As a Functional Nutritionist (NTP, RWP), I often get asked about the labs I use with clients and how they differ from what you get at the doctor.
Before I dive into that, I think it’s worth discussing why I use lab work in the first place. I’m not a medical doctor, which means I don’t treat or diagnose illness or prescribe medications, so why would labs even matter to me?
Time and energy savings aren’t the only reason though. Having hard data to track can be a huge motivator for clients. Symptom reporting is important ~ your lived experience is what matters most at the end of the day ~ but it doesn’t have the same impact on protocol compliance as seeing your blood sugar balance improve via blood work. Your GI-Map results showing an immune response to gluten has an entirely different feel from me just telling you to avoid it. Simply put, labs help you buy-in to your program.
Now back to the original question, how is this different from your experience at a doctor’s office? The key difference is in how we interpret the results.
When you go to the doctor they order labs to help uncover an illness. They are doing the best they can to offer you a black and white diagnosis and treatment plan (usually prescription medication). The labs that they order have clear cut normal/abnormal ranges that are calculated based on averages in the general population (some are broken up by age & gender). This approach can leave unread information in-between the lines. They don’t show us how hard your body is working to maintain those numbers.
The functional labs I use in my practice are for optimization and balancing, not diagnosis or treatment. They provide a vast amount of information to help build a complete picture of the person. What markers look out of balance when compared to others? Where do we know people feel their best and how do you compare? What systems look like they need some extra nutritional support? Are you digesting your food to your body’s full potential?
An example I see a lot is with thyroid markers. A client may be experiencing chronic fatigue and having a hard time losing weight but the doctor tells them their TSH is normal. When I look at the thyroid I’m reviewing ALL the markers (TSH, T3, T4, Free T3, Free T4, & antibodies) and comparing them to functional ranges (where the body is functioning at its best). Sure your TSH maybe be “normal”, but I can see that it’s struggling to keep up. I can then suggest diet, lifestyle, and supplemental support to help bring it closer to optimal before a true pathology sets in.
I use 5 different tests with clients depending on the situation:
Everyone I work with is required to do blood work because it’s so incredibly helpful for identifying nutrient needs. The other tests are chosen based on symptoms and client budget.
The GI-Map is the 2nd most popular because the state of your gut impacts all the other systems in your body. It can be a driver of inflammation, cause you to become nutrient deficient, mess up your hormone health, and so much more. If you aren’t digesting nutrients well, then your bound to see symptoms arise in some form in the future.
I incorporate as much context into your nutrition, lifestyle, and supplement protocols as I can, functional labs just make these recommendations more targeted.