A Comprehensive Look at Lab Tests
You just had some blood work done, and the friggin’ doctor or his nurses are guarding the results as if they’re state secrets. However, after much cajoling and explaining that you’d like to at least be an informed partner in your own goshdarn health care, they begrudgingly give you a copy of your lab tests.
Trouble is, as much as you’ve been posturing about how you’ve had more than a smattering of medical education, you still can’t figure out what half the tests are for and whether or not those abnormal values are anything to worry about.
Well, in the following article, I’m going to go over each of the most common tests. I’ll include why it’s performed, what it tells you, and what the typical ranges are for normal humans. That way, you’ll have something more to go on in assessing your health other than your family doctor saying, “Well, these few values are a little worrisome, but you’ll probably be okay.”
One note, though, before I get started. The values I’ll be listing are merely averages and the ranges may vary slightly from laboratory to laboratory. Also, if there’s only one range given, it applies to both men and women.
Lipid Panel ??” Used to determine possible risk for coronary and vascular disease. In other words, heart disease.
HDL/LDL and Total Cholesterol
These lipoproteins should look rather familiar to most of you. HDL is simply the “good” lipoprotein that acts as a scavenger molecule and prevents a buildup of material. LDL is the “bad” lipoprotein which collects in arterial walls and causes blockage or a reduction in blood flow. The total cholesterol to HDL ratio is also important. I went in to detail about this particular subject ??” as well as how to improve your lipid profile ??” in my article “Bad Blood”.
Nevertheless, a quick remonder: your HDL should be 35 or higher; LDL below 130; and total to HDL ratio should be below 3.5. Oh and don’t forget VLDL (very low density lipoprotein) which can be extremely worrisome. You should have less than 30 mg/dl in order to not be considered at risk for heart disease.
On a side note, I’m sure some of you are wishing that you had abnormally low plasma cholesterol levels (as if it’s something to brag about), but the fact is that having extremely low cholesterol levels is actually indicative of severe liver disease.
Triglycerides are simply a form of fat that exists in the bloodstream. They’re transported by two other culprits, VLDL and LDL. A high level of triglycerides is also a risk factor for heart disease as well. Triglycerides levels can be increased if food or alcohol is consumed 12 to 24 hours prior to the blood draw and this is the reason why you’re asked to fast for 12-14 hours from food and abstain from alcohol for 24 hours. Here are the normal ranges for healthy humans.
16-19 yr. old male
16-19 yr. old female
Unfortunately, this test isn’t always ordered by the doctor. It should be. Homocysteine is formed in the metabolism of the dietary amino acid methionine. The problem is that it’s a strong risk factor for atherosclerosis. In other words, high levels may cause you to have a heart attack. A good number of lifters should be concerned with this value as homocysteine levels rise with anabolic steroid usage.
Luckily, taking folic acid (about 400-800 mcg.) as well as taking a good amount of all B vitamins in general will go a long way in terms of preventing a rise in levels of homocysteine.
Males and Females age 0-30
Males age 30-59
Females age 30-59
>59 years of age
The Hemo Profile
These are various tests that examine a number of components of your blood and look for any abnormalities that could be indicative of serious diseases that may result in you being an extra in the HBO show, “Six Feet Under.”
WBC Total (White Blood Cell)
Also referred to as leukocytes, a fluctuation in the number of these types of cells can be an indicator of things like infections and disease states dealing with immunity, cancer, stress, etc.
This is one type of white blood cell that’s in circulation for only a very short time. Essentially their job is phagocytosis, which is the process of killing and digesting bacteria that cause infection. Both severe trauma and bacterial infections, as well as inflammatory or metabolic disorders and even stress, can cause an increase in the number of these cells. Having a low number of neutrophils can be indicative of a viral infection, a bacterial infection, or a rotten diet.
2,500-8,000 cells per mm3
RBC (Red Blood Cell)
These blood cells also called erythrocytes and their primary function is to carry oxygen (via the hemoglobin contained in each RBC) to varioustissues as well as giving our blood that cool “red” color. Unlike WBC, RBC survive in peripheral blood circulation for approximately 120 days. A decrease in the number of these cells can result in anemia which could stem from dietary insufficiencies. An increase in number can occur when androgens are used. This is because androgens increase EPO (erythropoietin) production which in turn increases RBC count and thus elevates blood volume. This is essentially why some androgens are better than others at increasing “vascularity.” Anyhow, the danger in this could be an increase in blood pressure or a stroke.
Androgen-using lifters who have high values should consider making modifications to their stack and/or immediately donating some blood.
Hemoglobin is what serves as a carrier for both oxygen and carbon dioxide transportation. Molecules of this are found within each red blood cell. An increase in hemoglobin can be an indicator of congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure, sever burns, or dehydration. Being at high altitudes, or the use of androgens, can cause an increase as well. A decrease in number can be a sign of anemia, lymphoma, kidney disease, sever hemorrhage, cancer, sickle cell anemia, etc.
Males and females 6-18 years
The hematocrit is used to measure the percentage of the total blood volume that’s made up of red blood cells. An increase in percentage may be indicative of congenital heart disease, dehydration, diarrhea, burns, etc. A decrease in levels may be indicative of anemia, hyperthyroidism, cirrhosis, hemorrhage, leukemia, rheumatoid arthritis, pregnancy, malnutrition, a sucking knife wound to the chest, etc.
Male and Females age 6-18 years
MCV (Mean Corpuscular Volume)
This is one of three red blood cell indices used to check for abnormalities. The MCV is the size or volume of the average red blood cell. A decrease in MCV would then indicate that the RBC’s are abnormally large(or macrocytic), and this may be an indicator of iron deficiency anemia or thalassemia. When an increase is noted, that would indicate abnormally small RBC (microcytic), and this may be indicative of a vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiency as well as liver disease.
12-18 year olds
MCH (Mean Corpuscular Hemoglobin)
The MCH is the weight of hemoglobin present in the average red blood cell. This is yet another way to assess whether some sort of anemia or deficiency is present.
12-18 year old
MCHC (Mean Corpuscular Hemoglobin Concentration)
The MCHC is the measurement of the amount of hemoglobin present in the average red blood cell as compared to its size. A decrease in number is an indicator of iron deficiency, thalassemia, lead poisoning, etc. An increase is sometimes seen after androgen use.
12-18 year old
RDW (Red Cell Distribution Width)
The RDW is an indicator of the variation in red blood cell size. It’s used in order to help classify certain types of anemia, and to see if some of the red blood cells need their suits tailored. An increase in RDW can be indicative of iron deficiency anemia, vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anemia, and diseases like sickle cell anemia.
Platelets or thrombocytes are essential for your body’s ability to form blood clots and thus stop bleeding. They’re measured in order to assess the likelihood of certain disorders or diseases. An increase can be indicative of a malignant disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, iron deficiency anemia, etc. A decrease can be indicative of much more, including things like infection, various types of anemia, leukemia, etc.
On a side note for these ranges, anything above 1 million/mm3 would be considered a critical value and should warrant concern and/or giving second thoughts as to whether you should purchase a lifetime subscription to Muscle Media.
(Most commonly displayed in SI units of 150-400 x 10(9th)/L
(Most commonly displayed in SI units of 150-400 x 10(9th)/L
ABS (Differential Count)
The differential count measures the percentage of each type of leukocyte or white blood cell present in the same specimen. Using this, they can determine whether there’s a bacterial or parasitic infection, as well as immune reactions, etc.
As explained previously, severe trauma and bacterial infections, as well as inflammatory disorders, metabolic disorders, and even stress can cause an increase in the number of these cells. Also, on the other side of the spectrum, a low number of these cells can indicate a viral infection, a bacterial infection, or a deficient diet.
These cells, and in particular, eosinophils, are present in the event of an allergic reaction as well as when a parasite is present. These types of cells don’t increase in response to viral or bacterial infections so if an increased count is noted, it can be deduced that either an allergic response has occurred or a parasite has taken up residence in your shorts.
Lymphocytes and Monocytes
Lymphocytes can be divided in to two different types of cells: T cells and B cells. T cells are involved in immune reactions and B cells are involved in antibody production. The main job of lymphocytes in general is to fight off ??” Bruce Lee style ??” bacterial and viral infections.
Monocytes are similar to neutrophils but are produced more rapidly and stay in the system for a longer period of time.
Selected Clinical Values
This cation (an ion with a postive charge) is mainly found in extracellular spaces and is responsible for maintaining a balance of water in the body. When sodium in the blood rises, the kidneys will conserve water and when the sodium concentration is low, the kidneys conserve sodium and excrete water. Increased levels can result from excessive dietary intake, Cushing’s syndrome, excessive sweating, burns, forgetting to drink for a week, etc. Decreased levels can result from a deficient diet, Addison’s disease, diarrhea, vomiting, chronic renal insufficiency, excessive water intake, congestive heart failure, etc. Anabolic steroids will lead to an increased level of sodium as well.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have the most important intracellular cation. Increased levels can be an indicator of excessive dietary intake, acute renal failure, aldosterone-inhibiting diuretics, a crushing injury to tissues, infection, acidosis, dehydration, etc. Decreased levels can be indicative of a deficient dietary intake, burns, diarrhea or vomiting, diuretics, Cushing’s syndrome, licorice consumption, insulin use, cystic fibrosis, trauma, surgery, etc.
This is the major extracellular anion (an ion carrying a negative charge). Its purpose it is to maintain electrical neutrality with sodium. It also serves as a buffer in order to maintain the pH balance of the blood. Chloride typically accompanies sodium and thus the causes for change are essentially the same.
The CO2 content is used to evaluate the pH of the blood as well as aid in evaluation of electrolyte levels. Increased levels can be indicative of severe diarrhea, starvation, vomiting, emphysema, metabolic alkalosis, etc. Increased levels could also mean that you’re a plant. Decreased levels can be indicative of kidney failure, metabolic acidosis, shock, and starvation.
The amount of glucose in the blood after a prolonged period of fasting (12-14 hours) is used to determine whether a person is in a hypoglycemic (low blood glucose) or hyperglycemic (high blood glucose) state. Both can be indicators of serious conditions. Increased levels can be indicative of diabetes mellitus, acute stress, Cushing’s syndrome, chronic renal failure, corticosteroid therapy, acromegaly, etc. Decreased levels could be indicative of hypothyroidism, insulinoma, liver disease, insulin overdose, and starvation.
BUN (Blood Urea Nitrogen)
This test measures the amount of urea nitrogen that’s present in the blood. When protein is metabolized, the end product is urea which is formed in the liver and excreted from the bloodstream via the kidneys. This is why BUN is a good indicator of both liver and kidney function. Increased levels can stem from shock, burns, dehydration, congestive hear failure, myocardial infarction, excessive protein ingestion, excessive protein catabolism, starvation, sepsis, renal disease, renal failure, etc. Causes of a decrease in levels can be liver failure, overhydration, negative nitrogen balance via malnutrition, pregnancy, etc.
Creatinine is a byproduct of creatine phosphate, the chemical used in contraction of skeletal muscle. So, the more muscle mass you have, the higher the creatine levels and therefore the higher the levels of creatinine. Also, when you ingest large amounts of beef or other meats that have high levels of creatine in them, you can increase creatinine levels as well. Since creatinine levels are used to measure the functioning of the kidneys, this easily explains why creatine has been accused of causing kidney damage, since it naturally results in an increase in creatinine levels.
However, we need to remember that these tests are only indicators of functioning and thus outside drugs and supplements can influence them and give false results, as creatine may do. This is why creatine, while increasing creatinine levels, does not cause renal damage or impair function. Generally speaking, though, increased levels are indicative of urinary tract obstruction, acute tubular necrosis, reduced renal blood flow (stemming from shock, dehydration, congestive heart failure, atherosclerosis), as well as acromegaly. Decreased levels can be indicative of debilitation, and decreased muscle mass via disease or some other cause.
A high ratio may be found in states of shock, volume depletion, hypotension, dehydration, gastrointestinal bleeding, and in some cases, a catabolic state. A low ratio can be indicative of a low protein diet, malnutrition, pregnancy, severe liver disease, ketosis, etc. Keep in mind, though, that the term BUN, when used in the same sentence as hamburger or hotdog, usually means something else entirely. An important thing to note again is that with a high protein diet, you’ll likely have a higher ratio and this is nothing to worry about.
Calcium is measured in order to assess the function of the parathyroid and calcium metabolism. Increased levels can stem from hyperparathyroidism, metastatic tumor to the bone, prolonged immobilization, lymphoma, hyperthyroidism, acromegaly, etc. It’s also important to note that anabolic steroids can also increase calcium levels. Decreased levels can stem from renal failure, rickets, vitamin D deficiency, malabsorption, pancreatitis, and alkalosis.
This measures the total level of albumin and globulin in the body. Albumin is synthesized by the liver and as such is used as an indicator of liver function. It functions to transport hormones, enzymes, drugs and other constituents of the blood.
Globulins are the building blocks of your body’s antibodies. Measuring the levels of these two proteins is also an indicator of nutritional status. Increased albumin levels can result from dehydration, while decreased albumin levels can result from malnutrition, pregnancy, liver disease, overhydration, inflammatory diseases, etc. Increased globulin levels can result from inflammatory diseases, hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol), iron deficiency anemia, as well as infections. Decreased globulin levels can result from hyperthyroidism, liver dysfunction, malnutrition, and immune deficiencies or disorders.
As another important side note, anabolic steroids, growth hormone, and insulin can all increase protein levels.
Total Protein: 6.4-8.3 g/dl
Albumin: 3.5-5 g/dl
Globulin: 2.3-3.4 g/dl
Bilirubin is one of the many constituents of bile, which is formed in the liver. An increase in levels of bilirubin can be indicative of liver stress or damage/inflammation. Drugs that may increase bilirubin include oral anabolic steroids (17-AA), antibiotics, diuretics, morphine, codeine, contraceptives, etc. Drugs that may decrease levels are barbiturates and caffeine. Non-drug induced increased levels can be indicative of gallstones, extensive liver metastasis, and cholestasis from certain drugs, hepatitis, sepsis, sickle cell anemia, cirrhosis, etc.
Total Bilirubin for Adult
This enzyme is found in very high concentrations in the liver and for this reason is used as an indicator of liver stress or damage. Increased levels can stem from cirrhosis, liver tumor, pregnancy, healing fracture, normal bones of growing children, and rheumatoid arthritis. Decreased levels can stem from hypothyroidism, malnutrition, pernicious anemia, scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and excess vitamin B ingestion. As a side note, antibiotics can cause an increase in the enzyme levels.
AST (Aspartate Aminotransferase, previously known as SGOT)
This is yet another enzyme that’s used to determine if there’s damage or stress to the liver. It may also be used to see if heart disease is a possibility as well, but this isn’t as accurate. When the liver is damaged or inflamed, AST levels can rise to a very high level (20 times the normal value). This happens because AST is released when the cells of that particular organ (liver) are lysed. The AST then enters blood circulation and an elevation can be seen. Increased levels can be indicative of heart disease, liver disease, skeletal muscle disease or injuries, as well as heat stroke. Decreased levels can be indicative of acute kidney disease, beriberi, diabetic ketoacidosis, pregnancy, and renal dialysis.
0-35 U/L (Females may have slightly lower levels)
ALT (Alanine Aminotransferase, previously known as SGPT)
This is yet another enzyme that is found in high levels within the liver. Injury or disease of the liver will result in an increase in levels of ALT. I should note however, that because lesser quantities are found in skeletal muscle, there could be a weight-training induced increase . Weight training causes damage to muscle tissue and thus could slightly elevate these levels, giving a false indicator for liver disease. Still, for the most part, it’s a rather accurate diagnostic tool. Increased levels can be indicative of hepatitis, hepatic necrosis, cirrhosis, cholestasis, hepatic tumor, hepatotoxic drugs, and jaundice, as well as severe burns, trauma to striated muscle (via weight training), myocardial infarction, mononucleosis, and shock.
Testosterone (Free and Total)
This is of course the hormone that you should all be extremely familiar with as it’s the name of this here magazine! Anyhow, just as some background info, about 95% of the circulating Testosterone in a man’s body is formed by the Leydig cells, which are found in the testicles. Women also have a small amount of Testosterone in their body as well. (Some more than others, which accounts for the bearded ladies you see at the circus, or hanging around with Chris Shugart.) This is from a very small amount of Testosterone secreted by the ovaries and the adrenal gland (in which the majority is made from the adrenal conversion of androstenedione to Testosterone via 17-beta HSD).
Nomal range, total Testosterone:
Normal range, free Testosterone:
LH (Luteinizing Hormone)
LH is a glycoprotein that’s secreted by the anterior pituitary gland and is responsible for signaling the leydig cells to produce Testosterone. Measuring LH can be very useful in terms of determining whether a hypogonadic state (low Testosterone) is caused by the testicles not being responsive despite high or normal LH levels (primary), or whether it’s the pituitary gland not secreting enough LH (secondary). Of course, the hypothalamus ??” which secretes LH-RH (luteinizing hormone releasing hormone) ??” could also be the culprit, as well as perhaps both the hypothalamus and the pituitary.
If it’s a case of the testicles not being responsive to LH, then things like clomiphene and hCG really won’t help. If the problem is secondary, then there’s a better chance for improvement with drug therapy. Increased levels can be indicative of hypogonadism, precocious puberty, and pituitary adenoma. Decreased levels can be indicative of pituitary failure, hypothalamic failure, stress, and malnutrition.
Follicular phase: 1.68-15 IU/L
Ovulatory phase: 21.9-56.6 IU/L
Luteal phase: 0.61-16.3 IU/L
Postmenopausal: 14.2-52.3 IU/L
With this being the most potent of the estrogens, I’m sure you’re all aware that it can be responsible for things like water retention, hypertrophy of adipose tissue, gynecomastia, and perhaps even prostate hypertrophy and tumors. As a male it’s very important to get your levels of this hormone checked for the above reasons. Also, it’s the primary estrogen that’s responsible for the negative feedback loop which suppresses endogenous Testosterone production. So, if your levels of estradiol are rather high, you can bet your ass that you’ll be hypogonadal as well.
Increased estradiol levels can be indicative of a testicular tumor, adrenal tumor, hepatic cirrhosis, necrosis of the liver, hyperthyroidism, etc.
Follicular phase: 20-350 pg/ml
Midcycle peak: 150-750 pg/ml
Luteal phase: 30-450 pg/ml
Postmenopausal: 20 pg/ml or less
Thyroid (T3, T4 Total and Free, TSH) t3 (Triiodothyronine) t3 is the more metabolically active hormone out of T4 and t3. When levels are below normal it’s generally safe to assume that the individual is suffering from hypothyroidism. Drugs that may increase t3 levels include estrogen and oral contraceptives. Drugs that may decrease t3 levels include anabolic steroids/androgens as well as propanolol (a beta adrenergic blocker) and high dosages of salicylates. Increased levels can be indicative of Graves disease, acute thyroiditis, pregnancy, hepatitis, etc. Decreased levels can be indicative of hypothyroidism, protein malnutrition, kidney failure, Cushing’s syndrome, cirrhosis, and liver diseases.
16-20 years old
75-220 ng/dl or 1.2-3.4 nmol/L
40-180 ng/dl or 0.6-2.8 nmol/L
T4 is just another indicator of whether or not someone is in a hypo or hyperthyroid state. It too is rather reliable but free thyroxine levels should be assessed as well. Drugs that increase of decrease t3 will, in most cases, do the same with T4. Increased levels are indicative of the same things as t3 and a decrease can be indicative of protein depleted states, iodine insufficiency, kidney failure, Cushing’s syndrome, and cirrhosis.
4-12 ug/dl or 51-154 nmol/L
5-12 ug/dl or 64-154 nmol/L
Free T4 or Thyroxine
Since only 1-5% of the total amount of T4 is actually free and useable, this test is a far better indicator of the thyroid status of the patient. An increase indicates a hyperthyroid state and a decrease indicates a hypothyroid state. Drugs that increase free T4 are heparin, aspirin, danazol, and propanolol. Drugs that decrease it are furosemide, methadone, and rifampicin. Increased and decreased levels are indicative of the same possible diseases and states that are seen with T4 and t3.
0.8-2.8 ng/dl or 10-36 pmol/L
TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone)
Measuring the level of TSH can be very helpful in terms of determining if the problem resides with the thyroid itself or the pituitary gland. If TSH levels are high, then it’s merely the thyroid gland not responding for some reason but if TSH levels are low, it’s the hypothalamus or pituitary gland that has something wrong with it. The problem could be a tumor, some type of trauma, or an infarction.
Drugs that can increase levels of TSH include lithium, potassium iodide and TSH itself. Drugs that may decrease TSH are aspirin, heparin, dopamine, t3, etc. Increased TSH is indicative of thyroiditis, hypothyroidism, and congenital cretinism. Decreased levels are indicative of hypothyroidism (pituitary dysfunction), hyperthyroidism, and pituitary hypofunction.
2-10 uU/ml or 2-10 mU/L
Knowing how to interpret these tests can be a very valuable tool in terms of health and your body building and athletic progress. Use your new knowledge wisely!