By Dr. Keith Sheehan

November 21, 2019

When Donna came in to see me early this year 2019, she was complaining of digestive issues, chronic sinus problems, and fatigue. She had been to see several doctors over the years but hadn’t gotten much relief. Notably, she had had surgery for endometriosis in 1989, part of her bowel removed in 2016 and had her gallbladder removed in 2001. Something didn’t add up. I knew that Donna took good care of herself and had worked with nutritional doctors in the past. But she still wasn’t feeling well. And I knew that she had a great diet, yet she still had a lot of digestive discomfort and pain, fatigue and sinus issues.

Considering all of this, I asked to see her most recent labs. Notably, and shockingly, no one had performed an iron panel, thyroid panel, or even a vitamin D level! Fail! So I ordered these for Donna. To show the difference between functional medicine values and standard lab reference ranges, I decided to show you the two of them.

Marker Value Functional Range Lab Range
TIBC 279 275 – 425 250 450
UIBC 141 175 – 350 150 375
Iron 138 40 – 135 40 155
Iron saturation 49 17 – 45 15 55
Ferritin 329 30 – 200 15 150
TSH 1.51 0.5-2.0 .45 4.5
T4 (Total) 6.7 6.0-12 4.5 12
T3 Uptake 23 30-38 24 39
Vitamin D, 25-OH 24.6 35-60 30 100

As you can see, using the standard lab reference ranges (highlighted in red) she has high ferritin, low T3 uptake, and low vitamin D. In other words, she has high iron (or inflammation), a little bit of thyroid stress, and low vitamin D. But, using the functional medicine reference ranges (in blue), you can see that Donna’s big problem is that she actually has iron overload! Wow!

This would account for a lot. You see, iron overload is actually quite common, affecting between one and nine, and one in three people in this country. Common signs and symptoms of iron overload are joint pain, fatigue, depression, as well as increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and other diseases. Personally, in my office, I see that it is usually also associated with digestive problems and immune system issues, such as chronic sinus problems.

Excess iron in the body tends to accumulate in the liver, heart, blood vessels, brain, and nerves. It’s kind of a big deal! Could this actually be a root cause of Donna’s problems? Well, it bears ruling out. What is the treatment for iron overload? This is probably one of the most obvious reasons why you never hear of it—the treatment for iron overload is free! Just give blood! Not only is it free to give blood, but you get to help another human being that needs it! Win!

Donna followed through with my recommendations, with a small supplement program that supported her digestive tract and immune system, while giving blood. Within a couple of months, she was virtually symptom-free! Another win!

Fast forward to last week. I had not seen Donna since May, and since I am writing an article about her case, I decided to call her. She confided in me that she had not given blood in several months and that she was severely stressed taking care of her elderly father, who just passed away. I asked her “Did you feel better when you followed the program and gave blood?“ She replied, “Oh yes, I felt much better, but I have not been able to keep up with everything because I was taking care of my father these past months, I intend to get right back on the program and feel better again! “

So why is this so important? Why am I blogging about this specific case? One, I’m blogging about this to tell you about how important iron overload is, how common it is, and how important it is to handle this properly.

The way I heard about iron overload was through my wife, Laura. You can hear about her story here. To make a long story short, for years she suffered from what seemed to be immune system problems, hormonal problems, migrating joint pains, low energy, anxiety, and depression. Once she learned that she had iron overload, and started giving blood, about 90% of her symptoms went away. And she needed about 90% fewer supplements! Win! Thank God I listened to her when she asked me if she could have iron overload!

Just as importantly, however, I am telling you this so that you can see the difference between using the standard lab reference ranges and functional medicine blood chemistry reference ranges. If Donna, or my wife, Laura, had just used the standard lab reference ranges, both of them would most likely still be suffering today.

So, this begs the question, why don’t more doctors do this? The answer is simple, they are not trained in it. While they receive a tremendous amount of education on anatomy, physiology, pathology or disease, and pharmacology, they receive no training on functional medicine in medical school. It’s not that they’re doing something wrong, or making mistakes, they are just looking at health from a different perspective.

If this case interests you, and or you want to learn more about functional medicine, click here to learn more about our functional medicine program.

Yours in health,

Dr. Sheehan