Blood Biomarkers and What They Mean

Biomarker is a shortened name for biological marker.  Biomarkers are used as an indication that a biological process in your body has occurred or is ongoing.  Biomarkers have to be something that can be measured accurately with reproducible results.

According to World Health Organization, a biomarker is almost any measurement reflecting an interaction between a biological system and an environmental agent – which may be chemical, physical or biological [1].

For our purposes, the biological system is your body and environmental agents include things like: your diet, your exposure to toxins, your stress levels, and your sleep patterns.

Most conventional medical doctors order blood tests to rule out disease. But rather than using blood tests to screen for diseases like diabetes or hypothyroidism, my focus is on anyone interested in optimizing health (Athletes) and I know how to use biomarkers to understand adaptations to training. Insights and interpretations in your personalized results relate to sports performance outcomes. Every individual should maintain an ongoing dialogue with their physician about health and wellness.

Why Blood Biomarkers Are Important

Blood biomarkers are important because they give you a detailed snapshot of your health at any given moment in time.  They can give you an indication of:

  • Exposure – to things like environmental and dietary toxins (supplement overload).
  • Effect – from possible health impairments, your ability to recover and/or develop disease.
  • Susceptibility – to various health problems that you cannot feel developing or occuring.

Taken together, blood biomarkers give you a wealth of information regarding your current health status.  A trained Functional Medicine practitioner can use blood biomarkers to identify weaknesses in your health and prescribe a course of action to strengthen them.  Because biomarkers are reproducible and accurate, they can be used as a powerful measuring stick to determine if your health is improving over time.

Blood biomarkers can measure many aspects of your health.  So, keep reading and we’ll go into further detail on several of these aspects that can be reliably measured with blood biomarkers.

Metabolism & Weight Control

Metabolism and Weight control biomarkers

Keeping your weight under control and ensuring your metabolism is running at an optimal rate is crucial to your health – particularly your risk of heart attack (link to heart attack article).  Some of the key blood biomarkers that can give you an early warning that your nutrition isn’t optimal include:

  • High-density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – Nicknamed “good” cholesterol, HDL cholesterol “cleans” LDL cholesterol from your arteries. In general, the higher your HDL cholesterol, the better, especially when compared to LDL cholesterol.
  • Low-density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol

Nicknamed “bad” cholesterol, LDL cholesterol is the main source of plaque that causes your arteries to harden and put you at risk of heart attack.   The higher your blood levels of LDL, the greater your risk of poor health is.

  • Triglycerides

These are a type of fat found in your blood.  After you’ve eaten, your body manufactures these with any calories it doesn’t need right away.  The triglycerides are then stored in your fat cells and released later by your hormones for energy.  If you regularly eat more calories than you need (especially from carbohydrates), you’ll likely have high triglycerides which increases your risk of heart attack and is an indicator of poor overall health.

  • Glucose

Glucose is sugar in your blood your body manufactures from the digestion of carbohydrates.  Low blood glucose levels result in increased energy, lowered blood pressure and optimal weight control.  High blood glucose indicates that you’re at risk for weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure and poor heart health.

Strength & Endurance

Blood biomarkers can provide remarkable insight into your ability to stay strong and optimize your stamina.  Some key blood biomarkers that you should look at include:

  • Testosterone

Testosterone is a hormone that is crucial to both men and women for overall health, athletic performance and sexual function.  Testosterone helps to increase muscle mass, strength and body’s ability to utilize oxygen.  While men require much more testosterone than women, a small amount is still important for women to maintain optimal health.

  • Free Testosterone

Free testosterone is the fraction of total testosterone that is circulating in the blood and available for use.  Optimal free testosterone levels are extremely important for athletic performance and sexual health.   It’s been shown that regular exercise is important for increasing free testosterone levels.

  • Creatine Kinase (CK)

Creatine kinase (CK) is important in the formation and use of energy-providing molecules and is found in the heart, muscles and brain.  Elevated levels can be found in athletes and could also point to heat disease, nerve damage, thyroid disorders and kidney malfunction.

  • Cortisol

Cortisol influences inflammation and is an important hormone in stress response.  Levels typically spike in the morning and decline throughout the rest of the day.  Long-term and repeated stress, however, can cause cortisol levels to spike which can lead to a whole host of health problems.

  • Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin (SHBG)

Sex hormone-binding globulin is a critical biomarker of hormonal balance.  The interaction of SHBG with testosterone and estrogen affects overall hormonal balance.  Hormonal imbalances caused by abnormal levels of SHBG are associated with cancer, type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea.

  • Testosterone: Cortisol (T:C) Ratio

Increased cortisol levels adversely affect testosterone levels.  In fact, a low T:C ratio can negatively affect your athletic performance.  T:C ratio is crucial to monitoring your response to exercise intensity so that you can prevent overtraining or “too much exercise”.

Bone & Muscle Health

bone and muscle health

Keeping your bones and muscles healthy is important, especially as you age.  Weak muscles and bones can lead to immobility and create a cascade of negative health effects on your body.  A few key bone and muscle health blood biomarkers are:

  • Vitamin D

N Vitamin D plays an important role in bone mineralization and muscle health.  Often considered more of a hormone than a vitamin, Vitamin D has been shown to exert wide-ranging effects and Vitamin D deficiency is linked to poor muscle and bone health [2]. 

  • Calcium

Calcium deficiency has been determined to be a major public health concern because it is critically important to bone health.  The average American consumes levels of calcium that are far below the amount recommended for optimal bone health [3].

Electrolyte & Fluid Balance

electrolyte and fluid imbalances

Electrolytes are important for maintaining proper heart and kindney health, among others.  In fact, electrolytes are vital to your entire body’s cellular function.  Fluid balance is also important because an imbalance can cause a host of problems like high or low blood pressure, swelling, dehydration and can cause you to pass out.   Some important electrolyte and fluid balance

  • Potassium

Potassium plays an important role in muscle contraction and helps your body maintain a normal heart rhythm.  High or low potassium can cause heart beat irregularities, muscle aches and fatigue.

  • Sodium

Sodium is what draws fluid into your body’s arteries and blood vessels.  High or low sodium can cause imbalances in your vascular fluid level which can lead to dizziness, heart arrhythmia and heart beat irregularities.

Inflammation

inflammation and tissue biomarkers

Maintaining low inflammation in your body is vital for your overall health and sense of well-being.  Important markers of inflammation include:

  • High Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (hsCRP) Test

C-reactive protein (CRP) is made by your liver when there is inflammation in your body.  CRP is also considered a marker of whole body inflammation and can be measured with an hsCRP test.  High hsCRP levels are often linked to heart attacks and strokes [4].

  • White Blood Cells (WBC)

White blood cells can be thought of as your body’s first and last line of defense.  Your white blood cell count is an indicator of infection or inflammation in your body.

Oxygen Transport & Blood Function

oxygen transport and blood

  • Hemoglobin

Hemoglobin is an indicator of the number of red blood cells in your body.  Low hemoglobin can cause anemia which can lead to symptoms of fatigue.

  • Ferritin

Ferritin is a measure of iron in your blood and important inflammatory disease marker.  Serum ferritin, found in your blood, is mainly a leakage product from damaged cells [5].   Low ferritin typically means you have an iron deficiency caused by low dietary iron or bleeding inside the intestinal tract.

  • Serum Iron

Serum iron is a blood biomarker that indicates the amount of circulating iron that is bound to transferrin, an iron-binding blood protein that controls the level of free iron in your body.

  • Total iron-binding capacity (TIBC)

Total iron-binding capacity (TIBC) can tell you if you have too much or too little iron in your blood and helps you determine how well the protein transferrin can carry iron in your blood.  High TIBC indicates low iron and can point to anemia.  Lower than normal TIBC can point to inflammation and liver disease [6].

  • Transferrin Saturation (TS)

Transferrin saturation (TS) is calculated by dividing your serum iron by your TIBC.  This value indicates how much of your serum iron is bound.  Low TS values can indicate chronic iron deficiency, chronic infection and inflammation [7].

Cognition

brain and cognition biomarkers

Blood biomarkers can tell you a ton of information about your cognition or brain health.  Maintaining a healthy brain is vital for your success at work and school, and can help you maintain a sharp memory as you age.

  • Magnesium

Recent studies have shown that an intake of magnesium above what is traditionally considered the normal dietary amount has a dramatic effect on improving multiple aspects of memory and learning.   In fact, elevating brain magnesium content by increasing magnesium intake may be a useful new strategy to enhance cognition and brain health [8].

  • Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is found mainly in meat, egg and dairy products and is essential for the formation of red blood cells and maintenance of a healthy nervous system.  Many studies also point to Vitamin B12 as an important factor in preventing mood disorder and dementia [9].

  • Folate (Folic Acid)

Folate, or folic acid, is important to people of all ages for proper nervous system function.  In fact, it has become clear to researchers that folic acid affects mood and cognitive function, especially in older people [10].

Liver Health

liver health biomarkers

Liver health is essential to your body’s overall health and longevity.  The liver perfors over five hundred functions, holds about 13% of the body’s blood supply at any given moment and filters over one liter of blood each minute.  It filters blood, makes bile, makes and process hormones, regulates blood sugar and filters harmful toxins [11].  Some key liver health blood biomarkers include:

  • ALT and AST

ALT and AST are important enzymes found mainly in the liver.  While not always indicative of liver disease, high ALT and AST is a good indicator of liver damage or injury from various disease or Conditions [12].

  • Albumin

Albumin is an important protein manufactured by the liver.  Low blood albumin can indicate kidney or liver disease, like hepatitis or cirrhosis [13].

  • GGT

GGT is another important liver enzyme that is often elevated due to various liver diseases or Conditions [14].

Female Health

female health biomarkers

Proper hormonal balance is crucial for a woman’s overall health and well-being.  Dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate (DHEAS) is an important female hormonal health biomarker as it is required to make other sex hormones and steroid molecules in the female body.

  • DHEAS

DHEAS is a hormone manufactured by the adrenal glands which is then turned into testosterone, which is important in small amounts to female health.  Testosterone is made in small amounts by the adrenal glands and ovaries in women.  DHEAS is often measured in women to help diagnose polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), to rule out infertility, irregular menstrual period and presence of excess facial and body hair [15].

In Conclusion

Our survey of various blood biomarkers is a good introduction to how they can help you diagnose your current state of health which can then be used to take steps to strengthen any weaknesses in your health profile.  For more information on any of these specific biomarkers and more, or an individualized consultation on what biomarkers you should be tracking, contact me today.

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