Tests: Getting to Know Yourself
Everyone wants to be healthy and, generally speaking, we know how to do so. However, doctors can only find the key to lasting health by looking inside you. Literally. Paving your path of least resistance to wellbeing requires information about how your body interacts with itself and its environment. Unfortunately, getting this information involves the use of a universally hated word: tests.
Tests reveal how your body relates to its environment at a cellular level, and they do so in a way that just can’t be done by observing symptoms. Without getting into specific conditions or family history, some baseline tests (in no particular order) check your: hormone balance, food reactions and immunology, vitamin deficiencies, and heavy metal toxicity.
Hormones are the chemicals that coordinate every bodily function. They govern growth, metabolism, mood, libido, the immune system, and insulin levels (there are more functions under hormonal instruction, but I’ll stop here for the sake of keeping this section at a reasonable length).
At the summit of your hormonal control center sits the hypothalamus (left). It controls the pituitary gland, which, in turn, detects the hormone levels of other target organs (adrenal glands, thyroid, skin, brain, ovaries/testes, kidneys). Hormone imbalances may start upstream at the hypothalamus, or the pituitary gland, or downstream in any specific gland (hypo- and hyperthyroidism, for example).
The complexity of the endocrine system as a whole leaves plenty of room for error. The fact that symptoms of a hormone imbalance are often subtle and ambiguous further complicates diagnosis and treatment. Maybe, for example, your fatigue comes from spending too many late nights at the computer; perhaps your hormones are imbalanced.
Many labs run tests on saliva, urine, and blood to isolate symptoms. Still, the results alone are not enough to diagnose a hormone imbalance. The only way to rule out hormone-related issues accurately is to pass the results through the expert perspective of your friendly neighbourhood naturopath.
Food reactions, immunology, and allergies
First, let’s distinguish between a food allergy, a food sensitivity, and food intolerance. A food allergy is a reason behind EpiPens. Being allergic to peanuts or shellfish, for example, means that your immune system classifies contact between your body and the offending food as a threat. In other words, eating peanuts or shellfish will evoke an intense immune response, which typically manifests as itchy red hives and/or trouble breathing.
A food sensitivity is similar to an allergy in that both will elicit a response from the immune system. However, the symptoms differ in degree of intensity. Signs of sensitivity are significantly milder than those of an allergy, meaning that contact between your body and some offending food won’t lead to an immediate physical reaction. Instead, this contact will leave you with subtle, long-lasting effects such as persistent lethargy and other depression-like signs.
Unlike food sensitivities and allergies, food intolerance does not automatically imply a response from the immune system. While there are cases where intolerance is marked by an immune response, it’s more likely that your body is ill-equipped to entirely or adequately metabolize some specific compound. Alcohol flush reaction, for example, results from a deficit of the enzyme, acetaldehyde dehydrogenase. In turn, this deficiency leads to the accumulation of a byproduct of the metabolism of alcohol (acetaldehyde). The result: red blotches on the face, neck, shoulders, and in severe cases, the entire body when drinking alcohol.
The two most common testing methods are a simple blood test and an elimination diet. Blood tests pinpoint how your body reacts to foods. Elimination diets vary what foods you cut from regular consumption while monitoring your reactions.
You may ingest something every day without knowing you’re allergic to it. So, knowing what foods you can’t properly digest is the simplest way to improve your wellbeing. Surprisingly, cutting distressing foods from your diet leads to a rapid change in how you feel on a day-to-day basis.
There are a lot of vitamins that your body uses to maintain a host of bodily functions. The quality of hair, skin, and nails is related to the vitamin B7 (also known as biotin). Vitamin A improves night vision. A lack of iron and/or vitamin C may lead to bleeding gums. Dandruff can be traced to a lack of vitamins B2, B3, B6, and zinc. And vitamin D deficiency is marked by lethargy, chronic pain, depression, digestive issues, an impaired immune system and more. And remember, this is just the word-count-sensitive list.
Canada is cold and dark for a large part of the year. So, Canucks simply don’t spend enough time outdoors and in the sunshine. This makes vitamin D the most common deficiency, and therefore the most fruitful level for us Northerners to monitor.
Like testing for food allergies, looking for vitamin deficiencies is as easy as getting a blood test, and treatment options are even more accessible. Vitamin levels can be supplemented by oral drops, pills, injections, IV treatments, changing your diet, all of the above, or any combination. If you’re looking for the most straightforward problem to fix, checking vitamin levels is the answer for you.
When testing levels of heavy metals in blood or urine, the lab is not just looking for presence, but for quantity. Metals like iron, copper, and zinc are required for the proper functioning of any healthy person. So, the lab looks at levels. Trace amounts are normal and healthy – high levels are unpleasant at best and carcinogenic at worst.
Let’s assume you’ve gone and run the tests. The results have come back, and your body is found to be high in mercury, for example. What next? Rebalancing heavy metals levels is a two-pronged approach: identify and avoid environmental sources of the offending metals, then lower the already-present metals.
These sources may be a specific food, or a byproduct of growing, treating, transporting, or storing the food. Heavy metals may also come from your environment: your workplace, home, car, or even country. Once heavy metals are already in your system, they may be removed with chelation therapy: the intravenous administration of a chelating agent that binds to metals, leading to their excretion in urine, instead of continuously circulating in the body.
Tests give you data – not information. Only an insightful, well-acquainted, and experienced eye can make sense of test results. Knowing what information is relevant to your symptoms, and understanding the connection between test results, how you feel, and your lifestyle are the only ways to feeling and living better. Don’t hesitate to peek under your metaphorical hood. Reach out today.