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The Limitations of Lab Testing


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Today, approximately 70 percent of medical decisions are based on laboratory test results.  This means the majority of our medical choices, from starting a medication or supplement, changing a lifestyle habit, or undergoing a surgical procedure, are dependent upon the results from lab testing.  

Today, just about anyone can go online and order their own lab tests. Companies are popping up all over the web, making it easier than ever to self-diagnose your own health issues.  It is all very empowering.  You no longer have to beg your doctor to run a thyroid antibody test or check your hormone levels.  A few clicks of the mouse, a credit card number, and a shipping address is all it takes.

The Dangers of Playing Doctor

Until recently, if we wanted answers to questions concerning our health, we needed to see our doctor.  We had to wait for the doctor to order a lab, then explain the results to us.  Today, you can simply jump online and choose from the growing number of companies offering do-it-yourself lab testing.  This is referred to as “direct access testing.”

The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) warns that people must do their homework before engaging in direct access testing.  People who are most likely to seek direct access testing are those who want to be more involved in their health care, those who are unsatisfied with their current medical care, and those who are testing for sensitive issues such as sexually transmitted diseases.  In any case, there are some very important precautions one must take in order to avoid harming their health.

Do you know what tests do you need?

Spend 10 minutes surfing the internet and you will find hundreds of lab tests that you can order.  There are tests for every hormone that you can think of, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, toxicity of all kinds, genetic marker and mutation testing, neurotransmitter levels, and so much more.

It can be very easy to spend your savings and spend an entire week collecting samples of saliva, urine, blood, stool and hair. And when all is said and done you may still not have any better understanding of your body or how to fix your nagging health complaints.  Diagnostic lab tests can be expensive, and many of them are unnecessary.  A trained health professional can help you narrow down what tests you should take during your initial consultation.

The best way to determine what tests you really need is to consult with a health practitioner who is certified in functional diagnostic testing such as our FDN Practitioners.  This consultation will typically last over an hour and will cover your health history, your lifestyle, diet, stress levels, activity level, and your health complaints.  You will discuss how long you have been experiencing symptoms, whether they are getting better or worse, and what you have tried in the past for relief.  You’ll talk about obstacles preventing you from feeling your best and your motivation to overcome them.  This will save you time AND money.

Don’t Cram For the Test

Just like college exams, lab tests require some preparation, but not always as much as you might think.  Luckily, many common tests do not require you to alter your normal daily activities.  In fact, it is better if you go about your day as routinely as possible to get the most accurate results.

Stressful events, lack of sleep, consumption of abnormal amounts of caffeine or sugar, and certain supplements and medications can create misleading test results.  Some tests require 8-12 hours of fasting.  This means no food or drink, only water.  To make that easier, schedule your test in the morning and plan for a late breakfast.

Beware of having your test results interpreted by anyone who does not have knowledge of your current diet, lifestyle, stress level, medications, and supplements. These things can all play a big factor in how your results can be interpreted

One Size Does Not Fit All

A normal test result for me might be an abnormal test result for you.  This means we could both take the same test, get the very same results, and for me it could be perfectly healthy, but for you it could be a sign of dysfunction.

How could that be?  Simple.  We are different people.  We live different lives, are different ages, eat different diets, have different levels of stress, exercise, and sleep.  We have different health histories, different genetics, and we both have different levels of dysfunction in areas of our bodies that this test did not check for.

A practitioner trained in reading and interpreting functional laboratory tests understand this concept.  Before running the test, they will have studied your health history and learned about your lifestyle and behaviors. They’ll know what you eat, what medications and supplements you take, and how much you move.

Your practitioner may have already gathered clues based on how you describe your symptoms, and how you react to foods, sleep, exercise, and stress.  The lab test is used to support these impressions and reveal more clues about what is going on inside.  It is not used as a the sole method for assessing your health!

It’s a little like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.  You have to keep looking at the pieces to find out which ones fit, while constantly referring back to the “big picture.”  Often when you solve one piece of the puzzle, it leads you to another, and another, and so on.  This “Sherlock Holmes” style of health care requires not only lab testing, but a lot of communication between the practitioner and client.

Dysfunction is the New Normal

Some lab tests are black and white.  Either you are pregnant or you’re not.  You have a disease or you don’t.  These specific “yes” or “no” tests are pretty easy to interpret.

Functional labs are a bit different.  There is definitely a gray area.  Conventional medicine relies on the “normal” reference range to determine whether treatment is needed.  The normal range is supposed to be an average of 95% of the sample population’s test result.  This sample population is assumed to be healthy, but when you think about it, the people who are having tests run are usually experiencing some type of symptom which prompted them, so it is questionable how healthy these individuals really are.

The main problem with the normal reference range is that it is way too wide.  So wide that they have little practical value other than to identify disease states. In many cases, the area being tested can be over 50% dysfunctional and still fall into this so-called normal range.   This is why so many dissatisfied patients leave their doctor’s office with their health complaints unresolved.

When striving to restore health, settling for “normal” will not be enough.  A functional approach understands that in order to function at your best, you should strive for “optimum.”  Optimum reference ranges are more personal and will differ according to your age, sex, ethnicity, diet, lifestyle, environment, menstrual cycle, etc.  Functional practitioners use these narrower reference ranges as they represent levels where minimal dysfunction is present.

Granted, the optimal — as well as the normal — range is going to be dependent on sex, race, age, diet, and a host of other factors. But if you are going to go through the trouble and expense of having a lab run, is it too much to expect some values that are based on the population you’re representative of? And if you present with symptoms that make you miserable, should you simply be told you’re healthy because your values fall within “normal” ranges?  Heck No!!!

You are more than just a number

You are a living, breathing person.  Not just some numbers on a paper.  Functional labs give us some great information and are a valuable tool for monitoring health.  However, while some test results may “speak for themselves,” others need to be looked at in the context of the big picture.  This is especially true for those who find their test results hovering at the high or low end of the reference range.  Factors such as age, sex, lifestyle, and medications can drastically affect some test results.  In other words, the same test values could be perfectly normal for one person, but an indicator of dysfunction for another.

It is important to find a practitioner who understands that lab test results are only one tool in evaluating your health.  Many practitioners lack proper functional training and depend solely on lab tests to guide their treatment.  Unfortunately, this means that they are simply treating your test results, not you as a whole person.  Treating test results is really no different than treating symptoms.  Instead of offering a treatment to make the symptom go away, some practitioners are simply recommending treatment protocols to manipulate the lab values.  Neither scenario addresses the root cause of the problem.

A trained practitioner will look for the reason why symptoms are presenting by digging into their lifestyle and health history in addition to reviewing labs.  Both the investigation and the treatment protocol are holistic.

Be wary of practitioners or online lab companies that sell functional lab tests without doing an extensive intake evaluation.  Without an in-depth understanding of your diet, lifestyle, health history, and current health complaints, proper interpretation of test results can be nearly impossible.

One Stop Shops

In the past, it was widely considered unthinkable for a physician or reputable health practitioner to sell or even promote specific products.  But some doctors and clinicians seeking extra income have turned to side businesses selling nutritional supplements out of their offices and on their websites.  While it’s not clear how many health-care professionals engage in this practice, a survey published by the Nutrition Business Journal reported that, of 600 medical doctors, naturopathic physicians, chiropractors, nutritionists, and health coaches, 76 percent sold supplements for profit.

Selling supplements might yield a handsome profit for some practitioners, but this financial gain presents a conflict of interest.  Any health practitioner, whether they are a nutritionist, MD, chiropractor, etc.  should always place their clients’ interest above the opportunity for financial gain.

For this reason, the American Medical Association (AMA) advises that physicians who distribute supplements and health aids to do so free-of-charge or at cost.  The alternative medicine field does not have the same type of recommendation in place.  So, it is up to the practitioners themselves to do the ethical thing.  A well-trained and reputable health practitioner will always put your health first and give you options when it comes to purchasing supplements.

Many online companies that sell lab tests are also selling in the business of selling supplements.  In fact, in some cases, the lab test is more of a marketing tactic than a functional health assessment.  These companies will often deliver your test results along with a diagnosis and a treatment protocol that involves buying a number of specific supplements (sold only by them).  While the protocols claim to be “customized” based on your personal lab results, the truth is, without considering all of the others pieces of the puzzle – i.e. your lifestyle, diet, stress level, age, and medical history, there is no way to effectively design a healing protocol.

The Bottom Line

Functional lab test results are a valuable tool in the management of your health but carry risks of their own.  Technology and advancements in medicine allow us more power than ever before to take control of our own health care.  With this power comes responsibility.  Misinterpreted lab results can prevent you from receiving the treatment that you need and can sometimes make your condition worse. Take the time to interview a prospective health practitioner and ask them how they work and what role lab testing plays in their assessments and protocol creation.

To find out more about how diagnostic testing fits into our effective Functional Diagnostic Nutrition program and how it can help you naturally regain optimal health.

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