3 Things to Keep in Mind When Reviewing Lab Results

I want to talk about three key things that are critical to keep in mind when reading lab results.

Has this ever happened to you?

You haven’t been feeling like yourself lately… maybe you’re more tired than usual, really feeling exhausted… or maybe it’s you’re noticing more hair falling out when you brush… or you keep getting migraines…

So you go to the doctor.

They order some labs and you wait for the results…

When the results finally come back, the doctor’s note at the top says “Labs are normal.”

That’s it.

But you feel like this…

reading lab results cartoon

This scenario is sooooooo common.

I can’t tell you how many women in particular I hear this from… they go to the doctor, clearly not fine, only to be told…

“nothing’s wrong. you’re fine.””it’s all in your head.” “it’s just hormones. it’s normal.” 

I’m so tired of hearing about women’s symptoms being dismissed.

My heart goes out to anyone who’s been there.You deserve better. We all deserve better than this.

So today I want to arm you with info so if you ever find yourself in this position, you’ve got some context to put it in.

3 Things to Keep in Mind When Reading Lab Results

I’m gonna break it down into 3 reasons things often get missed reading lab results (blood work)… 

1. Typical reference ranges are “normal,” not necessarily healthy.

Reference ranges for reading lab results are the set of numbers over the right that tell you what’s considered “normal” for that particular test. These ranges are determined by population data – basically what’s normal for 90 percent of Americans.

Before learning this, I assumed these ranges were based on what’s optimal for health. That’s not true. They’re just what’s average among other Americans.

If we lived in a country where the majority of people were healthy this wouldn’t be an issue, but we don’t.

I know that may sound judgmental but, it’s data. According to the CDC, 6 out of 10 Americans have a chronic disease.

And that’s a statistic that’s only projected to increase.

And when it does increase, reference ranges will shift right along with it  further away from optimal.

This is why I tell my clients when reading lab results for any nutrient value (eg. B12, Zinc, Magnesium, etc.) you want to be in the upper quadrant or the top quarter of the reference range.

So say the reference range for B12 is 232-1245 pg/mL. You want your result to be above 750 pg/mL.

This is also why I read blood labs based on optimal functional ranges, not standard reference ranges.

2. Blood lab results are affected by hydration. 

In other words, if you’re dehydrated, things are gonna get missed in your lab work.

And since most labs are done fasting, first thing in the morning, it’s super common to be dehydrated when doing a blood draw.

For example, if you’re dehydrated your RBC (red blood cell count), hemoglobin and hematocrit will appear higher which can mask signs of nutrient deficiency or anemia.

I look for patterns in labs that suggest dehydration and read lab results in context.

3. Lab results can appear artificially optimal. 

There are markers in blood work that require nutrients to make them so if you’re low in that nutrient, that marker is going to be low.

A good example of this is liver enzymes, (ALT, AST) which is a marker of liver cell turnover. When elevated, these are a red flag for liver health.

But they require B6 to make them. So if your B6 is low, these markers are going to be low, and they’re not going to be able to tell you much about your liver.

I read lab results with all of this context in mind.

And because I’m looking at them through this more detailed lens, I’m able to glean a lot more info out of your run of the mill standard set of blood labs than your doctor.

The main difference between your doctor and me is your doctor is looking for what can be diagnosed, coded, and treated.

I can’t do any of that.

What I can do is identify when things are headed in that direction BEFORE you get to that point that can be diagnosed.

Where your doctor is seeing things as black and white — either you’ve got something or you don’t….

I’m looking at all the grey area.

Dis-ease is a process.

You don’t just wake up one day with a diagnosable condition.

Most things that can be diagnosed take years, even decades, to get to that point.

Why wait that long if you don’t have to?

Especially when you know something isn’t right. 

Doesn’t it make so much more sense to look for the signs early and stop the process?

Unfortunately our health care system doesn’t think this way.

But that doesn’t mean you have to settle for it.

There are answers out there for you beyond “everything’s normal. you’re fine.”

If you’ve been told this but you know everything’s not fine, please get another opinion — find another doctor, integrative medicine provider, or functional practitioner like myself.

My clients tell me after working together they never look at their health the same. They feel more in control, more in charge than ever before. Because they’re educated in their own body, what to look for, and how to take care of themselves going forward.

Beyond getting them feeling well, which inevitably happens, I can’t think of a better outcome than not feeling like you’re at the mercy of a broken health care system.

If you’re curious about the functional medicine approach and if health coaching may be a fit for you, best thing to do is grab some time for a chat. You can schedule right on my calendar here.

Megan Adams Brown

P.S. If you’re curious about the functional medicine approach and if health coaching may be a fit for you, best thing to do is grab some time for a chat. You can schedule right on my calendar here.

Note: As a health coach I am not qualified to diagnosis or treat. The way I work with labs is as an educator, helping you learn to read them for yourself, identify patterns, and underlying dynamics that can be contributing factors in your health and how to, with diet and lifestyle changes, effect those pattens and dynamics in order to improve your health and increase your vitality. 

The content in this post is for educational and informational purposes only and is not medical advice.

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