The ultimate guide to reading blood tests

Have you ever received the results of a blood draw, wondering what on earth the jargons means? Let's break it down.

Though translating your blood tests can be tricky, it’s safe to say blood tests are a significant part of health prevention. Taking care of yourself starts long before something goes wrong. It starts with preventing health problems by eating healthy, exercising, avoiding smoking and drug use, limiting alcohol, and seeing your doctor regularly. Routinely seeing your doctor for check-ups and blood work can empower you to make healthier lifestyle choices and put you at the forefront of your health.

In this guide, we'll give you a thorough overview of what the information on your lab tests means and how your biomarkers affect different functions and organs of your body.

What are blood tests?

If your health were a puzzle, laboratory tests, health histories, and physical exams would be the pieces that create the complete picture. Your blood is rich in cells, water, nutrients, and proteins, and one simple blood draw can help you gain knowledge of your health. 

Blood tests indicate good health and shed light on potential health concerns. Your medical provider may recommend blood tests yearly or more often to keep a reliable medical record. Regular blood tests allow you to witness how your health changes over time, which can influence the lifestyle choices you make every day.

Biomarkers 

Biomarkers are small molecules in your blood that help monitor your overall health and nutrition status. If your doctor orders a panel that shows your iron level, your iron is an example of a biomarker that will give you a piece of information about your health.

Surprisingly, your body houses around 5000 biomarkers, however, there are around 50 biomarkers that unpack the most essential information.  The information we learn from biomarkers lets us know our chances of disease, needs for nutrition interventions, or other forms of prevention and treatment.

Summary: Blood tests are routine parts of healthcare that require a blood draw so you can gain the necessary knowledge of your health. Biomarkers show up in blood test results to give us an idea of what’s happening inside our bodies.  

Why are blood tests essential?

Blood tests are essential to keep you aware of what’s happening inside your body and stay ahead of your health. They teach you about your overall health, immunity, liver function, heart health,  kidney function, hormone health, metabolism, and nutrition. 

Blood tests can:

  • Improve your awareness of your organ function
  • Prevent future health problems
  • Monitor your nutrition status
  • Inform you of your nutrition habits
  • Bring attention to exercise needs
  • Monitor long-term conditions
  • Help you take control of your health
  • Help you prioritize your body’s needs
  • Keep a record of your health over time
  • Diagnosis, screen, or track a medical condition (1)

Summary: Blood tests are critical for driving insights into your health through improving your awareness, preventing future problems, monitoring your nutrition, keeping an accurate health record, and more.

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Blood tests for general health

Complete blood count (CBC)

The CBC is a routine blood test that checks for signs of infection, inflammation, anemia, and other problems. It measures the total count of red blood cells (RBCs), white blood cells (WBCs), platelets, and hemoglobin, helping to screen yourself for any potential medical needs (2).

The CBC biomarkers are:

  • RBCs: Red blood cells, or erythrocytes, carry oxygen from your lungs to all other areas of your body. Healthy individuals typically have many more red blood cells than white ones.
  • WBCs: As a part of your immune system, white blood cells, or leukocytes, fight infection.  
  • Platelets: Platelets, or thrombocytes, are an important part of wound healing because they actively seal the blood vessels back together after injury. 
  • Hemoglobin: Hemoglobin is a protein in RBCs that carries oxygen around the blood. 

Your results can give you information about your general health; for example, if your hemoglobin level is lower than expected, you may need to increase your intake of iron-rich foods. 

The CBC is also responsible for determining the  biomarkers hematocrit, MCV, MCH, and MCHC (2):

  • Hematocrit: Hematocrit measures how many RBCs make up your blood composition.
  • MCV: It measures the average size of RBCs.
  • MCH: MCH measures the amount of hemoglobin in each RBC.
  • MCHC: This biomarker looks at the amount of hemoglobin in relationship to RBC size. 

Blood tests for immune health

Differential blood count 

The differential blood, or blood differential test, focuses on WBCs, also known as leukocytes. Leukocytes defend against infection to aid in maintaining your immune health. The differential blood count test helps detect inflammatory diseases, autoimmune conditions, and cancers (3). Early detection of your immune status is a first-line approach to preventing future problems. Your physician may combine your  differential blood count with CBC, so your lab results may say “CBC with differential.”

Differential blood count biomarkers are (3):

  • Neutrophils: Neutrophils are the most common type of white blood cell that fight against infection and disease in your body.
  • Lymphocytes: Lymphocytes include B cells and T cells that protect your body against harmful viruses and bacteria and fight off cancer cells.
  • Monocytes: They clear away dead cells and promote immune health.
  • Eosinophils: Eosinophils fight off infections and parasites. They also help with allergies and inflammation. 
  • Basophils: These cells are associated with asthma and allergies.

Infection serology 

Infection serology tests detect antibodies in your blood. Your immune system houses antibodies, protective proteins that fight unwelcome guests – germs, bacteria, and viruses. When you have an infection, your body prepares for battle by making antibodies specific to the germs, bacteria, or viruses causing problems (4). Knowing this information is vital for learning what you can do to keep your immune system in tip-top condition.

 Infection serology biomarkers:

  • Immunoglobulin G (IgG)
  • Immunoglobulin M (IgM)
  • Immunoglobulin A (IgA)

Blood tests for metabolic health

Basic metabolic panel (BMP)

The BMP describes your body’s ability to process energy and food through metabolism. It helps determine acid and balance, kidney function, blood sugar levels, and fluid and electrolyte balance (5). The BMP gives you an idea of your nutrition needs and if dietary changes are necessary to enhance your well-being. 

The BMP checks eight biomarkers (5):

  • Glucose: Glucose is sugar in your blood and your body’s primary energy source.
  • Calcium: It’s an essential mineral for bones, teeth, nerves, and muscles.
  • Sodium, potassium, bicarbonate, and chloride: These minerals are vital for fluid and electrolyte balance. Bicarbonate helps to keep the acid-base balance of the body stable. 
  • BUN and creatinine: blood urea nitrogen (BUN) and creatine biomarkers measure how well your kidneys can eliminate wastes.

Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (CMP)

The CMP covers the same biomarkers as the BMP but includes additional tests that tell you about your liver function. Getting information on your body’s ability to process energy and foods, and learning about your body’s chemical balance, are the main points of the CMP (6).

The CMP checks for the following biomarkers (6):

  • Glucose: Glucose is the sugar in your blood and your body’s primary energy source.
  • Calcium: It’s an essential mineral for bones, teeth, nerves, and muscles.
  • Sodium, potassium, bicarbonate, and chloride: These minerals are vital for fluid and electrolyte balance. Bicarbonate helps to keep the acid-base balance of the body stable. 
  • BUN and creatinine: blood urea nitrogen (BUN) and creatine biomarkers measure how well your kidneys can eliminate wastes.
  • Albumin: Albumin is a liver protein that transports substances in the bloodstream and regulates fluid distribution in the body.
  • Total protein: The total amount of protein in your blood.
  • Alkaline Phosphatase (ALP), Alanine Transaminase (ALT), Aspartate Aminotransferase (AST): ALP, ALT, and AST are enzymes present in your liver.
  • Bilirubin: This biomarker is a waste product that is converted by the liver and excreted in the urine and stool.

The BMP and CMP blood tests are chock-full of helpful information about your health and body functions.  

Photo by Rinck Content Studio on Unsplash

Blood tests for heart health

Lipid panel

A lipid panel, or cholesterol test, provides information about the amount of cholesterol and specific fats flowing through your blood. Cholesterol and fats are necessary to keep your cells and organs functioning well (7). 

At normal levels, your lipids tell you that your heart health is in great shape and you’re in an excellent place to prevent heart disease by continuing to adopt healthy habits. 

Lipid panel biomarkers are your body’s primary signs for heart disease risk.

Here are the biomarkers for lipid panels that will help you stay on top of your heart health (7,8, 9):

  • HDL-cholesterol:  High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are your healthy cholesterol levels that help keep your LDL cholesterol levels low.
  • LDL-cholesterol: Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are unhealthy cholesterol levels that tell of your chances of heart problems.
  • Total cholesterol: This biomarker tells you how much about the types of cholesterol that are floating in your blood.
  • Triglycerides: Triglycerides are a type of fat that may show chances for heart disease when abnormal.
  • Non-HDL-cholesterol: Non-HDL measures your total cholesterol minus your HDL cholesterol level. 
  • LDL/HDL ratio: It measures your total cholesterol divided by your HDL to predict the state of your heart health.

Blood test for liver health

Protein panel

 A protein panel, or a total protein test, measures the total amounts of two proteins made in your blood– albumin and globulin. Albumin prevents fluid leakage from the blood vessels, while globulin is good for immune health, transport, and blood clotting. Because your liver produces these two proteins, if your levels are abnormal, it could be a sign of liver dysfunction Furthermore, the CMP offers a protein panel to help determine liver health (10).

The test can offer information on hydration status, autoimmune disease, cancer, kidney or liver problems, genetic deficiencies, inflammation, malnutrition, etc. (10).

 Protein panel biomarkers are (6,10,11):

  • Total protein: The total amount of protein in your blood. Results may point to liver or kidney problems.
  • Albumin: Albumin is a liver protein.
  • Alpha-1-globulins, alpha-2-globulins, beta-globulins, gamma-globulins: The globulins are proteins in your blood that play roles in immune health, substance transport, and blood clotting.
  • Alkaline phosphatase (ALP), alanine transaminase (ALT), aspartate aminotransferase (AST), gamma-glutamyl tansferase (GGT): ALP, ALT, AST, and GGT are enzymes present in your liver.

Blood test for kidney health

Kidney function panel

The kidneys have a big job of filtering and cleaning waste in your blood. 

The kidney function panel determines how well your kidneys work and your chances of developing kidney problems. It’s crucial to get this test done if you have a family history of kidney disease because there are often no signs or symptoms of early kidney disease (12).

 Kidney function panel biomarkers:

  • Glomerular filtration rate (GFR): The GFR measures how well your kidneys are working to filter out wastes.
  • BUN and creatinine: blood urea nitrogen (BUN) and creatine biomarkers measure how well your kidneys can eliminate wastes.
  • Lactate dehydrogenase (LDH): LDH is an enzyme that may indicate kidney damage (13).

Blood test for hormone health

Thyroid panel

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in your neck, and it’s responsible for making hormones that play significant roles in your body. Thyroid tests help detect whether or not the thyroid gland is functioning normally, and low functioning thyroid can impact how well your body burns calories. The thyroid panel can determine an overactive or underactive thyroid gland and which helps to diagnose thyroid disease(14). 

Thyroid panel biomarkers (14):

  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH): TSH is the most popular biomarker showing  thyroid function. Your pituitary gland produces TSH which activates the secretion of thyroid hormones.
  • T3 and T4: These are two thyroid hormones that influence your metabolism and help determine thyroid function.
  • Thyroid peroxidase antibodies (TPO) and thyroglobulin antibodies (Tg): TPO and Tg are thyroid antibodies that may signal Hashimoto’s or hypothyroidism.

Blood test for minerals 

Minerals testing

Minerals are essential for normal growth and the everyday functions of your body. They influence the health of your bones, muscles, and nerves and offer insights into your nutrition status – whether your body has the mineral supply it needs to thrive. Testing your blood levels for minerals levels gives information about your fluid and electrolyte balance which helps your body maintain a healthy pH balance (15). 

Types of mineral labs and biomarkers (5):

  • Calcium: It’s an important mineral for bones, teeth, nerves, and muscles.
  • Sodium, potassium, bicarbonate, and chloride: These minerals are vital for fluid and electrolyte balance. Bicarbonate helps to keep the acid-base balance of the body stable. 
  • Iron: Iron is a mineral that the body needs for healthy functions, including carrying oxygen.
  • Phosphate: This mineral helps strengthen your teeth and bones.

How to make sense of blood test results

Your doctor knows you, your health history, and your test results better than anyone. Please always seek your doctor's advice if there’s confusion about your lab test results.

A few must-know terms will help you understand their meaning.

Reference range: The reference range is the “normal value.” The numbers on your lab results reflect the typical values seen in large groups of healthy individuals. Even if your tests show you outside the normal range, they may not give an accurate picture of your health, and you may need further testing. Approximately 5% of healthy people will have lab values outside the normal range.

If you are taking medication or have a chronic medical condition, your results may go above or below these ranges. Reference ranges may vary based on age, sex, or other factors(1).

While it's important to know what your reference range is for each test, it's also important to keep in mind that reference ranges aren't always set in stone. They can change over time as more people get tested, and they can vary depending on who's doing the testing.

For example, if you have a blood test done at a specific lab, the results will probably be different than if you had an identical test done at another clinic—even if they both use the same machines and methods.

Factors that affect blood test results

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Medication
  • Cyclical hormone levels
  • Different lab processes
  • Stress
  • Infection
  • Sample collection and storage
  • Time of day
  • Hydration

The bottom line

Your body is a giant network of cells, tissues, organs, blood vessels, and more. Blood tests are essential labs to have routinely, so you and your doctor are aware of how well your body network is functioning.

There are many blood-related labs in healthcare today, and your doctor may recommend blood work for your general health, immune system, heart,  liver, kidneys, metabolism, hormones, and mineral levels.

Blood tests reveal what’s going on with your biomarkers, small molecules in your blood that reflect your health and nutrition status. The results of blood tests, including the CBC, CMP, or infection serology, can help drive the health choices you make for yourself from day to day.

Your lab results will be within the reference range or outside of the reference range. Regardless of your results, it helps to remember that factors such as age, stress, and hydration can impact lab data.

The best way to make sense of your lab work results is by asking your doctor. A normal value doesn’t equal the absence of health problems, so have your doctor evaluate your health and explain what your lab result means for you. They’re more familiar with your health history, so they know how to interpret your results best. Be sure to test regularly so you can track the patterns and trends of your health over a long period.  

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Disclaimer: aware®'s products and services are designed to enhance a healthy lifestyle, but they are no substitute for professional medical advice. Our content and media do not intend to diagnose, cure, or treat any medical condition. 

References:

  1. Medlineplus.gov. “How to Understand Your Lab Results: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information,” n.d. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/how-to-understand-your-lab-results/.
  2. www.nhlbi.nih.gov. “Blood Tests - Blood Tests | NHLBI, NIH,” March 24, 2022. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/blood-tests.
  3. Medlineplus.gov. “Blood Differential: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information,” 2015. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/blood-differential/.
  4. Medlineplus.gov. “Immunoglobulins Blood Test: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information,” 2014. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/immunoglobulins-blood-test/.
  5. Medlineplus.gov. “Basic Metabolic Panel (BMP): MedlinePlus Medical Test,” n.d. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/basic-metabolic-panel-bmp/.
  6. Medlineplus.gov. “Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (CMP): MedlinePlus Lab Test Information,” September 9, 2021. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/comprehensive-metabolic-panel-cmp/.
  7. MedlinePlus. “Cholesterol Levels: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information.” Medlineplus.gov, 2017. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/cholesterol-levels/.
  8. MedlinePlus. “Cholesterol Levels: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information.” Medlineplus.gov, 2017. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/cholesterol-levels/.
  9. Treacy Colbert. “Understanding the Cholesterol Ratio: What It Is and Why It’s Important.” Healthline. Healthline Media, July 27, 2017. https://www.healthline.com/health/cholesterol-ratio.
  10. Slightam, Cindie. “Total Protein Test.” Healthline. Healthline Media, November 4, 2015. https://www.healthline.com/health/total-protein.
  11. Medlineplus.gov. “Globulin Test: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information,” 2017. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/globulin-test/.
  12. Medlineplus.gov. “Kidney Tests.” National Library of Medicine, 2018. https://medlineplus.gov/kidneytests.html.
  13. Medlineplus.gov. “Lactate Dehydrogenase (LDH) Isoenzymes Test: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information,” 2014. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/lactate-dehydrogenase-ldh-isoenzymes-test/.
  14. Medlineplus.gov. “Thyroid Antibodies: MedlinePlus Medical Test.” Accessed June 13, 2022. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/thyroid-antibodies.
  15. Medlineplus.gov.“Sodium Blood Test: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information.” Medlineplus.gov, 2014. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/sodium-blood-test/.