I always get a mix of reactions from members when they learn Life Time offers direct-to-customer lab panels.
People sometimes wonder, You’re not doctors — what would you do with lab data? Other times, there’s the excitement of, Wait, you can do that here? That’s awesome!
At Life Time, we believe that information is power. And just like lab data can inform the best steps to take medically with your healthcare team, it also can provide answers, context, and direction to your nutrition and fitness approach.
We do not diagnose or treat using lab panels (or any other data for that matter), but we do believe that testing beyond the bare minimums that most insurance plans cover gives us a deeper peek under the hood to help customize your approach and programming.
Doing more regular, comprehensive lab testing is a proactive way to arm you, your doctor, and your training and nutrition team with important, objective information about what is uniquely going on with your body and metabolism. Ideally, it identifies concerns that can be course-corrected with lifestyle changes before ever growing into a diagnosis or health problem. The information also allows your team to create a better, more efficient action plan for reaching your health goals and seeing results.
February is American Heart Month
One adult in the United States dies every 34 seconds from heart disease. It’s responsible for one out of every five deaths in the United States, making heart disease the No. 1 killer — but it’s also (mostly) preventable and slow to progress.
The earlier you prioritize your cardiovascular health, the better. But even if you’re not thinking about your heart health now, know that years prior to a heart-disease diagnosis, the underpinnings of metabolic health that start to shift in an unfavorable direction also impact how you feel and function every day — including your sleep, cravings, inflammation status, and energy levels.
This is why we’re highlighting one particular lab panel in our suite of offerings that can serve as a critical tool in your toolbox to help with determining the optimal wellness path and behaviors for you.
The Stress Reaction and Heart Health Panel
This panel focuses in on markers related to heart health and is more comprehensive than what a physician would typically test for in a routine physical. By doing it you will also learn what optimal ranges look like, not just what the standard medical reference ranges are. Here’s a breakdown to better understand the specifics of what’s tested in the Stress Reaction and Heart Health panel:
Blood-sugar control is at the crux of metabolic health, and how well you control it significantly impacts your risk of developing heart disease. One in three U.S. adults have impaired blood-sugar control — and most don’t know it.
Even if you do not have diabetes, knowing these markers is crucial for anyone looking to age gracefully, keep cravings in check, and optimize body composition.
- Fasting glucose: This is your baseline blood-sugar level after not consuming calories for eight to 10 hours. It’s important to trend over time to ensure you’re well below the medical reference range of under 100 mg/dL, as evidence suggests closer to 82 to 88 mg/dL is favorable.
- Hemoglobin A1C: A quick way to estimate how well (or not) your blood sugar has been controlled over the previous three months.
- C-peptide: A surrogate marker of insulin, which is the hormone that’s released when blood sugar increases. It can often be an early indicator of blood-sugar issues.
Stress Hormones and Adrenal Function
Stress undoubtedly is tied to blood pressure and heart health, but no one needs a lab test to tell them they’re stressed. Most of us already know.
However, checking in to see how your body is hormonally responding to your stressors arms you with some power to figure out the best next steps to optimize that internal response.
- Blood cortisol: This is our primary hormone release in response to physical or mental stress. It regulates metabolism and impacts immunity.
- Four-point saliva cortisol: Cortisol levels in the body fluctuate throughout the day, peaking in the morning after waking and decreasing throughout the day and into the evening when cortisol levels are lowest. Mapping it with a saliva test can lay out your daily cortisol curve so you can compare it to what’s optimal.
This is a common — and often confusing — buzzword in the wellness space. Inflammation is not bad when it’s acute, in the moment, and in response to an injury or illness. However, the root of several chronic health conditions is tied to an ongoing, lower-grade inflammation that wreaks havoc on internal health.
- C-reactive protein: CRP, for short, is a go-to marker of general inflammation in the body.
No heart-health blood test is complete without a lipid panel. In layman’s terms, this looks at your overall cholesterol levels and the breakdown of them into “good” cholesterol, “bad” cholesterol, and blood fats. This section of the test is one of my favorites because it assesses not only the basics that most of us get at a physical, but it also looks at in-depth lipids to truly give a better picture of actual cardiac risk.
One analogy that helps illustrate the difference between a basic lipid panel and a more in-depth one is this:
Imagine you’re driving down a given stretch of roadway. A basic lipid panel will help you understand how many passengers are on that road, but it won’t tell you if those passengers are in separate cars or are all on a school bus. As a result, it’s hard to know how much traffic is on the road. A more in-depth panel uncovers not only how many passengers are on the road, but how those passengers are packaged up and how much congestion and backup is on the road — which can be a clearer indictor of risk.
- Basic lipids: This includes total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (calculated), cholesterol/HDL ratio, and non-HDL cholesterol.
- In-depth lipids: In a typical medical scenario, these are usually only assessed regularly after a cardiac event (such as a heart attack) or a stroke. Proactively tracking these gives you an inside peek of the characteristics of your cholesterol profile, including an assessment on the size of your particles (larger and fluffier is generally better, while smaller and denser is more of a concern) and your particle number (which can indicate traffic in the analogy above).
- Lipoprotein(a): This marker is usually determined primarily by genetics and can give you insight to the risk level you were born with. It promotes clotting and inflammation of the blood vessels and in some cases is considered even more of a concern than LDL cholesterol.
Is the Stress Reaction and Heart Health panel right for you?
It’s our stance that anyone over the age of 30 would benefit from an annual, in-depth, comprehensive lab panel to assess their health markers and evaluate trends — inclusive of the indicators tested in the Stress Reaction and Heart Health panel.
Anecdotally, clients who have markers of concern that are out of optimal target ranges tend to present with common clusters of complaints prior to testing and taking action, including:
- Carbohydrate, sugar, and starch cravings
- Cravings for salty foods
- Needing caffeine for energy
- Feeling energy changes (spikes or drops) after eating
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Excess midsection body fat
- Feeling lightheaded upon standing
- General feelings of puffiness or aches and pains
If you have any of these complaints, or if you have a family history of heart disease and the desire to test beyond basic markers, then we’d encourage you to consider the Stress Reaction and Heart Health panel.
What can I do with the results of the Stress Reaction and Heart Health panel?
We always recommend sharing your lab results with your healthcare team. While it depends on your physician, our team of dietitians who work with those who have had lab testing done through Life Time commonly hear that doctors appreciate the insights these labs offer on their patients. (Note: This may not be the case with all physicians, but most. There are some doctors who share that they do not see a benefit of comprehensive testing outside of addressing a medical issue.)
While physicians absolutely could order the in-depth labs for patients themselves, it gets tricky when many of these markers are not covered by insurance due to a lack of medical necessity — which can leave patients stuck with an extraordinarily high bill. Most insurance plans will not and do not cover in-depth lab testing as a preventative, proactive wellness effort. Instead, they are reserved for those who are sick or have a preexisting diagnosis. Knowing the up-front cost is one of the big upsides to ordering tests such as the direct-to-consumer ones from Life Time.
Outside of sharing results with your doctor, anyone doing this test through Life Time gets an action plan sent to them from a dietitian with customized lifestyle, exercise, and nutrition interventions, taking into consideration background information (such as current diet and exercise habits) and the results of the lab values themselves.
The action plan depends highly on the individual and their own goals. While there’s great general advice on heart health available, the to-do list coming out of a lab assessment such as this one is specific to that person. For example, one person may need to incorporate more high-intensity interval training and supportive supplementation such as omega-3 fatty acids. For another, it could involve scaling back on workout intensity and focusing more on including a better variety of phytonutrient-rich foods such as dark cocoa, berries, and green tea.
Ultimately, the more you know about your underlying health, the more targeted and customized you can get with your programming and habits. The earlier and more often you test, the greater the benefits over time.
The Ultimate All-in-One Look
For those who may want to look into their heart health and beyond, Life Time’s most comprehensive lap panel offering is called the Ultimate All-in-One. It bundles together three of our signature targeted assessments:
- Food Sensitivity Plus: This assesses reactions to common sensitivities and gives insight to your nutrition status.
- Stress Reaction and Heart Health: This provides information about inflammation levels, stress hormones, and blood sugar, as well as in-depth lipids and cholesterol markers.
- Hormone Health: This takes a closer look at the balance of your testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and thyroid hormones.
The beauty of each of these panels is that you get a comparison of your own lab values to not only the standard reference ranges (which can indicate a medical problem or disease state when lab values are out of this standard), but also to narrower, more targeted ranges that are more closely related to optimal health. This helps alert you as to whether or not prioritizing certain healthy habits can help change a pattern that otherwise could have led to a bigger or more concerning issue down the road if left unaddressed.