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Functional Medicine Tests & Lab Interpretation For Health Practitioners

Written by Jim Duncan, MSW | Last updated:

Lab testing is an important part of patient assessment and can help practitioners determine the most effective interventions. What are functional medicine tests, and how should they be interpreted? Learn more here.

Introduction

Functional Medicine is a system of medical practice based upon the premise that the human body is a complex system influenced by both internal and external factors. Its goal is to examine these factors to get to the root cause of a given health problem and find the most naturally efficient way to correct it.

Functional medicine takes a patient’s history, genetics, lifestyle, diet, environment, and lab work, and works with the patient around these elements to figure out what is causing the health issue and how to best address it.

Functional medicine is grounded in the 6 following processes:

  • Gene-Environment Interaction: using epigenetics to develop targeted interventions
  • Upstream Signal Modulation: intervening in dysregulated body processes
  • Systems Biology–Based Approach: understanding that health issues involve an interconnected matrix of processes, and aren’t usually organ specific
  • Multimodal Treatment Plans: a broad range of interventions including diet, nutrition, exercise, stress management, sleep, and targeted nutra/pharmaceutical therapies
  • Understanding the Patient in Context: discovering the individual’s story within the context of the antecedents, triggers, and mediators that have informed their health over time
  • Patient-Centered and Directed: patients are encouraged to engage in the diagnostic process, set achievable health goals, and design an appropriate therapeutic approach

Functional medicine is not quick-fix medicine. Chronic health issues often require broader, more long-term approaches to heal from. Functional medicine understands and operates from the premise that some causes create multiple symptoms and some symptoms have multiple causes.

A part of this process, and the subject of some medical debate, is performing a number of lab tests in order to establish and monitor a number of markers that are predictive or indicative of particular body processes and functions.

What types of lab tests do Functional Medicine Practitioners request? Why do they request them? How do they use them? We’ll answer those questions in some detail below.

What is Functional Medicine Testing?

Let’s face it: there are many functional medicine tests. But a tool is only as effective as the person using it, so how and why practitioners utilize it can make all the difference in the world.

Functional medicine wants to not only get to the root cause of a health problem, but it wants to prevent them from happening in the first place. They also operate from the premise that chronic conditions generally develop from more than one cause and that a singular problem can generate multiple symptoms.

Functional medicine testing is done to help separate out cause from effect and tailor their interventions to the individual patient. It can also be done to establish baseline functioning of various body processes.

The other major premise an FMP operates from with regard to lab work is that the given “normal” ranges for lab results are not optimal. That is, a lab result may provide a normal result, but an FMP may consider that value too high or low, and may actually indicate a developing health issue.

A good example is that FMPs like to see higher than “normal” levels of vitamin D in their patients. The standard range for normal is 20-40 ng/ml. However, FMPs would consider 40-70 ng/ml to be optimal, so the normal range would be considered slightly low.

A tool like SelfDecode Pro can be an asset for health practitioners when analyzing functional medicine test results. This software allows practitioners to analyze and track over 1,500 lab markers and provides information on optimal ranges, in addition to targeted interventions they can share with their clients.

The problem arises, as many practitioners and critics will tell you, when the tests are used as diagnostics out of context with the rest of the patient’s life. They can also become a crutch for interventions, resulting in wasted or needless testing. That’s why it’s important for practitioners to have tools at their disposal that can help them look at all of their patient’s health data.

Potential problems aside for the moment, lab work can be extremely beneficial. They can indicate a vast array of health problems or help to narrow down a chronic condition to the multiple causal pathways. They can indicate potential problems and allow for interventions that prevent them from occurring in the first place. It takes a practiced and knowledgeable hand, however.

Functional Tests Examples

There is a lab test out there for practically every body process and function. Because of this, practitioners should make an effort to fully understand all functional medicine tests they commonly work with.

Practitioners should also educate their patients on the details of any tests, what it tests for, why itis relevant, and what the results can mean. Everyone should know what they are getting into before it happens. This is the case with any sort of medical interaction. Problems arise when there is a lack of information and transparency.

That said, here are a few of the more common functional medicine lab tests used by practitioners. This isn’t an exhaustive list or an endorsement of any of them, as each practitioner will need to assess what works best for each of their clients. Some of the more common tests include:

  • GI (gastrointestinal) is a stool test to check the microbiome and biomarkers for inflammation and digestion/absorption.
  • DUTCH Plus is a comprehensive panel that checks sex hormones and their metabolites.
  • Organic Acids Test (OAT) is a comprehensive, general metabolism test.
  • SIBO Breath Test is a test for bacterial growth in the upper intestine.
  • IgG Food Sensitivity Panel checks for sensitivity to things like gluten.
  • Thyroid checks overall thyroid functioning and should be inclusive of all thyroid-related hormones.
  • Vitamin D test checks for deficiency, which is related to several health issues.
  • Cortisol is a test for stress levels, typically tested several times throughout the day.
  • Insulin test is an indirect test to help determine insulin resistance, which does not have a singular marker to check for.
  • Comprehensive Blood Panel checks for blood count, platelets, cell size, and is used as a more overall health indicator
  • Micronutrients test checks for an array of vitamins and mineral levels in the body.
  • Adrenal Gland is a test to check for adrenal stress and functioning.
  • Lipid Panel is a test that checks cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Functional Medicine Lab Interpretation: Practice and Pitfalls

Much like in traditional medicine, interpreting the presenting information in order to make an accurate diagnosis and figure out the most effective intervention is what the FMP is trying to do. This is what the patient is investing all of their time and money into.

It’s important to understand, however, that functional medicine lab tests aren’t always indicative of a diagnosis. Research typically looks at treatments themselves, not the actual lab tests. So, there is something of an art to interpreting lab results. Their meanings can be multiple or irrelevant.

This is why functional medicine also relies heavily on history, background, and lifestyle of the patient, because there is seldom a direct connection between a singular cause and a specific event in the human body. High levels of X don’t necessarily mean that Y is happening, requiring Z intervention.

The risk with interpreting functional medicine test results in this way is that it becomes reductionistic, much like the complaints about traditional medicine, which often attempts to narrow down a symptom to a specific body part and give it a specific diagnosis resulting in a specific treatment.

A good FMP will look at the patient’s context in its entirety in order to come to more sound intervention strategies. This may not require lab work at all. In fact, labs should not be thought of as the front-line intervention. It’s too easy for an intervention based upon a lab test to be successful based on random chance.

How a functional medicine practitioner will interpret a lab result depends a lot on their practice philosophy. The lab results are only part of the intervention equation. They are useful information needed to make educated decisions, not necessarily diagnostic in themselves. The rest of the equation involves looking at characteristics of symptoms, past health history and predispositions, and responsiveness to treatments.

For example, a lab marker could indicate potential insulin resistance. A glucose test is not diagnostic of this, but an FMP might combine this with genetic analysis from SelfDecode, which indicates the person has genetic mutations indicative of a higher risk for resistance, and the patient’s previous medical history indicating an issue with being tired and hungry all the time.

Functional Medicine tests SelfDecode

All of these indicators point toward potential development of diabetes. In this case, genetic potential and past history lend impact to the lab test, giving the FMP a more solid footing for intervention.

SelfDecode offers genetic reports and functional medicine lab test interpretation to help health practitioners have a more complete picture of their client’s health. Practitioners can upload functional medicine test results to SelfDecode or order tests directly to see whether levels are low, normal, optimal, or high. SelfDecode also offers personalized suggestions to help clients improve their labs and track it over time.

Functional Medicine Lab Tests

Final Thoughts

Functional lab tests can, should be, and are an informative tool in a practitioner’s arsenal to assist in the effort to find the root cause of a patient’s health issues. The current state of research in the field does not justify them being used by themselves to generate diagnoses in many cases.

In combination with other elements, including patient history, medical background, genetics, and lifestyle, labs can be a defining element in determining the most effective and efficient interventions. It is paramount for the patient’s sake as well, to be transparent about the reasons for testing, and the cost/benefit analysis involved in deciding when and how to utilize them.

A good lab analysis software can help health practitioners build a thriving business. Book a demo call today to discover if SelfDecode is the right fit for your practice.

About the Author

Jim Duncan

MSW
Jim completed his M.S.W. in Social Work Administration at Portland State University. He has always been interested in analyzing social issues, and he helped fund and start a program against domestic violence. He has also conducted many public speaking sessions about violence against women, and published 3 fiction novels. Inspired by SelfDecode’s mission to make precision health a reality, he decided to use his natural writing ability to help teach the world about the power and promise of genomics. His areas of interest include science-based writing,  astronomy, and genomics.

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