5 Blood Test Markers That Can Reflect Your Current Digestive Health
When you go see your doctor or health practitioner for a yearly check up, it is common practice for them to request a routine blood test in order to see what is happening inside your body. There are several measurements that are taken to tell the practitioner if your thyroid levels or blood glucose levels, for example, are within a standard range. A simple blood test, though, can provide a wealth of information about your current state of health. Patterns between markers can show likely indications of such things as bacterial and viral infections and nutrient deficiencies. In this article, we will review what the blood test is, standard ranges vs. functional ranges and 5 of the markers you can look for that can be clues to improving your digestive health.
What are the tests?
Routine blood tests can include any markers but generally consist of a CBC, or Complete Blood Count, and a CMP, or a Comprehensive Metabolic Panel. The CBC looks at your white and red blood cells, platelets and iron levels. This test can detect anemia, inflammation, infections and bleeding disorders. The CMP looks at your kidneys, liver, blood sugar, lipids, electrolytes and protein levels. Sometimes these tests will also include a look at thyroid markers.
What are the ranges?
In standard blood testing measurements, you will notice a reference range of high and low and the practitioner looking at your test results hopes to see your individual measurements somewhere within that reference range for each marker. These reference ranges can be different for different labs but the one thing they have in common is that they are taken from the sickest as well as the healthiest people around the Country. This leaves a wide margin for finding out if your measurement is in an ideal position and not just “within the correct range”. Functional medicine tightens that reference range to portray a reference range that a healthy person would normally have and by doing this, your numbers may take on a new look and could quite possibly land outside of the standard lab reference ranges.
As an example, let’s look at serum glucose levels. In standard lab reporting, the reference range for glucose is 65 mg/dL up to 99 mg/dL. That is a very broad range for determining a healthy blood glucose level. When we view the test results using a functional reference range, we close in a bit by making the range 75 mg/dL to 86 mg/dL. This is truly a healthier range for serum glucose, as dipping down to 65 mg/dL or going up to 99 mg/dL can indicate blood sugar dysregulation which is more about dysfunction and less about good health.
What do the markers mean?
Each individual marker represents a measurement of certain components in the blood depending on what you are testing. These markers do cover basic health components and can be expanded as a blood panel to include additional and more informative tests but it is important to remember that individual markers tell us if a component is in range and patterns of markers help us see a deeper picture of a clients health.
For this example, let’s look at hypochlorhydria, or low HCl. Hypochlorhydria is a digestive insufficiency that occurs when the pH of the stomach falls below 3.5. It is caused by the insufficient production of hydrochloric acid from the parietal cells in the stomach. It is a very common clinical problem with influences far beyond the digestive system.
What are some of the signs of hypochlorhydria?
One of the primary symptoms of hypochlorhydria is gas, belching, heaviness, and bloating soon after a meal and many people refer to this as indigestion. Having a low HCl production leaves food sitting in the stomach undigested, leaving them with indigestion and a sense of fullness, causing them to typically feel worse after a meal. They may have difficulty digesting protein and may have food sensitivities to proteins.
Interestingly enough, low stomach acid can cause them to feel like they have heartburn, which is usually worse when food is in the stomach. Some people complain of feeling worse ½ to 1 hour after eating, especially more dense protein meals. In this case there is not enough acid to balance the alkali in the top of the small intestine, so there is a reflux of alkali through the pyloric sphincter and alkali can burn the sensitive esophageal tissue.
What are some of the causes of hypochlorhydria?
Aging – It is well known that the body’s production of HCl decreases as we age.
Stress – One of the most important factors to shut down HCl production is stress marked by increased cortisol and decreased DHEA levels. The body requires a calm or parasympathetic mode for the optimal secretion of gastric juices. We also know that the majority of people living in the Western world are suffering from increased levels of stress on a daily basis. This puts our bodies into a sympathetic mode. The sympathetic mode evolved to help us run away from an ocassional stressful event such as an attacking saber tooth tiger! Nowadays our bodies are so stressed out with the activities of daily living it is as if we are being chased by a saber tooth tiger on a regular basis. This continued sympathetic mode shuts down our ability to produce HCl, since the body knows that digestion does not play a part in running from a tiger!
Carbohydrates – Another common inhibitor of HCl production is the over consumption of carbohydrates in the diet, especially a diet of all or mostly refined carbohydrates.
Zinc and thiamine deficiency – Zinc and thiamine are nutrients required for the production of HCl so if HCl is chronically low, we may need to look to zinc and thiamine levels.
Lack of sufficient protein in the diet – Protein is a strong stimulator for HCl secretion and release.
What pattern can help us understand this one aspect of digestive health?
We want to look at these 5 markers: Albumin, Alkaline Phosphatase, Chloride, Globulin and Calcium. These markers help us to explore the possibility of low stomach acid, which is a very common problem that practitioners see these days. If a pattern is present, and the client history and complaints support our suspicion, we can then dive deeper into understanding the client’s dysfunction.
Albumin is one of the major blood proteins and is produced primarily in the liver. It is heavily involved in water distribution and acts as a transport protein. High or low, albumin can be affected by digestive dysfunction and a decreased albumin can be an indication of hypochlorhydria. Decreased albumin can also be a strong indicator of oxidative stress and excess free radical activity.
Low Alkaline Phosphatase
Alkaline phosphatase (ALP) is a group of isoenzymes that originate in the bone, liver, intestines and skin. Decreased levels of ALP have been associated with zinc deficiency and this can be due to digestive dysfunction and/or lack of absorption, possibly due to low HCl and lack of digestion.
Chloride is an essential blood marker and can tell us a few things that are happening inside the body. The amount of serum chloride in the blood is carefully regulated by the kidneys and chloride is involved in regulating pH balance in the body. Increased levels are associated with metabolic acidosis and decreased levels are associated with metabolic alkalosis. Chloride is an important molecule in the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach so decreased levels are associated with hypochlorhydria, or low stomach acid. A low marker can correspond with digestive complaints from the client.
Globulins constitute the body’s antibody system and the total serum globulin is a measurement of all the individual globulin fractions in the blood. An elevated total globulin level is associated with hypochlorhydria, oxidative stress and inflammation.
Serum calcium levels, which are tightly regulated within a narrow range, are principally regulated by parathyroid hormone (PTH) and vitamin D. A low calcium level indicates that calcium regulation is out of balance and not necessarily that the body is deficient of calcium and needs supplementation. A decreased serum calcium is often associated with a decreased production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach.
What Is My Next Step?
Low stomach acid is a symptom of dysfunction and the most critical thing you can do is find out why you have it in the first place. Examine the causes listed above…is stress affecting you in a negative way? Are you eating too much or too little protein in your meals? Are you eating too many carbohydrates? Taking time to really understand the underlying cause will go a long way in not only helping bring relief but supporting your health for many years to come.
Whenever I work with clients, getting a routine blood test (or using recent blood test results) is one of the first steps we take. No one should ever just “guess” at what is happening inside the body and a blood test can give us a first look at what areas may need attention. Every marker is important and has a voice in understanding the underlying cause of dysfunction. It can take a few hours to complete an interpretation on blood test results as marker position and patterns must be evaluated. This allows the practitioner to also incorporate the client’s history and complaints into the interpretation.
This is just one of the patterns that I use to understand parts of a bigger puzzle to help my clients see a picture of their health in a much better way. What will your markers say about your health? Schedule time to talk today!