When Your Doctor Says You're Fine, Part 4 - Testing for Minerals and Heavy Metals
This has been such a fun series to research and write, and I’ve heard from so many of you who can relate. It’s amazing how much information our bodies are just waiting to give us, if we only know how to find it!
If you’ve missed the first three posts in this blog series all about how you can dig deeper into your health concerns even after your doctor tells you there’s nothing wrong, check them out here, here, and here.
But now, for the final post in this series, we’re going to be talking all about the best ways to test your body’s mineral status (think things like magnesium, zinc, and calcium) and how to figure out if you may have some heavy metal toxicity at play in your chronic illness.
When most of us think of mineral testing we usually think of the blood test that always gets run at our General Practitioner’s office every time we have an appointment - the comprehensive metabolic panel (or CMP).
The CMP gives your doctor a very high level look into your overall health, your body’s chemistry, and how well you’re using energy.
This is a great way to screen for many diseases and disorders, which is probably why it’s run so darn often.
And while this practice of checking your mineral status has great intentions (I mean, who doesn’t want to catch a disease process way before it starts causing symptoms?), using blood testing to check for these health markers may not be giving us the whole picture.
Unfortunately, like we saw in my previous post in this series about hormone testing, blood just isn’t the best way to test the levels of these essential minerals in our bodies.
But, before we dive into the details of mineral testing, let’s look at why these elements are so critical for our health, and at such precise values.
The Importance of Minerals
Did you ever put salt on a slug as a kid? I know, it was cruel and unusual punishment for that poor slug, but it feels like it was almost a rite of passage as a middle schooler. But maybe that’s just me.
If you’ve never salted a slug, here’s what happens: the salt draws out large amounts of fluid from inside the slug (through a process called osmosis), and the slug pretty rapidly dies as a result of dehydration. Poor slug.
But, what’s important for us to understand in this rather morbid analogy is the reason why the slug loses all of it’s fluid when the salt is applied.
And that’s because when the slug’s cells (and our cells) are subjected to too much sodium (one of the mineral components of salt), large amounts of fluid are needed to dilute the concentration of sodium. If the sodium is not diluted, what happens to the slug can happen to our cells - they become dehydrated and die.
This concept is the same going the other way as well. If we somehow managed to put salt inside the slug, he would hold onto so much extra water that he would burst.
Okay, enough slug analogies. But I hope that helps give you a picture of why maintaining very exact levels of minerals like sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium is critical for our health. The body is proficient at heavily regulating the levels of minerals in our blood in order to keep our cells functioning at their optimum levels.
Another important role of minerals in our bodies is that they support the normal regulation of our blood pressure - and no, I don’t have a strange analogy for this one.
But basically, without the proper balance of these minerals, our arteries would not be able to sustain the proper pressure to move our blood throughout our bodies. Our blood pressure would then either be too high or too low, and we wouldn’t be able to survive.
Beyond helping your cells maintain proper fluid levels and regulating your blood pressure, minerals are critical to so many other bodily functions. Here’s a list of just a few of them:
- Assists with nerve impulse transmission
- Stimulates enzymes (hello digestion!)
- Helps muscles contract and relax
- Maintenance and repair of cells
- Generates DNA and RNA
So now that we know the importance of proper mineral balance in our bodies, let’s take a deeper look into why we shouldn’t always rely on conventional blood testing to tell us our mineral status.
Downfalls of Conventional Blood Mineral Testing
Like we saw with hormones, blood serves simply as a highway to transport minerals from one tissue or cell to another.
So, when you measure the levels of minerals via blood, you’re only getting a look at what’s currently being transported around your body, not what’s actually being used and/or stored in your tissues and cells.
And since blood mineral levels are so tightly regulated by your body (because of the reasons we mentioned above), your body will do almost anything to keep your blood levels within the normal range.
Unfortunately, a lot of times this means pulling minerals from stores in your bones, tissues, or other cells, creating an invisible deficiency - where your blood levels are normal, but the levels of minerals in your tissues and other cells are depleted.
It’s not uncommon that your mineral levels in your blood will be normal, even despite some dire circumstances where these minerals are actually needed.
Benefits of Functional Hair Mineral Testing
So, instead of testing mineral status using blood at your conventional doctor’s office, I’ve found that using a functional hair test is so much more accurate.
Hair is just one of the places (along with bone, and body tissues) where minerals are deposited.
You don’t have to be a PhD scientist (I’m sure not!) to see how it would just make sense to test for something where it’s deposited (hair), not where it’s transported (blood).
The mineral content of your hair reflects what is actually stored in your body, and is actually available for your body to use.
Remember how in Part 3 of this series we talked about hormones being bioavailable, it’s the same concept with minerals.
When these minerals are being transported around in our blood, they’re not available for our bodies to use. It’s only when they’re deposited in tissues, bone, or hair are they usable by our bodies.
And remember, your body will do everything that it can to keep the blood levels of minerals at normal levels in order to maintain homeostasis. So that means if you’re actually running low on any mineral, your body will compensate by pulling that mineral from where it is stored out into the blood stream so it can be transported elsewhere.
This creates an invisible deficiency, where, because your body is pulling bioavailable minerals from your tissues to keep your blood levels stable, you’re actually losing out on the usable forms of those ever important minerals.
A great, and unfortunately common, example of this is the development of osteoporosis later in life.
Osteoporosis often develops when there is not sufficient stores of calcium in your bones. Which could be a result of your body extracting excessive amounts of calcium from your bone in an attempt to keep from becoming deficient.
With an adequate calcium intake, your body will have enough of this mineral to both use AND store away in your bones, and you’ll be less likely to develop osteoporosis.
I say all of that to make the point that mineral deficiencies will show up in your tissues (like hair) way before they will show up in your blood because the body is constantly pulling from its reserves to keep from becoming mineral deficient.
That deficiency, if mineral status is tested via hair, will show up - whereas if mineral levels were tested via blood it very likely would be masked.
And like all the previous parts to this series, I have a real life example to show you where blood testing for mineral status was way less informative than hair testing.
I’ve gotten my CMP tested many, many times at my doctor’s office. And, you guessed it, every time it has been normal.
But, I’ve known the feelings of fatigue, my brittle nails, and muscle twitches were far from normal.
So, I dug a little deeper into my mineral status by using a Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis (HTMA) test.
It was slightly more traumatic to cut off a clump of my hair at the root than a blood draw usually is, but the results are so worth it, promise!
I got my minerals tested via blood and hair around the same time, so this is a great comparison.
Here’s the results of testing my mineral levels from my CMP. Totally normal, everything within range.
But, when you look at the results of my HTMA for these same minerals, you get a very different story!
Not only does the HTMA show that my Potassium and Sodium levels are in the tank, it also tested my levels of 13 other minerals - a level of detail that no conventional blood test is ever going to get to.
After getting the results of my HTMA I was able to start supplementing with high quality sea salt and homemade potassium broth in an attempt to correct those mineral imbalances.
Two things I would not have known I needed if I would have relied on the blood test alone.
In fact, most of the minerals that the HTMA tested for came back on the low end for me. After a few months of addressing this with mineral supplementation, my energy came back and I started feeling like my old self again!
I never would have known that mineral deficiencies were at the root of some of my symptoms unless I kept digging by utilizing functional testing.
Added Benefits of Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis
Along with simply getting a more accurate look into your mineral status, the HTMA can provide a wealth of insight into how your body is functioning as a whole.
A trained practitioner (check out this article if you’re struggling to find a healthcare teammate to work with) experienced in interpreting HTMA results will be able to tell you much more than I ever would have thought just by looking at your mineral levels and ratios.
Here is just a short list of what I was able to learn from my HTMA results:
- Adrenal function
- Thyroid function
- Inflammation levels
- Blood sugar imbalances
There was no way I could have learned all of that by looking at the test results by myself - which is why for the HTMA in particular it’s critical that you work with someone who knows what they’re looking for.
Also, most HTMAs not only check the levels of stored minerals, but they also check for any stored heavy metals, which can actually be a game changer for so many people suffering from chronic illness.
Toxicity from heavy metals (things like aluminum, mercury, lead, or copper) can cause a wide range of symptoms - chronic fatigue, insomnia, tremors, depression and anxiety, or headaches - and can also be a contributing factor if you’ve been sick for a long time and just can’t seem to get better no matter how well you follow your protocols.
Heavy metals are always good to check for, and just like the minerals our bodies need, testing for heavy metals using blood just isn’t reliable.
Blood is used to shuttle and store these toxic heavy metals into our tissues (like hair), so using a HTMA test to determine if you may have any toxicity going on is a great added bonus!
Fortunately, my HTMA results didn’t show very high levels of any of the heavy metals, only some possible copper toxicity (thanks copper IUD) that I think I’ve since recovered from.
The Bottom Line
Ensuring that you aren’t deficient in all the critical minerals is one facet of healing that often gets overlooked, but was critical in helping me regain my energy after years of treating gut disorders.
However, like all the other health markers we looked at in previous posts, just relying on conventional medicine methodologies most likely won’t get you the answers you need to truly heal.
That’s why I recommend digging deeper into your mineral status and heavy metal levels using a Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis (HTMA) over the standard blood work from your doctor.
Minerals and metals are stored in your hair, so you could easily be deficient or have toxic levels in your body, but your blood work could be completely within range.
Once I was able to get a true read on my mineral status, I was able to start feeling more like myself again after years of knowing that I could always feel better but not knowing what was wrong.
If you think mineral deficiencies or heavy metals could be at the root of your chronic symptoms, I’d highly recommend finding a practitioner skilled in HTMA testing!
The Gut Healing Ninja is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. For any products purchased through my affiliate links, I earn a small kick-back. I only link to products that I actually use and really enjoy. The cost is the same to you, and this helps me to pay for things like website hosting fees so I can keep providing you with these free resources. Thanks!