The Numbers You Can’t Get at Home You Won’t Get from the Lab, Either

When at-home cholesterol blood tests first came out, the medical establishment came down hard on cholesterol monitors. The Mayo Clinic Newsletter, for instance, warned its readers:

“Two in-home testing products can tell you your total cholesterol, HDL, and triglyceride levels (Cardio Check and Lifestream Personal Cholesterol Monitor). Unfortunately, it takes three separate jabs with a sharp lancet to do this, the tests don’t measure LDL, and they cost more than $100. Leave it to the lab.”

The good news is that, since the Mayo Clinic newsletter came out, the cost of Lifestream test strips is down to $3.33 and the cost of CardioCheck test strips is down to $3.79. It is true that users of at-home cholesterol test kits have to jab their own fingers to get a tiny drop of blood, but if they use a spring-loaded lancing device, there’s no pain at all-something you can’t necessarily say about every visit to the blood lab at your clinic or hospital. And while home cholesterol blood testing does not measure LDL cholesterol, neither does your doctor!

Why labs don’t usually measure LDL cholesterol. Every modern medical lab can measure LDL cholesterol. It’s not an easy test. In most labs, the technicians have to recalibrate their equipment just for the one patient getting the test. And it costs about US $500.

The way labs estimate LDL cholesterol is by first measuring the total of all kinds of cholesterol plus triglycerides. Then they measure triglycerides. Taking this out of the total leaves the total cholesterol.

Then the lab measures the smaller, denser HDL cholesterol. This leaves everything else, which is VLDL and LDL. The lab guesses that your VLDL is 1/5 as much as your triglycerides, and everything left is LDL.

The problem with this method is that VLDL isn’t always 1/5 as much as your triglycerides. And if you have been dieting to lose weight, your body doesn’t make as many triglycerides out of leftover sugars. This means you can cut out the sugar and fat, and start exercising, and it will appear your LDL goes up-whether it actually does or not.

Home cholesterol monitors don’t measure LDL. Neither does the lab. And total LDL is not a very helpful measurement, anyway.

LDL comes in two varieties. LDL is usually called “bad” cholesterol, but the simple fact is, not all LDL causes cardiovascular disease. Bigger pieces of LDL cholesterol get burned as fuel by the muscles. Smaller pieces of cholesterol are the ones that can get stuck in the linings of arteries and calcify to form artery-clogging plaques.

If LDL cholesterol is attached to a carrier molecule called apo-A, it doesn’t cause cardiovascular disease. If it is attached to a carrier molecule called apo-B, then it may cause cardiovascular disease-if your immune system attacks it, and if you have high levels of free radicals (and low levels of antioxidants) that accelerate the process.

Should you really measure cholesterol at home? Total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglyceride levels are a good measurement of the general direction of your health after you make changes to take care of high cholesterol. They don’t tell you whether you are changing your real risk factors for heart disease, but if total cholesterol, LDL, and triglyceride levels go down, and HDL levels go up, you can be assured you are generally on the right track.

And for just $3 a test strip, compared to $500 or more for a doctor’s visit plus labs, why not test at home? You get inexpensive, reliable results in the comfort and privacy of your own home, for less than 1% of the cost of going to the doctor’s office. You still need to go to your doctor for diagnosis and treatment, but home cholesterol tests can tell you whether you are on the right track.