Believe it or not, most doctors don’t order nearly enough testing. The human body is extremely complex, consisting of many different systems that interact in an intricate web, with every system influencing all of the others. All of the different major physiological functions have special relationships with each other and all affect each other. This is all well and good, as long as your body is humming along pleasantly, with everything working the way it should.
I might boldly venture to say that there is not a single person on this planet who fits that description. Instead, stress, environmental toxins, food and environmental allergies, lack of proper nutrition, lack of exercise, dysbiosis, hormone fluctuations, infections, and even genetics, all throw a monkey wrench into this smooth interaction between all of your body systems.
And that’s where the domino effect starts. Before you know it, a problem in one area becomes a problem in multiple areas; pretty soon everything seems to have gone haywire.
This is why comprehensive testing is important. Since this level of testing is unfamiliar to most people, I thought it might be helpful to outline some of the lab testing most commonly run by a good Functional Medicine practitioner. (Notice I said “a good Functional Medicine practitioner”! Not all are created equal.)
Conventional blood testing – this usually includes a blood cell count, a metabolic panel, a lipid panel, a basic thyroid panel, and a few other miscellaneous tests, such as iron and/or B12 and others.
Adrenal stress testing – this often includes several readings of cortisol (the adrenal stress hormone) and DHEA (another important adrenal hormone). There are several variations of this panel; depending on which type I order, it may also include screening for anti-gliadin antibodies, progesterone, or other male/female hormones.
Digestive analysis – this assesses your digestion and absorption, and often includes screenings for harmful microbes such as yeasts, parasites, and opportunistic bacteria that can interfere with intestinal function. There are many varieties of this test available as well; some may include pancreatic function while others include stomach acid levels. Some tests only screen for antibodies to a known pathogen such as candida or giardia, whereas others analyze the DNA of the microbes and compare it against a comprehensive database of microbes known to cause problems in humans.
Liver detoxification – unfortunately, the liver enzymes commonly tested for in a routine blood test don’t tell the whole story. In fact, your liver can be in pretty rough shape and those tests will still be well within the normal range. They don’t even start to show a problem until a liver issue is very advanced. The good news is, there are much more efficient tests that assess liver function. They do this by measuring levels of end-products of liver metabolism. This gives a much more accurate picture of how the liver is functioning now, rather than waiting until advanced stages of damage and dysfunction have set in.
Heavy metal and nutrient mineral screenings – surprisingly, hair analysis is NOT the most accurate method of checking for the presence of heavy metals. This is because hair analysis depends on proper excretion of heavy metals and some people tend to retain heavy metals inside their bodies instead of excreting them. Luckily, there are several other methods of testing. Some versions of this test only check for heavy metals, while other versions also evaluate the more beneficial nutrient minerals such as molybdenum and zinc to assess mineral levels. These tests are much more accurate and reliable than blood-test versions of these minerals because the body will actually sacrifice tissue levels of nutrients to keep the blood levels constant.
Immune system panels – we can use several different tests to check various functions of your immune system. One such test gives us clues regarding whether your immune system is fighting a foreign invader, or your own body. Another test tells us whether your immune system is balanced (which is extremely important!) or whether one side has gotten a little overzealous and out of hand.
Thyroid test panels – to test TSH alone is never enough. That’s like being blindfolded and trying to get an idea of what an entire elephant looks like by simply touching its trunk. The trunk is what it is, but it does not tell you very much about the rest of the body. I view the TSH test the same way; it is important, but it does not give the whole picture and testing TSH alone falls very short of good testing. Thyroid test panels vary, but they can include the thyroid hormones themselves, how much of those hormones are being taken up by your body, the level of thyroid hormone transport protein lives in your blood, or even whether or not your body has started to attack your thyroid gland (i.e. the presence of thyroid antibodies).
Nutrients (Vitamins and Minerals) – there is a huge variety of different nutrient test panels available. Some assess fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, D, and K), while others check water-soluble vitamin (B-complex, Vitamin C) levels. Some evaluate minerals, like we talked about above. Some measure other nutrients such as CoQ10 and/or glutathione.
Food allergy/sensitivity testing – here again, there is a variety of testing available. In fact, there are several different types of reactions to problem foods. One type is an immediate reaction involving histamine; another type is a delayed reaction that does more damage in the long run, but it is less obvious at first. Several different companies test for several different types of reactions, and may include a wide variety of different panels or groups of foods. In fact, some tests also include environmental irritants such as pollens, molds, and others.
Male/Female hormone panels – these tests look at the levels of various forms of estrogen and testosterone. Some even include progesterone. Most tests involve a “snapshot” of the present levels, while another test measures a female’s monthly cycle over the entire duration of the cycle!
Note 1: This list is by no means complete! Functional Medicine doctors literally have thousands of individual tests at our disposal, which means we can explore lots of possible avenues and get to the root of the problem.
Note 2: truth be told, I order testing based on what I believe the patient needs. Some people may need more testing, while others need less. Some may need a particular test, while others may not. I don’t order every one of these lab tests for every patient, but I do order every test I feel is necessary for that particular person so that I have all of the information I need to help them heal.