A regular health check is important even when you eat a healthy diet. Blood tests can be a helpful tool in achieving and maintaining peak health. In this article, GP Dr Adrian Griscti – Doctors For Nutrition's South Australia Ambassadoc – gives a rundown of the bloodwork to get done as part of a regular checkup. Article first published in Nourish Magazine, December 2019.
Blood transports oxygen and nutrients to our tissues and organs, carries cells and antibodies to fight infections, removes waste from our cells, and helps regulate our body temperature among other things.
Whether we are looking to maintain or regain health, testing levels of different components of our blood may help us understand where we can make improvements to support us in feeling well.
After extensive research, which included reading The China Study my wife Jenny and I decided to adopt a whole food plant-based diet to improve our health. We later became fully vegan for ethical and environmental reasons. Our initial aim for transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle was to minimise our risk of developing chronic diseases. However, we also found it helped us live a vibrant lifestyle with countless delicious food options.
I choose to have periodic blood tests to objectively assess whether my preventative health strategies, including diet, are helping me achieve good health and wellbeing. This not only gives me reassurance that I am eating an optimal diet but also provides evidence as well. A great indicator of my own health improvement is my total cholesterol, which has dropped from 6.1mmol/L prior to changing my diet to 3.7mmol/L today.
There is no routine set of blood tests to suit everyone – a personalised approach is best.
Blood tests can be undertaken either diagnostically in response to a symptom or as a screening tool to check your health status, even when you well. The types and frequency of the blood tests your doctor orders will depend on your health, stage of life, family history, lifestyle and previous results. There is no routine set of blood tests to suit everyone – a personalised approach is best. So, it’s important to discuss your health goals, current lifestyle, and dietary patterns with your doctor so they can order the most appropriate blood tests for you.
COMMON BLOOD TESTS
Let’s get an understanding of some commonly performed blood tests and what these tell us about our health.
Complete Blood Picture
This test measures the quantity, size, shape and, to a degree, function of your red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Low haemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying component of a red blood cell) is an indicator of anaemia, often associated with tiredness and pallor. White blood cells are the body’s protectors, working to safeguard you against infectious diseases and inflammation. An abnormal white cell count can indicate how well our immune system is responding to infection or inflammation. Platelets are blood cells that help your body form clots to stop bleeding. Unexplained bruising may result from a low platelet count.
Multiple Biochemical Analysis
This test offers a snapshot into how your kidney and liver are functioning. These organs are critical to many processes involving digestion and detoxification. This test also provides a glimpse into your blood sugar (which is the body’s main source of energy), uric acid (an indicator for gout) and electrolyte (or salt) balance.
This test measures the amount of glucose that binds to a part of the haemoglobin molecule over the preceding three months, and is a way of measuring how sugar-coated your blood cells are, so to speak. We use this test in the diagnosis and management of pre-diabetes and diabetes.
This test looks at some of the fats in your blood circulation, in particular cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Although these molecules are important in the manufacture of your natural steroid hormones, if your levels are higher than normal this can contribute to hardening of the arteries, premature heart disease and certain types of dementia. In Australia, the recommended guideline for total cholesterol is below 5.5; however, for prevention, under 4 is better. LDL Cholesterol is usually referred to as the 'bad' cholesterol, and we should aim to have this below 2mmol/L. HDL Cholesterol on the other hand is referred to as the ‘good’ cholesterol because it removes the excess LDL cholesterol from your blood. However, if there is no excess LDL, you don't need much HDL to counter this. Conversely, if your LDL is unfavourable, high levels of HDL will not protect from heart disease.
Vitamin B12 is necessary for normal red blood cell formation, tissue and cell repair, nerve health, and DNA synthesis. A B12 deficiency can lead to permanent nervous system problems. This is a particularly useful test for anyone following a plant-based diet, people over 50 years old, and those on medications that can affect the absorption of vitamin B12, such as Metformin (a medication for type 2 diabetes) and proton pump inhibitors (medications for gastro-oesophageal reflux). Because Vitamin B12 is made by a microorganism found in soil and water which is then consumed by animals, it is effectively only found in food of animal origin. However, owing to modern farming practices, even the animals are supplemented these days to provide animal products with necessary levels. People who follow an exclusively plant-based diet have simply cut out the middleman, so are advised to take a regular vitamin B12 supplement.
High Sensitivity - C Reactive Protein
This is a protein produced by the body when blood-vessel walls are inflamed. It is one of a number of biomarkers of cardiovascular disease risk.
Thyroid Function Tests
This measures how well your thyroid gland is working. The thyroid is one of the determinants of your metabolic rate, and testing reveals if it is underactive or overactive. Some of the symptoms of an underactive thyroid include excessive tiredness, depression, weight gain and constipation while an overactive thyroid can result in menstrual irregularity, anxiety and weight loss.
These are a group of tests that help assess the iron stores in your body and how effective they are. This will give you an indication of whether you have either a deficiency or overload of iron. This is a particularly useful test for women of menstrual age and for anyone investigating causes of tiredness, lethargy or shortness of breath.
Essential Fatty Acid Profile
This is a less commonly performed test which can be useful for those of us eating an exclusively plant-based diet. This test measures the levels of individual Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) and the all-important ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 EFAs. Omega 3 EFAs tend to be more anti-inflammatory than Omega 6 EFAs. We need to ingest EFAs because our body is unable to make them. A well planned whole food plant based diet will assist you reach a desirablel Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio of approximately 1 to 4.
OPTIMISING YOUR HEALTH MARKERS
By no means is the list of bloods tests mentioned here an exhaustive list of those that can be used to monitor your individual health. It is important to discuss your specific needs with your healthcare provider. Although, in Australia, most blood tests are covered by health insurance (whether government or private), some may incur an out of pocket expense.
Once you receive your blood test results, you can improve your health markers by focusing on the pillars of good health – adequate sleep, management of stress, appropriate exercise, and a healthy diet – I recommend a whole food plant-based diet. Aim to eat foods as close to how they grow in nature and include the colours of the rainbow every day to ensure you get a range of antioxidant compounds. Choosing water as your regular drink, while avoiding alcohol and minimising caffeinated drinks. I also suggest a safe and appropriate amount of sun exposure to help maintain adequate levels of vitamin D.
As well as improving the biomarkers in our blood, every positive step you take towards a healthy lifestyle can help prevent, manage or even reverse many chronic diseases.
There is great empowerment in understanding how your health is tracking and knowing that there are a range of lifestyle changes you can make to optimise your health and vitality.
The highlight of my professional work is seeing patients use this information to transform their health – the smile on the face of a person who has reversed Type 2 Diabetes is priceless!
More about the author
Dr Adrian Griscti is Doctors For Nutrition's South Australia Ambassadoc.
Read his full bio here.