Patricia Johnsen is a woman on a mission – of health. She has to be. Each day she works to balance two auto-immune disorders: Type 1 Diabetes and –most recently — celiac disease with a job, her fiancée, and the rigors of swimming, running and cycling training that only come with a person competing in the Ironman Triathlon.

Patricia Johnsen Finishing the Ironman

Patricia Johnsen Finishing the Ironman

Finding celiac disease

Johnsen is a young woman, who’d been dealing with Type 1 diabetes for most of her life (20 years). During the last seven years is when she believes she started having symptoms of celiac disease: including rashes, occasional fatigue, frequent soft-tissue injuries, and eventually severe stomach pain. Johnsen says, “…[it was] like someone was stabbing me with knife.”

Doctors suspected gall bladder disease and possibly a burst ovarian cyst. But the pain continued, all while she was in-training; running about 50 miles a week. “Each step sent pains through my body,” she recalled.

But then stress fractures and news from the dentist lead her down the path of discovering she had celiac disease. “I suffered from two stress fractures at the same time, one in each femur and within the same week I visited the dentist for a cleaning. The dentist commented on my loss of enamel, asking if I had acid reflux disease or if I was bulimic.”

Eventually a news article in a running magazine changed everything. “That same week my fiancée was reading an article… about celiac disease and a marathon that was held to raise awareness of it. My fiancée marked the article and I read it later in the week. As I read the symptoms in my head, my eyes grew wide as I realized that I had about 8 out of the 10 (two that stuck out in my head were frequent stress fractures and loss of tooth enamel). I called my doctor right away and sure enough, my test was positive.”

Becoming a diabetic and celiac

“If anything, I think having celiac disease makes controlling Type 1 diabetes easier,” Johnsen says of the two. She says carbs with a high glycemic index are the most difficult to manage for diabetics, “…they require a lot of insulin in order to break them.” But those carbs are no-nos for celiacs. Gluten-free carbs are on a lower glycemic index and easier to manage with insulin.

Johnsen says there are times when it’s difficult to manage both, “It’s easy to get depressed once you allow yourself to look at the diseases as burdens, so I try my hardest to stop myself from thinking that way.” Instead she uses the diseases to motivate her. “I’ve gained just as much from both diseases as I’ve lost from them in a weird way… I’m positive I would never have attempted an Ironman if I didn’t have diabetes.”

Managing the diets as an athlete

When doing a major event like the Ironman, you’re “going” for nearly an entire day. Johnsen finished her Ironman in Madison, Wisconsin last year with a time of 14 hours 27 minutes. While she swears on her blog she’ll have a better time 2010, fueling a diabetic/celiac body for that amount of time during that amount of bodily stress must be a major undertaking. Johnsen actually wonders if it’s an advantage for her, “…[the diseases] force me to be constantly aware of how I’m feeling with respect to fueling needs where others may not be so in tune with their bodies.”

“The hardest part about racing with diabetes for me has been stopping my sugar levels from rising too high during short/fast races,” Johnsen says. “It took a lot of patience and a lot of racing to learn how to counteract that adrenaline without taking too much insulin and causing low blood sugar.” As for celiac disease, as long as she knows what foods she can and can’t have, she says it doesn’t affect her racing.

When you read Johnsen’s blog you really get a feel for the undertaking that is celiac and diabetes together, but also the time she invests into healthy choices – including both her diet and her exercise and training. There are many quirks, hiccups, struggles and frustrations she has along the way. But as she said in one post recently, “I have to keep plugging along. I just have to. I am not going to be defined by these ailments. I refuse to do it.” Here’s to Johnsen’s quest for her route to good health and a happy life.

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