Apologies to blood and/or needle averse readers for the above photo, but today I wanted to share something from my own self-care practices -- visiting my primary care provider and getting blood taken once a year.
Given the current realities of our healthcare system and the difficulties of obtaining/financing health insurance (not to mention then finding a local doctor who accepts your insurance plan), going to a primary care provider isn't something most people would consider self-care; in fact, if you're blessed with good health, you might believe there's no point in visiting the doctor at all. But I am an advocate for integrative medicine, which is using all of the best tools available from all medicines to support our best possible health -- and the healthcare choices I make for myself, like going to see my nurse practitioner or MD, support this, my thirst for self-knowledge, and my desire to take control over my health into my own hands.
You may have heard of prevention, which is the idea that there are many ways we can support our health and prevent disease from arising in the first place, instead of treating disease after it has manifested. According to the CDC (and common sense), everyday lifestyle choices can actually prevent many of the chronic long-term diseases and conditions that are becoming increasingly common in our country, including diabetes mellitus type 2, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and cancer. That means we can all take steps to help ourselves, now, for free!
I believe in living a lifestyle that preserves and enhances my health, and prevents imbalance and disease from arising -- to the best of my ability, with the constitution I have inherited, as a modern person living in an urban environment. There is no way to avoid illness or pain altogether, as those go hand in hand with being alive, nor can I avoid the genetics passed down to me, or what's really in the air I breathe or water I shower in daily. Some things, we simply cannot (directly) control (although, frankly, many of those can be influenced and changed by our voting choices, activism, and participation in local government! Just sayin', get involved.). But the food I eat, where I live, how I move my body, the activities I spend my time doing, and the people I live my life alongside -- these are all choices that I am empowered to make every day.
But how can I tell if my choices are really supporting my best possible health? One tool, though certainly not the only valid one, is getting blood tests each year to have a window into what's happening in my body. If I've been feeling particularly tired, I could chalk it up to a stressful time in my family, or the seasonal side effects of short dark winter days -- or, I could look at my vitamin D levels, iron levels, and thyroid hormones to see if there's something nutritional or hormonal that can be remedied by my diet, supplements, or herbs.
Is there something unusual going on with certain hormone, vitamin, inflammation marker, blood sugar, or cholesterol levels? How would I know if there have been changes if I don't have a history of blood work to look back on to paint a picture of my own personal health? Getting some basic tests each year helps me and my primary care physician understand the story of my health as it has changed over time, to understand what any changes might mean within the context of my own unique big picture.
Keep in mind, after you've received your tests, that each lab company's reference ranges are only going to compare your results to the test results from other people previously tested in that lab. That means that ranges of "normal" are different from lab to lab, and the ranges may not reflect optimal levels for certain vitamins and hormones; what is considered by the lab to be "normal" might actually be quite low (or high) for optimal health, because many of the other people previously tested in the lab were malnourished or sick! There are many online resources available to help you understand blood tests results so that you can bring questions to your PCP, and I'd recommend studying up a little before you receive your results.
If blood and needles are not for you, I totally understand, but a good phlebotomist (cool word, right?!) will be able to coach you through getting your blood drawn. And I promise, the long-term results of this self-care practice will definitely be worth the effort.