Knowledge is power

So I mentioned that I went back to see my new doctor, a naturopathic physician, to get the results of my bloodwork (drawn last month).

It was the standard panel of tests that insurance will pay for. It included:

  • A complete blood count
  • Tests for levels of a bunch of nutrients and  other substances that provide clues to heart, kidney and thyroid function (including electrolyte minerals, hormone levels, etc.)
  • Tests for gluten sensitivities
  • Tests for all manner of things anemia related, including iron, folic acid and B-12 levels

There were some wonky things going on with my red blood cells (not enough of them, and they are big), which is probably due to the fact that I lost a lot of blood when I had surgery in September. When my blood was drawn in October, my body was probably still working hard to make up for the loss, pumping out new cells that were maturing but hadn’t divided yet.

While my iron levels were OK, my ferritin levels were low. Ferritin is a protein that stores iron and releases it as needed. You don’t have free iron molecules just running around in your body, nor would you want to. That would be bad and toxic. It’s either stored in ferritin, or it’s bound by molecules of the protein hemoglobin in your red blood cells. That’s how your blood carries oxygen to your tissues…oxygen binds to the iron in the hemoglobin.

So basically, I’m borderline anemic. Which is what I’ve been told every time I’ve had my blood drawn and tested for one reason or another for the last decade-plus. Only no health professional has ever said more to me about it than a hurried comment to take a vitamin with iron.

Another thing that previously got glossed over (three years ago) was the fact that my levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) were high side of “normal.” TSH is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland (in your brain) to kind of jog the thyroid gland (in your neck) along if it’s not producing enough thyroid hormone (T4 and T3).

As I now know, if your TSH levels are on the high side, but your T4 and T3 levels are OK, you have subclinical hypothyroidism. So, no symptoms, but you need to keep an eye on the situation. Gee, would have been nice to have been told this by the nurse practitioner who treated me three years ago, especially since my levels have risen even higher since then (not a lot, but still).

Did you know that the Pacific Northwest is part of the Goiter Belt? I didn’t. I knew the the U.S. Midwest was, but apparently all of the northern U.S. has less iodine in the soil (and therefore in the drinking water), and higher rates of “goiter diseases.” Adding iodine to table salt (i.e., iodized salt) in the mid 1900s was done for precisely this reason (check out this Time Magazine article from 1949).

It was really refreshing to sit with a doctor for an hour face-to-face across a desk and go over the lab report and discuss things I can do using food and/or supplements to improve the situation. There are several areas where I am on the low side of normal, which is not acceptable  I’m going for optimal. My doctor knows that, acknowledges that, respects that, and will work with me to help me achieve that.

So I’m attacking the thyroid and anemia issues head on. I will increase my iodine intake by adding more sea vegetables (aka seaweed) to my diet. Kelp, kombu and dulse in particular are rich not only in iodine, but in many other trace minerals. I had already worked these foods into my pantry, but thus far have been very spotty about working them into my meals.

Other essential minerals, such as selenium, may contribute to hypothyroidism. They are also lacking in the soil in many areas of the country. Two of these a day should boost my selenium nicely:

My low ferritin levels are more of a sticky wicket. I already eat red meat and lots of dark leafy greens, two major sources of iron. I can’t bring myself to eat organ meats, which are really high sources of iron. I’ll instead be choosing beef over chicken more often, and incorporating more dried fruits, beets and herbs like nettle and dandelion (probably in the form of tea).

I’ll also employ time-tested techniques like cooking in cast iron pans (only when cooking for myself, since Jeff doesn’t know what his iron levels are) and eating a vitamin C-rich food whenever I eat an iron-rich food (vitamin C boosts iron absorption into the body). I’m also looking at my intake of foods high in B vitamins (especially folic acid and B-12). These vitamins are so intertwined with iron in our body’s biochemical processes that a shortage of them can cause certain forms of anemia.

I plan to give the changes I’m implementing four months to work (or not) before I go back for more bloodwork. Even though I have been taking a break from keeping a food diary, I will probably take one up again to keep track of exactly how much of these potentially theraputic foods I’m eating, and how often. Memory isn’t trustworthy, and how can I know what’s working if I don’t have a reliable record of what I’m doing? I’m optimistic, and quite interested, so see the results of this latest experiment in optimal health.