Testing, testing: Lab testing and Functional Medicine

A Revolution in Advanced Clinical Nutrition…

A segment of Clinical Nutrition began to evolve considerably–quietly–about 30 years ago.  Now, it has bloomed into a full-fledged, legitimate medical subspecialty.  We now know much more about the mechanisms behind chronic disorders than we did even 10 years ago.  We also now realize that pharmaceutical medications, while necessary at times, don’t usually offer much in terms of resolution or long-term relief/improvement for these conditions.  Irregular blood sugar, autoimmune disorders, nutrient malabsorption, gastrointestinal microbes, inefficient liver detoxification, and adrenal fatigue don’t necessarily respond all that well to medications.

Since many of these disorders mimic each other (sometimes very closely), it can be difficult to determine exactly what’s going on using symptoms alone.  This can pose a problem, because if there is any hope in making progress or getting relief, the right treatment approach must be followed.

For example, let’s say Betty has fatigue.  The first remedy that come to mind might be caffeine pills.  It sounds logical; if she’s tired, the idea of a stimulant probably appeals to her.  If she doesn’t like the concept of chemical stimulants, she might opt for a more natural route; a naturopath or herbalist may suggest Ginseng or something similar.  Functional Medicine, on the other hand, asks why she is tired, and considers all the possibilities.  Fatigue is a common symptom, with many causes – maybe her adrenal glands aren’t producing enough cortisol.  Maybe her thyroid gland isn’t producing enough T4, or maybe she has a sluggish liver or gastrointestinal tract and can’t convert inactive thyroid hormone (T4) to active thyroid hormone her body can use (T3).  Maybe she’s got a lingering virus.  Maybe her energy is being diverted toward immune system activity because she has seasonal allergies.  Maybe her blood cells aren’t carrying enough oxygen.  Maybe she’s got candidiasis (overgrowth of candida albicans, a problematic yeast); maybe she’s fighting a bacterial infection.  Maybe she she has a food intolerance (these can make people profoundly drowsy).  Or maybe she has low blood sugar.

Each of these possibilities is a completely different problem.  Ten people with fatigue may all share the same symptom, but have completely different reasons for feeling the fatigue.  If the underlying reason isn’t investigated, and the person assumes they have adrenal fatigue when really they have a low thyroid, and they begin taking herbs that boost adrenal function, then they’ve missed the thyroid issue and they fail to correct the problem…and the problem remains.  This begins to illuminate the reason why lab testing is crucial.

As I mentioned before, when most doctors order lab testing, they tend to stick only with what insurance covers.  What you may not realize is that the testing insurance will cover is bare-bones, hardly scratching the surface of what’s actually going on.  Essentially, it’s a screening tool for basic disease and that’s really about it.  The limited tests that are ordered and the way in which the results are interpreted does not do much of anything to accurately assess someone’s actual baseline health.

This is not to “bash” the medical profession at all or paint some kind of “us versus them” polarized picture that illustrates that Functional Medicine is everything while conventional medicine has no place.  Indeed, some of those basic disease screenings can be highly appropriate and unquestionably warranted.  However, those basic screenings are sorely limited in their ability to comprehensively assess someone’s genuine health, wellbeing, and quality of life.  And that is where Functional Medicine has a chance to shine…

Functional Medicine doctors will order comprehensive testing that evaluates multiple areas of body chemistry and multiple important functions that are hardly ever touched on in hospitals or regular clinics.  When we order testing a patient has never had, we find things other doctors have never found.  A good Functional Medicine practitioner will evaluate (at minimum) several areas during routine testing:

  • Nutrient metabolism
  • Cellular energy production
  • Oxygen delivery
  • Inflammation markers
  • Organ and gland functions
  • Infection screening
  • Status of certain nutrients
  • Blood sugar consistency, long and short-term
  • Intestinal microbes, beneficial and hazardous
  • Adrenal stress
  • Central Nervous System state

Another important tenet of Functional Medicine pertains to how the lab testing is interpreted.  Most doctors simply scan the lab test results, looking for anything that the lab has “flagged” as abnormal.  In order for a result to show up as abnormal, it must fall outside of the “normal” or “reference” range.  These ranges are set based on statistics.  They vary by lab and even by region.  Look around you; you’re being compared to your neighbors, your friends, family, and co-workers.  How healthy are they?  I don’t know about you, but being “normal” compared to everyone else isn’t exactly reassuring.

What Functional Medicine doctors do is look closer at the lab test results.  They are familiar with what healthy ranges look like and where a person’s body chemistry should be.  These doctors will find literally a dozen or so dysfunctional/abnormal results that labs and conventionally-practicing doctors will flat-out miss.

Many Functional Medicine doctors take yet one more step further, to analyze patterns between these abnormal results, to attempt to find a common denominator, because often, various dysfunctions are related.  It is indeed entirely possible that a person may have multiple dysfunctional processes happening at once, and it’s also possible that multiple symptoms may stem from one underlying disorder.  Functional Medicine practitioners spend a tremendous amount of time behind the scenes pouring over lab test results and conducting any necessary research.

In short, the rabbit hole that is human physiology can go far deeper than expected; Functional Medicine is the only discipline to ever rise to the challenge.

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