to portion it out and figure out the counts for it, so while it’s sometimes more expensive it saves me time and makes me more likely to incorporate it into my food choices.
  • Asking for help estimating what’s in mystery food (e.g. unlabeled/uncounted food items). I’ve got almost 20 years experience of estimating carb counts, but only a few months attempts of trying to estimate fat and protein counts. Sometimes I ask Scott to pitch in an estimate. Sometimes we try to look up an equivalent item (e.g., if assessing a local gluten free hamburger we got as takeout food, we’ll look up online what a few other chain restaurant hamburgers would be, and use that to triangulate). Sometimes he’ll weigh it on the scale and we’ll eyeball proportions of fat and protein in the meat versus the vegetables or rice. I’m already getting better at guesstimating, so like carb counting I imagine this will continue to get easier over time.

Managing decision fatigue is now the biggest hassle for me. I have developed a nice routine for taking counts and converting that to the right PERT doses, but I still get frustrated with having to think about what I’m eating and how I’m going to dose for it sometimes. This may be somewhat influenced by the fact that I’m running a lot and trying to eat a slightly higher level of protein than I would naturally be picking out in my diet. So having to pay attention to everything to count it for dosing and overall trying to achieve a general higher baseline of protein sometimes gets annoying (although obviously the increased need for protein is a choice, whereas EPI and dosing in general is not!).

In general, I’ve not found it hard to remember to take my enzymes. I’ve developed habits around figuring out my counts, converting that to what number and type of pills I’m taking, and I get those out to take with my first bite and/or throughout my meal, depending on the number. One thing that has helped with this is getting smaller pill cases (like these – they’re purple! They also come in white or multicolor) that I visually don’t hate and can put both the prescription and over the counter pills in. I have 2-3 of these filled and ready to go at any given time, which makes it easy to grab one when I head out for the day, or to have sitting in different spots on my kitchen island/counter so I have the visual reminder in addition to my traditional “prescription” bottle.

The other aspect aside from decision fatigue is the stress of uncertainty around food. I took a trip recently and it was very stressful being out of my routine at home for the first time since we realized I had EPI. I had to take a lot of enzymes with me, take extras in case something happened to them, pack snacks, figure out food in advance but also be ready to figure out food on the fly. This included guessing what was in airplane (gluten free) food. On the first flight, I gave Scott my dry airplane chicken because it didn’t look good or even worth the PERT, and ate snacks from my bag instead. On the flight home, the chicken had a sauce (woohoo) and came with cheesy potatoes, so I rounded up my dose guess and things were fine. In between on the trip, I also erred on the side of caution and rounded up my doses.That meant I took a little more than usual, but I had already factored that into the amount of enzymes I had packed for the trip. So that went fine. But the uncertainty in what I’d be eating for several days was stressful and hard. To help work around that, I had picked a hotel near a gluten free bakery and near a gluten free restaurant that I knew from a previous trip, so that at least I could reduce the uncertainty of “is there anything celiac-safe (gluten free) that I can eat” (which used to be my sole concern when traveling) and limit myself only to the uncertainty of “what do I dose for this?” every time I ate. That helped. So I’ll probably continue to use the pre-planning skills I learned from living with celiac because the uncertainty at every meal for EPI is a lot, especially when jet-lagged, and so everything I can do to pre-estimate or pre-plan and make sure I have access to food pays off.

(As I mentioned at the start of this post, you can find my previous posts about EPI at DIYPS.org/EPI. And I’m working on a number of research initiatives related to EPI and improving methods for helping people titrate doses of PERT. If you’re interested in collaborating on research related to EPI, please reach out any time!)

Why it feels harder to dose pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) than insulin

In 2002 when I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, I struggled with being handed a vial of insulin and told vaguely to eat X amount of food and take Y amount of insulin. There was no ability to eat more and adjust the dose accordingly. It was frustrating. The only tool I had was a huge (imagine three iPhone 13 or equivalently large smartphones sitting on top of each other) blood glucose meter that took a lot of blood and a long time (a minute or more) to return a single blood glucose data point. The feedback loop wasn’t very useful, even when I tested my blood sugar manually 10-14 times per day.

Thankfully, in the last two decades, diabetes tools have evolved. Meters got smaller, faster, and take less blood. There has also been the devlopment of continuous glucose monitors (CGM) which I can wear and get near real-time readings of glucose data and can see what’s happened in the past. And, paired with an algorithm that also knows about the history of any insulin dosing on my insulin pump, and it can automatically adjust my insulin delivery in real time to predict, prevent, and reduce hypo- and hyperglycemia. (AID is awesome and if you haven’t heard about it, there’s a 4-minute free animated video here that explains it.) Diabetes no longer is quite the headache it was twenty – or even ten – years ago.

But realizing that I have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (known as EPI or PEI) and learning how to take pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (known as PERT) is a similar headache to diabetes in 2002.

With insulin, taking too much can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Taking too little can cause hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). Yet, with diabetes, you can measure blood glucose and see the response to insulin within a minutes-to-hours time frame. You can also use an insulin pump and an automated insulin delivery system to titrate and adjust insulin in real time.

However, for EPI, you need to take enzymes (that your pancreas doesn’t produce enough of) to help you digest your food. Your pancreas makes three types of enzymes: lipase, to help fat digest; protease, to help protein digest; and amylase, to help starches and carbohydrates digest. These are taken by mouth as a pill that you swallow. Together in one pill, it’s called “pancrelipase”, and it’s for pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT). (I’m personally bad about using pancrelilpase/PERT interchangeably, because PERT is faster to say and type, but it is possible to use standalone enzymes in PERT).

Because they are pills that you have to swallow when you eat, it’s hard to dose. Taking too little means you may have GI-related symptoms in the hours following the meal and feeling bad until the next day or so. Taking too much is expensive, although unlike insulin it’s rare to take “too much” and cause bad side effects (although possible at super high doses). There’s also the “pill burden”, because swallowing a bunch of pills is annoying and sometimes hard, both physically to swallow and to remember to take them throughout your meal.

You also can’t take more hours later if you forgot to take them or realize you didn’t dose enough for that meal. If you underdosed, you underdosed and just get to experience the symptoms that come with it. Sometimes, it’s not clear why you are having symptoms. Because there are three enzymes being replaced, it’s possible that the dosing was off for any one of the three enzymes. But again, there’s no measurement or feedback loop, or a sign that appears saying “you underdosed protease, take more next time”. The best you can do is try different sized meals over time with different doses of PERT, trying to reverse engineer your lipase:fat and protease:protein and amylase:carb ratios and continuously update them as you have new data.

It’s a lot of work, the feedback loop is slow, getting it “wrong” is painful physically and psychologically, and there are no vacations from it. Everything I eat, now that I have EPI, needs enzymes, and given the fact that I have automated insulin delivery to help manage insulin dosing, I am finding PERT to be a lot harder and more annoying (currently).

A comparison of dosing insulin and dosing enzymes. Insulin can cause hypo- or hyperlgycemia but there are tools (CGM and BG meters) and a feedback loop in diabetes. With enzymes, there is no fast feedback loop and underdosing is common. There is no ability to correct an underdose and there are multiple variables that can influence the outcome.

There’s no happy ending to this post, but this is one of the reasons why I am so interested in partnering with researchers to do research on EPI. There are a LOT of improvements that can be made, ranging from improving titration guidance of PERT to testing the efficacy of different over the counter enzymes to finding new technology that might begin to provide a feedback loop into EPI (either for short-term assessment or longer-term use for those who prefer it). If you’re someone interested in this type of research, please don’t hesitate to reach out (Dana@OpenAPS.org).

(PS, if you didn’t see them, I have other posts about EPI at DIYPS.org/EPI)

Feeling hunger for the first time in two years after discovering Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI or PEI)

Now that I’ve been taking pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) for a month and a half for my newly discovered exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), I’ve not only discovered that the GI symptoms I had are gone, but I’ve also gained something back: the sensation of hunger.

For two years, I’ve struggled to eat. I found a breakfast that I could eat that was higher fiber (albeit nontypical American breakfast food) and kept me full for hours. So many hours that I didn’t feel like eating at lunchtime.

Essentially, I would eat breakfast and maybe one other meal, and occasionally a snack. Far from three meals. I learned quickly that eating just because other people were eating made things worse (worse symptom severity, plus gave me more symptoms), so I studiously avoided eating just because that’s what I had done in the past or that’s what other people were doing.

Figuring out I had EPI and starting to dose PERT was a relief. I could tell from symptom reduction that it was working. And within a week or so, I started to feel hunger multiple times a day! Now I’m more regularly eating three small meals a day, and sometimes more (especially on after long runs). My meals are more likely to be a little bit smaller due to how I’m titrating my PERT dosing, so that plus my activity levels plus actually digesting my food when I eat it means that I’m eating more often now than I have over the last few years.

The only downside is that my brain is VERY unfamiliar with the sensation of hunger, and despite knowing I will not starve or even be hungry for very long, there seems to be a switch after three minutes where I go from recognizing hunger and starting to think about doing something to having already passed the point of no return where my number one priority becomes eating.

The timeline of my body becoming hungry (0 minutes), my brain recognizing hunger (1 minute), thinking about eating (2 minutes), deciding to eat (3 minuntes), and then a flip switching and I go from wanting to NEEDING to eat as soon as possible.

I’m guessing this is what toddlers feel like, and I have a lot more empathy for their hanger now after experiencing this! And like toddlers, hopefully my brain re-learns how to deal with and moderate the feelings of hunger soon.

(PS, if you didn’t see them, I have other posts about EPI at DIYPS.org/EPI)

How I calculate fat and protein for pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) dosing in homecooked meals

As I’ve been re-adding food items to my diet now that I know I have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), I’ve been eating a lot of packaged foods with nutrition labels that are quick and easy to read. I’ve done a few meals that are takeout from a restaurant, and certainly the ones from chain restaurants with nutrition labels online are the easiest to enable me to optimally dose my PERT. (But not all restaurants, including my new favorite local taco place, have them and so I also do quite a bit of guesswork and experimenting.)

I’m now at the point where I can eat some onion and garlic and other FODMAPs again (yay!), so a lot of the homecooked meals I used to love to make – especially crockpot meals – are back on my list to try. This week I decided to try taco soup, a longtime favorite that involves cans of black beans, corn, dark red kidney beans, light red kidney beans, cooked ground beef, tomato paste, and ranch and taco seasonings.

One of the reasons I waited to cook large meals until this point in my EPI discovery experience was to save my energy for figuring out the fat and protein per portion size.

I’ve been creating a tab in my PERT enzyme tracking spreadsheet that’s labeled “ingredients”, and I’ve been listing commonly used ingredients (e.g. an egg, 1/4 cup of cheddar cheese, 1/4 cup of parmesan, 1 cup of milk) that I often add to my food and repeatedly need to add to my nutrient totals. I listed out all the ingredients for my taco soup recipe (see above), looked up the fat and protein and logged those, then added them all up for what one giant crockpot full of taco soup would be. That’s 44 grams of fat and 177 grams of protein.

(Side note – I found that Impossible ground beef tastes the same as ground beef and ends up being lower fat and protein. I was going to use it anyway, but that makes it easier to dose PERT by slightly reducing the fat and protein quantities.)

Then, after I cooked it (truly, set it and forget it), I scooped out a cup at a time to estimate the number of cups. For my current crockpot, it was about 12 cups.

So to figure out the taco soup individual serving size, I take 44 and 177 and divide each by 12, so it’s about 4 grams of fat and 15 grams of protein per cup of soup. I usually eat 2 cups at a time, so multiply by two to get the total of what I’m needing to dose PERT for, which is 8 grams of fat and 30 grams of protein. That’s *just* at my 1-PERT limit (at my current dosing)  for protein and well under my 1-PERT limit for fat (also about 30 grams), so I was able to cover 2 cups of soup with 1 PERT pill.

However, were I to add 1/4 cup of cheddar cheese, as I sometimes do, I’d need to add on additional enzymes to cover the protein. (It’s frustrating that I’m this sensitive to protein, enzyme-wise!)

This is also what I’ll do with potato soup (another crockpot favorite) and any other recipes that I make. Like diabetes tasks, I’ve found that splitting up the work whenever possible makes a difference, so I’ll list out the ingredients and look up the data and determine the total recipe counts separately from when I cook it, and from when I measure out how many servings there are and arrive at the final serving math.
An overview of the process of adding up fat and protein for all ingredients in a recipe; cooking and counting out the number of portions, then dividing the fat and protein totals by the number of portions (I use cups) to determine how many grams of each per serving and determine how much PERT to dose.

(PS, if you didn’t see them, I have other posts about EPI at DIYPS.org/EPI)

An example of the challenges of (constantly) titrating pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT)

As someone new to EPI who is also new to figuring out how to optimally dose my pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), I’m constantly balancing the cost of PERT from prescription enzymes against the cost of over the counter enzymes.

I’ve personally calculated that one pill of my current dose of PERT covers about 30-4o grams of fat, and 30 grams of protein.

Meals with more than 30 grams of protein get 2 PERT pills, but meals with more than 40 or so grams of fat could be covered by 1 PERT pill and some OTC lipase.

But not all meals come with nutrition information, which makes titrating PERT at every single meal a challenge.

And, now that I’ve realized I’m likely not sensitive to all FODMAPs after all (hooray, although I may still have some slight sensitivity to massive amounts of onion or garlic), I’ve been able to eat a lot more takeout food from restaurants, both enthralling my taste buds and challenging my brain trying to estimate how much fat and protein there is in what I am choosing to eat.

I’ve been keeping careful notes of what I’m eating along with my fat and protein estimates and the results following each meal. Then, if I want to repeat or alter a similar meal, I can use my data and results to guesstimate my next PERT dosing.

For example, we have a local taco place that has done a really good job to enable online ordering with gluten-free and celiac tags in the order, so you can order digitally without having to talk to humans at the store. A few weeks ago, I ordered 3 tacos and some queso dip. It was delicious. I estimated it was more than 30g of protein, so I took 2 PERT with it.

However, while I didn’t have post-meal immediate symptoms, my next-day results were slightly off, and I made a note that I probably needed a little more lipase the next time I had that quantity of tacos.

Yesterday, I ordered 3 tacos again but decided to try a small “street corn” appetizer instead of queso. Corn is less fat and protein than queso, but I figured there was still >30g of protein from tacos like from before, so I took 2 PERT. This time, due to my notes, I added a few lipase to cover additional fat.

I had no immediate post-meal symptoms and felt great! However, today indicated that I did not have enough enzymes, and I’m suspecting that it’s because I swapped one of my taco types. Last time, I had a shrimp taco, but this time I tried a lamb taco for my third taco type. Even with the reduced fat and protein going from queso to corn, the increase in fat and/or protein (likely the protein, given my extra lipase) from shrimp to lamb meant that my meal was not optimally dosed.A gif showing three tacos and queso plus 2 PERT got ok results, but next time I swapped queso for corn and added lipase and still got it wrong, likely due to increased fat and protein in lamb instead of shrimp in one of the tacos.

 

Next time, I need to pay closer attention to what kind of tacos I eat as well as whether I get queso or not. If I did the same meal (three tacos, one of which is lamb, and corn), I’d probably experiment with 3 PERT to cover the suspected increased protein that I was missing with the 2 PERT + extra lipase. If I went back to a shrimp taco and queso, I’d probably re-try 2 PERT + extra lipase again.

PERT dosing, like insulin dosing, involves a lot of experimentation and some art, and some science, to try to get it right (or better) every time.

(PS, if you didn’t see them, I have other posts about EPI at DIYPS.org/EPI)

A Do-It-Yourself Protocol for Over-The-Counter Enzymes for Suspected Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) Before Gaining Access to Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT)

A humorous side note – the title of this blog, DIYPS, stands for “do-it-yourself pancreas system”, the name I gave my first automated insulin delivery (AID) system, back in 2013. An AID system doesn’t fully replicate all functions of the pancreas, so we evolved from describing it as an artificial pancreas system (APS) to automated insulin delivery (AID). But now that I have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and am doing quite a bit of DIY around titration of enzymes….the name of this blog feels more appropriate than ever.

After I started writing about exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from friends and connections who think they might have EPI. (And they are likely not wrong – there are estimates that as many as 40% of people with type 1 diabetes have lowered elastase levels. Alone, that doesn’t indicate EPI, but if symptomatic and you’ve already ruled out celiac and gastroparesis, it should be (in my opinion) high on the list of things to test for. Ditto for other types of diabetes and anyone with celiac disease.) Some people, though, may have delays in getting doctor’s appointments, and/or clinicians who aren’t (yet) willing to order the elastase or other EPI-related tests without testing for other things first.

This post is for that group of folks, and anyone stumbling across this post who has seen their test results for their fecal elastase testing indicating they have “moderate pancreatic insufficiency” or “severe pancreatic insufficiency” and are wondering what they can do while they wait for their doctor’s appointment.

It’s also for people with EPI who are struggling to afford their pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) or are limiting the number or size of meals they eat as a result of the cost of PERT.

A bit of background on why I did the math about OTC enzyme cost and why I had tested them myself

Due to the holidays in December 2021 I had a lag between getting my test results (over Christmas) and then confirming that my doctor would write a prescription for PERT, and then a delay in getting it filled by the pharmacy since they had to order it. One of the things I did during that time was read up a lot about PERT and also look to see if there were any other kinds of enzymes that would be useful to take if my doctor didn’t want to prescribe me PERT. I found out that PERT contains THREE types of enzymes, and together they’re known as pancrelipase. Pancrelipase contains lipase (helps digest fat), protease (helps digest protein), and amylase (helps digest starches and other complex carbohydrates). It’s typically made from ground up pig pancreas, which is one of the reasons that PERT costs so much. Amylase from non-pancreatic sources is not widely available for human consumption, but there are some other ways to make protease and lipase. And it turns out that these standalone enzyme versions, often produced by microbes, are available to buy over the counter.

While waiting for my test to be ordered, I went ahead and ordered a standalone lipase product that is over the counter (OTC). In part, that was because some of the reviews for lipase talked about having EPI and how they were only sensitive to lipase, and so this was a viable and cheaper alternative for them rather than taking PERT with all 3 enzymes, since they didn’t need that. Based on my experience with FODMAPs and trying an enzyme powder to target fructans (which did help me some), it seemed like trying small doses of lipase would help if I did have EPI, and likely wouldn’t hurt even if I did not have EPI.

And it helped. It didn’t reduce all my symptoms, but even minor doses (3000 units of lipase) made a noticeable difference in my symptoms and I got a sense for what meals were more fat and protein-laden than others.

As a result, when my test results came in and I was on the borderline for moderate EPI, I agreed with my HCP that since it likely wouldn’t hurt to take PERT (other than the cost), and it would be obvious if it helped, that I should try PERT.

So having done the tests with OTC (over the counter) lipase was helpful for deciding to take PERT and advocating for my prescription.

And it turns out, wow yes, I do have EPI and do definitely need PERT (more about my first two weeks on PERT here).

And as I wrote here, because I had the OTC lipase sitting around, even after I finally had access to PERT, I eventually titrated my dosing and calculated separate ratios for lipase:fat and protease:protein, so I can decide for every meal or snack whether I need one full PERT (all three enzymes), two PERT, a PERT plus some lipase (and how much), or just a standalone OTC lipase. The cost differs greatly between those options: one PERT might be $9 and a standalone lipase pill around $0.26. You can’t break apart a PERT (e.g. take only half), so adding a few lipase is a cost-effective approach if you don’t need more protease or amylase and the OTC lipase works for you.

Some of the reasons to explore over the counter enzymes with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency or a suspected case of EPI

One interesting thing about one of the main tests (fecal elastase) used to assess EPI is that it is NOT impacted by taking enzymes. Someone who is started on pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) can still have an elastase test without stopping taking PERT. So if someone had an inconclusive result or was borderline and started taking PERT, but their doctor wanted to re-test again, the use of PERT would not affect the test. The same goes for other types of enzymes.

I’ve realized that the following groups of people might want to investigate various OTC enzyme options:

  • Someone who has been diagnosed with EPI, but has done careful testing with meals of various sizes (low fat & high protein, high fat & low protein, etc.) to determine that they really only need lipase, may benefit from cheaper lipase-only OTC options.
  • Someone who has a test result for EPI but doesn’t yet have an appointment with their doctor or a prescription for PERT could start taking some OTC enzymes for quicker symptom relief, even if they ultimately want to use PERT for all their enzyme needs once they get their prescription filled.
  • Someone diagnosed with EPI who cannot afford the ideal dose of PERT that they need for their meals and snacks, may want to calculate the out of pocket costs for OTC lipase (not covered by insurance) vs the cost of PERT with or without insurance.
  • Someone who can’t get tested for EPI, but suspects they have EPI, might want to also explore OTC lipase and/or OTC multiple enzyme products.

However, not everyone with EPI will want OTC enzymes. Some people may have great insurance coverage, so their PERT costs them less than $9 a pill. OTC enzymes are not covered by insurance, but I’d still do the math and assess what your standard cost is per pill, because it may surprise you how cheap add-on OTC lipase is vs. your insurance deductible or copay to take additional PERT for larger meals. The other reason some people may not want to take OTC enzymes is the pill burden: OTC doses tend to be smaller, so you usually need to take more pills to cover the same meal as a single, larger PERT.

Picking what enzymes (in general, or specific brands) work for you

I often see a variety of OTC enzyme products recommended in peer groups on social media for EPI. There are no studies that I can find assessing the efficacy of these OTC brands (meaning, how good they are). I would be very cautious when trying different single or multiple enzyme products and keep a careful log of your symptoms from before enzymes as well as symptoms at every meal that you take enzymes, and your bathroom results afterward. This can help you assess OTC enzymes as well as PERT if you get access to it. By having a good log of your symptoms, you can tell if you’re taking enough enzymes (OTC or PERT) or if you’re developing new symptoms (which could be a side effect of whatever brand/type you are taking).

There are multiple brands and sizes of PERT, too, and it’s possible that a filler product or how the PERT is made by one brand doesn’t work well for you. If that’s the case, you can try another brand of PERT.

The same goes for OTC enzymes: it is very possible some types of pills may be made with ingredients that could bother you and cause symptoms themselves. You should definitely be very cautious if you go this route and explore small doses and ensure no side effects (no new symptoms) before increasing any doses.

When I search for lipase, it’s easy to find standalone lipase (here is an example, as an Amazon affiliate link). When I search for protease, it’s more common to find products that are multiple enzymes (e.g. lipase AND protease AND other random things that are “good for digestion”). Personally, I’m very wary of anything OTC that’s described as “digestive enzymes” and prefer to stick to products that only have the ingredients I’m looking for.

A pro-con list for over the counter (OTC) enzymes for EPI. Pros include: lower cost overall and per pill; that you can take smaller quantities of individual enzymes; and you can buy them without a prescription. Cons include: it's not covered by insurance so cost is out of pocket; you have to take more pills with smaller amounts of enzymes; it's not regulatory approved so othere are no studies on efficacy; and providers may not be able to advise for titration.
In diabetes, we often say “your diabetes may vary” (YDMV), indicating that different people can have different experiences.

In EPI, it’s no different – “your digestion may vary” and it’s important to test and record and find what works for you, and to find a balance of reducing or eliminating symptoms with enzymes in a cost-effective way that you can afford.

(PS, if you didn’t see them, I have other posts about EPI at DIYPS.org/EPI)