True Blood: The Health Benefits of Lab Testing

July 1, 2015

True Blood: The Health Benefits of Lab Testing

For years, football players, bicyclists and all manner of competitive athletes have depended on periodic blood testing to get an up-close look at every type of health marker, from their hormone and glucose levels to nutrient deficiencies. Now an increasing number of regular folks are taking advantage of the same lab-test technologies to better improve their own health and fitness.

In fact, the Wall Street Journal reports, these consumers are fueling a rapidly growing industry: In 2009, people spent about $20 million a year for testing. And, direct-to-consumer testing grows at a robust 15 to 20 percent annually. That’s because while mirrors and scales don’t necessarily lie, they don’t tell the whole, detailed truth that a vial of your blood can deliver on demand.

It’s important to note that this testing (now commonly done with blood, urine and saliva) is not meant to be a substitute for a medical diagnosis. Nor will it explain with certainty what’s causing a particular condition. But done properly and analyzed accurately, it can help people identify trouble spots and then seek appropriate medical expertise or adjust their nutrition, exercise and other lifestyle factors accordingly.

For example, testing could reveal that nutritional deficiencies or high stress levels are undermining an individual’s weight-loss efforts. Simple tests could also reveal problematic glucose and insulin levels consistent with prediabetes, or inflammatory markers consistent with heart disease, perhaps motivating an individual to take early preventive action.

Panels for common hormonal imbalances, chronic-disease risk factors, food intolerances, toxicities and many other health concerns are now available without a doctor’s office visit. And they can be had for surprisingly reasonable prices, ranging from $165 for a test that measures your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes by looking at cholesterol, blood glucose and insulin levels to $1,000 or more for a comprehensive health profile.

Not every health professional likes the idea of consumers going directly to the lab. (Many docs worry that people will get inadequate counsel about what their results mean, or inaccurately diagnose and treat themselves on the basis of iffy data.) But defenders of the trend insist it can have real value in turning up preclinical warning signs and motivating potentially transformative healthy lifestyle changes.

Health-insurance plans typically do not cover the costs of such lab work, but the tests are generally much less expensive than those offered through a doctor’s office, clinic or hospital, and they can often be paid for with tax-advantaged health savings accounts (HSA) and flexible spending accounts (FSA).

Either way, the results are strictly confidential (in accordance with the Health Information Protection Act) but are yours to share with whomever you please, including doctors or nutrition coaches, many of whom are now encouraging clients to have such tests done as part of their intake and monitoring protocols.