Why do regular blood tests?

Why do regular blood tests?

The information presented here does not constitute medical advice, and is not intended to be a substitute for a consultation with your medical doctor.

Maybe you’re doing regular medical checks already, and wonder whether it’s worth going beyond what your doctor tells you.

Maybe you’re a digital nomad, roaming the world with limited access to medical services, and looking for a way to keep an eye on your health.

Or, maybe you’re an avid biohacker, trying to push your body the extra mile.

Whatever your situation, doing regular blood testing is one of the most powerful ways to improve your productivity and long term health.

Why don't doctors prescribe more frequent blood tests?

To answer this question, we must first understand the priorities of the public health system.

Governmental bodies make health recommendations with the view of providing the most effective care to the largest number of people.

This sometimes means optimizing for the minimum necessary care provided to the average individual, so as to optimize both public expenditure and the use of medical resources.

But what if you’re not that average individual?

Here are just a few types of people for whom more frequent testing is well worth the effort and financial investment:

  • Amateur and professional athletes with fitness goals expressly beyond the ‘average’
  • Vegans, vegetarians, and anyone else who follows a non-average diet
  • People who have done a DNA test that showed increased risk for a rare disease, a datapoint many doctors continue to ignore
  • People with metabolic diseases, or chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and dislipidemias
  • Older individuals, and people with risk factors (familiar, ambiental, etc.) for preventable diseases
  • Women who are pregnant, or intend to get pregnant

As hospitals get more expensive and overwhelmed, it's time to take more of your health and wellness into your own hands.

The case against regular testing

Before we jump into the benefits of more regular blood testing, let's consider the reasons against frequent screening.

It is important to remember that all tests are imperfect, some more than others, and there is always a chance of a false positive — that is, of getting a diagnosis for a disease which you don't actually have.

Moreover, some of the treatments that can ensue from such a false positive can have their own, potentially serious, side-effects.

For example, let's look at the Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) blood test, which screens for prostate cancer.

Most men with a high PSA result don't have prostate cancer. Nevertheless, if your PSA is not normal, the step that usually follows is a biopsy.

The doctor will put a needle into the prostate to take samples for further analysis, a procedure which can be painful and lead to bleeding and serious infections.

And if the biopsy finds a cancerous cell, surgery or radiation are the usual treatments, both of which can cause serious complications such as heart attacks, blood clots and even death. In addition, many men become impotent as a result of the treatment.

You might think, erectile dysfunction must still be better than cancer!

But prostate cancer is in fact very common, and it is not always harmful. Many more men die with prostate cancer than because of it.

As a result, doctors commonly recommended against PSA testing for average-risk individuals, as it is likely to do more harm than good.

Similar dilemmas exist for other screening tests.

You should always consult with your doctor, as these tests may still be the right choice for you depending on your age, gender, family medical history and other factors.

Benefits of doing your own tests

Blood tests are easy, fast, and provide a wealth of information that you can act on.

Below are just some benefits of doing regular blood tests at your own schedule, rather than wait for your doctor to prescribe that occasional basic panel.

Do before-and-after tests

Before and after tests allow you to see how your body reacts to diets, supplements, medications and lifestyle changes.

With all the life-changing superfoods, exercise regimens, and fad diets, it can be confusing to know what’s best for your health. Fortunately, you blood can provide some insights, perfectly adapted to you.

For example, if you’re considering becoming vegetarian or vegan (go you!), it’s a good idea to track your levels of Vitamin B12 (Cianocobalamin), B9 (Folate) and iron, before and after you change your diet. This way you can make sure you continue to get all the important nutrients found in animal foods.

Or, if your blood test shows that you’re Vitamin D-deficient (as is the vast majority of the population, particularly in northern countries, and older individuals!), and decide to take a supplement, make sure to do another test several months later to see whether your vitamin levels have normalized.

You will also likely notice fluctuations based on other changes in your lifestyle, such as increased stress at work, alcohol, smoking or even just moving to a different climate.

Establish baselines early in life

“Even if you feel that you’re healthy, it’s still a good idea to have a continuous record of standard blood markers, so your doctor can look for trends.” — Dr. Salamon, Harvard Medical School

Doctors usually recommend starting to test blood later on in life, once you are at a high risk for specific diseases, such as diabetes.

Again, this makes perfect sense from a public health perspective — it’s inefficient to spend money on tests if there is a small chance to find a problem.

There’s but one issue with that approach.

Once you reach that pivotal age of 40, or 50, or 65, and suddenly get asked to do a blood draw, you can only compare your results to average reference ranges, rather than to what’s normal for you, given your unique background, medical history and lifestyle.

Doing regular blood tests from early on in life allows you to establish a baseline for what is normal for you (which may even be slightly outside normal ranges of the wider population!), and detect and act on diseases in their earliest stages.

Measure dangerous pollutants

High levels of trace minerals and heavy metals can occur with dietary intake, occupational exposure and medical conditions that reduce the body's ability to excrete them at a normal rate.

Examples of toxins include high levels of minerals such as chromium, iodine, manganese, iron, copper, molybdenum, zinc and selenium; and heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium and arsenic.

High concentrations of pollutants in the body can cause organ failure, reduce the body's ability to manufacture new blood cells and increase the risk of developing cancer.

For instance, trichloroethylene, a solvent used in refrigerators, has been found to trigger an autoimmune response and compromise the gut microbiome; mercury has been found to trigger lupus; and certain pesticides have been found to cause lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, to name just a few.

Symptoms can often be mistaken for common illness, and include chills, dizziness, headache and general tiredness.

Fish mercury levels

You may want to do a mercury blood or urine test if you regularly consume large predatory fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, as they commonly have increased mercury levels.

Test for sexually transmitted diseases

Most sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can be diagnosed from a simple blood sample, including:

  • chlamydia
  • gonorrhea
  • herpes
  • syphilis
  • HIV (1 month after infection)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all sexually active young adults (ages 15-24) get tested at least once a year for HIV, syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea.

Regardless of age, if you are sexually active, it is important that you get tested for STDs on a regular basis.

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