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Understanding Your Blood Work: 4 Important Levels to Monitor for Health

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Functional medicine is a form of medicine that views the body as one whole, integrated system.

In conventional medicine, deficiencies and steps leading up to a disorder are often overlooked.

Unlike conventional Western medicine, which divides the body up into multiple systems, functional medicine looks at how these systems relate to one another.

While functional medicine excels at treating chronic disorders, it is also used in preventative care.

How to Read Functional Lab Work

While conventional medicine primarily uses lab data for diagnosis, functional medicine will view the entire spectrum of a disorder to both prevent and treat disease.

Leona West, a certified nutritionist, herbalist, fitness trainer, and birth doula working at Santa Monica Wellness Group specializes in reading blood work from a functional standpoint. She explains that functional lab ranges generally run wider or tighter than conventional labs. This is because functional medicine looks at the entire spectrum of a disorder, making it easier to prevent and treat disease.

Conventional medicine, on the other hand, uses lab data for diagnosis alone. While diagnosis is valuable, all the deficiencies and steps leading up to a disorder are often overlooked.

Here are some key things to look for on your next lab panel:

1. Iron

Leona explains that for women, the most common thing that you will see out of range is iron.

Severely low iron is what is known as anemia. Even borderline low levels of iron can contribute to many of the symptoms related to anemia.

Low energy is one of the most common signs that iron levels are not where they should be. Another common sign is frequent bouts of the flu.

If you are interested in strengthening your iron levels, skip the traditional iron supplements in the supermarket. Otherwise known as ferrous sulfate, these supplements are notorious for causing constipation.

Leona especially cautions against men taking an iron supplement. Unlike women in their childbearing years who bleed every month, men have no outlet if their iron levels rise too high.

Foods that enhance iron levels in the body include:

  • The darker and greener the vegetable, the better. Think of sturdy greens like kale and spinach.
  • Microalgae are functional foods that can therapeutically build iron levels in the body. A good example of iron-rich microalgae is Spirulina. The most absorbable form of Spirulina is fermented Super Spirulina Plus.
  • Seaweeds are an excellent source of iron. Leona recommends placing a large strip of kombu in soup as it cooks. Ocean vegetables are also available in powder or capsule form like Ocean Plant Extract.
  • Nettle, which you can easily brew as sun tea, is an excellent source of iron.

2. Vitamin D

Leona explains that, “We usually hear it a lot in terms of bone health, but vitamin D is very critical for the immune system.”

People who have low levels of vitamin D are more susceptible to infection. When vitamin D levels drop below 50, you are more likely to fall ill. Besides evading the common cold and flu, vitamin D dramatically impacts the body’s ability to fend off cancer, in particular breast cancer.

Vitamin D is regulated by the sun. During fall and winter, when we get less sun exposure, vitamin D levels naturally drop.

If that’s not reason enough to get your vitamin D levels checked this fall, according to Leona, seven out of 10 of her patients do not have optimal levels of vitamin D.

While vitamin D deficiency is common, Leona recommends that you first run a panel and check vitamin D levels before taking a supplement that offers anything higher than 2,000 iu (international units).

If you want to bring vitamin D levels up, try to:

  • Find opportunities to spend time in the sun.
  • Gravitate toward those foods that are richest in vitamin D, such as eggs, fish, and grass-fed butter.
  • Switch over to cod liver oil if you are already taking an omega-3 supplement. Cod liver oil contains high levels of naturally occurring vitamin D and is a great overall tonic for the immune system.

3. WBC, or White Blood Cells

White blood cell count is something else that your physician may look at. White blood cells, or leukocytes, defend the body against infection, disease-causing bugs, and foreign material.

The optimal and functional range is wider than the conventional model, somewhere between 5 or 8.

If your WBC falls under 5, this can indicate that your immune system is weak. This could be due to stress, underlying infections, or low levels of flora.

In this case, Leona recommends:

  • Probiotics. Just by increasing beneficial bacteria, you are going to make an immediate impact on your white blood cells. The best sources of probiotics are fermented foods and probiotic beverages.
  • Vitamin C. Vitamin C can lower oxidative stress. Inflammation makes you more vulnerable to infection. If you want to take a vitamin C supplement, find a whole food supplement like acerola cherry, camu camu, or amla fruit.
  • Medicinal mushrooms, especially maitake. When taking medicinal mushrooms, it is important to get an extract. The extraction process activates the essential immune modulators in mushroom, such as beta-glucans.

4. TSH, or Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone

An easy way to check immune function is to look at TSH levels. This is especially true if you have a history of an underactive thyroid or a family history of hypothyroidism.

Because hypothyroidism affects the immune system and regulated metabolic function, it is a good idea to check the thyroid if you find that you are especially susceptible to infection.

In order to determine the health of your thyroid, a physician will look at TSH levels in the blood. The functional range for TSH, which is 1.8-3, is much higher than the conventional laboratory range.

If your thyroid is underactive, you may want to consider:

  • Get a little (or a lot) more vitamin D in your diet. It turns out that the thyroid responds to vitamin D levels in the body. One easy way to give your thyroid a boost is make sure your vitamin D levels are high.
  • Incorporate sea vegetables and Ocean Plant Extract. Besides boosting iron levels, seaweed supports a healthy thyroid.

What To Remember Most About This Article:

Functional medicine differs from conventional Western medicine in that it views the body as a complete system. Functional medicine can be used in preventative care to treat the entire spectrum of a disorder, making it easier to prevent disease.

Here are several helpful guidelines you can use today to read functional blood work on your next lab panel:

  1. Check iron levels. Women are especially susceptible to low iron levels, otherwise known as anemia. One of the most common related symptoms is low energy.
  2. Check vitamin D levels. Having low levels of vitamin D will make you more susceptible to infection. Vitamin D is critical to fight the common cold and flu and even fend off breast cancer.
  3. Check white blood cell count. The optimal functional range is between 5-8; any lower, and it indicates that your immune system is weak due to underlying infection, stress, or low levels of flora.
  4. Check TSH levels. You can easily gauge your immune function by looking at TSH levels, especially if your family has a history of hypothyroidism. The functional range for TSH is from 1.8-3, much higher than the range in conventional medicine.
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  • Marina Castellanos

    I just got my blood work last Friday and was told I'm low on vitamin D, low white blood cell count and have hypothyroidism.Waiting on the results from the thyroid ultrasound. I started drinking whole milk with vitamin D added, eating Wakame seaweed, Arame seaweed for iodine and nutritional yeast for Vitamin B-12, folic acid and Zinc. I'm hoping to resolve this without any chemical involment.

  • Adina

    Silly correction but I think you mean that functional TSH range in much lower than conventional. (Though your bottom # is a bit higher this would not be an indication of hypo)

    "Until 2002, the standard was that the normal range for TSH at most laboratories has fallen in the 0.5 to 5.0 range, with hyperthyroidism being below .5, and hypothyroidism above 5.0.

    The guidelines, however, recommend that the range for acceptable thyroid function, and thyroid treatment, shift to a TSH of 0.3 to 3.0, which is a far narrower range.

    The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists estimatd that the new guidelines actually double the number of people who have abnormal thyroid function."

    I do love your article thank you

  • Michael Cannon

    Leona West says in the article above... "While vitamin D deficiency is common, Leona recommends that you first run a panel and check vitamin D levels before taking a supplement that offers anything higher than 2,000 iu (international units)." The only test to get for vitamin D levels is the 25 OHd blood test. There is a HUGE volume of information out there that supports from 5,000 to 8,000 IU's of vitamin D a day in non-summer months. which is Dr. John Cannell's (MD) vitamin D site will give you all the information about IU's per day and a whole lot more.

  • Dr. Lisa A. Merritt

    This site is an excellent site for all to read. We analyse all of our patients with the functional medicine approach and get to the real cause of their problems. I have recommended to many of my patients to incorporate fermented foods into their diet and have seen great results. Thank you Body Ecology for offerring concise information about proper blood markers!

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