The Importance of Monitoring Your Health

Lab Lessons

Alright, so there is a rumor that healthcare providers are the worst patients and I think that I’m proving that to be true! Not because I’m a difficult patient or because I have a white coat aversion (I have to wear one almost daily after all!), but rather because the combo of my nomadic lifestyle and transition to self-employment/work as an independent contractor (read: subpar health insurance) have made routine care somewhat inconvenient and expensive. Therefore, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve neglected my regular tune-ups over the last 2.5 years. Due to said neglect, I jumped at the chance when I was contacted by Healthlabs.com to check under the hood with the ‘Vegan Maintenance Lab Panel’. The results made me pump the brakes and proceed with caution to get back on track!

Surf lesson and Vitamin D exposure in Canggu, Bali. Photo cred:@sharpendedbamboo and @surfconnectco

Surf lesson and Vitamin D exposure in Canggu, Bali. Photo cred:@sharpendedbamboo and @surfconnectco

Alright, enough of the car analogies. I became vegetarian over 15 years ago and have been 100% plant-based for over 10 years. Up until two years ago, I was vigilant about having a routine annual physical exam and lab panel to check a complete blood count, liver function, kidney function, iron, electrolytes (such as potassium and sodium), vitamin B12 (which is commonly low in non-meat eaters but also in 1 out of 6 meat eaters, read why here) and Vitamin D. All of my labs with the exception of Vitamin D one time (you can read more about the prevalence of Vitamin D insufficiency and ways to combat it here) have always been well within the normal range…

Before I share my lab results from 10/14/18, let me preface it with the fact that I have not been as consistent with taking my Vitamin D supplements over the two years while traveling (and it shows!). Note to self: don’t cut corners when it comes to your health!

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At first glance it looks like my B-12 level is low, but it’s not. Let me explain. The test done here was not a B-12 level, but rather unsaturated vitamin B-12 binding capacity which is a measure of the proteins that bind and transport vitamin B-12 through the circulation. You are not supposed to take a B-12 supplement 72 hours prior to the test to avoid a falsely low level (because the b-12 from the supplement will have bound to some of the proteins). I was a little confused as to why this test was drawn rather than a total B-12 level because that is not the standard of care. When I reached out to healthlabs.com to inquire, I had a very quick and thorough response. The lab codes for a B-12 level and B-12 binding capacity are very similar and there was simply a slip of the thumb somewhere down the line #humanerror. I was kindly offered the opportunity to have a B-12 level drawn at my earliest convenience. Vitamin B-12 deficiency can cause neurological problems such as dementia, weakness, and numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, as well as a form of anemia called macrocytic anemia. My hemoglobin was normal (meaning I’m not anemic), which leads me to believe my B-12 is normal. My homocysteine level was also normal. Typically with a low B-12 level, homocysteine (an amino acid) levels are elevated, but mine was normal, so again I am led to believe my B-12 is sufficient.

The low zinc level surprised me as I am not exhibiting any symptoms of zinc deficiency such as hair loss (ha! have you seen my hair?), impaired immune system (I rarely get sick), alterations in taste or smell, impaired wound healing, etc. Zinc is an essential mineral (meaning the body doesn’t produce it on its own) that plays a role in immune function, protein synthesis, taste and smell, DNA synthesis and cell division among other things. Plant-based sources of zinc are less bioavailable, so plant-eaters generally need to eat more zinc rich foods. In addition zinc absorption is impeded by foods high in phytates such as beans and grains. It should also be noted that zinc blood tests are not completely reliable due to the way zinc is stored in the body. Urine and plasma tests are more reliable- so who knows if I’m REALLY deficient.

I was happy to see that my iron and ferritin levels were on the high end of normal after 15 years meat free, as it’s a common misconception that vegans are iron deficient. Greens and beans!

Before you use my low Vitamin D and zinc levels as an argument against eating plant-based, as a medical professional I can tell you there are LOTS of meat eaters deficient in vitamins and minerals too! I will be the first to admit that ‘vegan’ doesn’t naturally confer good health. You could eat a diet of purely processed foods and still call yourself a vegan. Meat eater or plant eater, we should all be mindful of eating a wide variety of whole, unprocessed foods to get the nutrients we need.

Anyway, back to healthlabs.com! The whole process was SUPER easy and convenient. I just registered online, printed out the lab order I received in my inbox, went to my local Quest lab, and received the results online within a week! I plan to follow up with some repeat labs after a few months of being more mindful about my zinc intake and vitamin D exposure. Interested in having your labs checked too? Mention that you heard about healthlabs.com through my site and get a 25% discount on your test!

Note that I do not advocate using these lab tests as a replacement for routine medical care and I recommend reviewing any abnormal results with a medical professional, however it was tremendously helpful to me during a period of transition when routine care was not as accessible and it can be a great between medical visit assessment after making any major dietary changes to make sure you are on the right track!

Have any questions about how to get enough of a certain nutrient following a whole food plant-based lifestyle? Comment below!