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  • Kelly Johnston, FNTP, RWP

The Nuts and Bolts: What Does HTMA Reveal?

In my previous posts, I discussed that our bodies depend on minerals for our cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems to function properly, and how mineral balance is one of the five foundations of health. They are our ‘spark plugs’, playing a vital role in the production of energy in our cells, which in turn means we can have energy in our bodies as a whole. When minerals are depleted, we are at a strong disadvantage because we lose that energy and we begin to stack up symptoms from that depletion. Our vitality suffers. We grow fatigued and out of balance in any number of ways, and over time, chronic illness sets in. It’s a bleak progression, indeed, but the good news is, if we don’t allow ourselves to stay in this state for very long, we can turn this scenario around rather quickly. It takes some time to restore mineral levels and it does depend on how long we’ve been out of balance or depleted, but while we’re doing that, our symptoms tend to abate and we begin to feel and function better in fairly short order.


Remember that hair is a soft tissue, and that as it grows through the cells of the scalp, minerals and other elements are deposited into it. What is going on with the composition of the hair is a window into what is likely happening with the other soft tissues of the body. If we see an overabundance of calcium in the hair, we consider that calcium is being deposited elsewhere in the body into soft tissue, such as the arteries or breast tissue, for example. This is a picture of what happens when there’s excessive calcium or copper, or any number of other minerals that are not bioavailable to the body. The body can exhibit symptoms of both too much and too little at the same time, as bio-unavailable minerals aren’t accessible for the body to use, thus setting one up for symptoms of deficiency. It’s like being stranded on the ocean with no clean water to drink – water everywhere but not in a form that can be used by a thirsty body. There are ways to address this bio-unavailability so the body can balance itself and stop accumulating elements that can’t be used. It’s one of the best things about working with HTMA. On the other hand, seeing what appears to be an overabundance of a mineral can also be evidence that a mineral is being pushed out and lost into the hair at a rapid pace. Knowing how to tell the difference is part of being proficient at reading the results and knowing the sequence of loss once minerals start to be depleted. Truly, understanding HTMA is like solving a puzzle. All the pieces affect each other, and they can’t be evaluated without looking at the whole.


So, what kind of information comes from a hair tissue mineral analysis? We get the levels of 15 nutritional elements (the most prevalent minerals, including the four macro-minerals calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium). There are 14 additional elements included, along with levels of 7 toxic elements (commonly referred to as heavy metals). This alone is a lot of information, but the section of the test that is most important to understand is the significant ratios section. These are 7 significant ratios of one mineral to another, each of which can give us a good idea of how the body is using its energy in different capacities. We can learn the body’s metabolic rate (fast or slow and to what degree), the body's overall vitality, how the adrenal and thyroid glands are functioning (Are they sluggish or running too fast? Is one running fast while the other is running slow?), how the body is handling stress, blood sugar and hormone regulation, and the tendency toward either viral or bacterial infection (or neither). We get an idea from looking at these ratios at how the body is functioning as a whole. This is not a diagnostic test, as I’ve said before, and it can, at times, point us in a direction to go if we want to dig deeper. But by and large, these ratios can really shed some light on where the body is out of balance.


And how does that actually work? For instance, how does the sodium to potassium ratio, commonly referred to as the vitality ratio, tell us anything about the body’s vitality? I choose this ratio as an example because it is one of the most important to evaluate on the HTMA. This is because every single cell in the body has a sodium-potassium pump on its cell membrane. This pump regulates what comes in and out of the cell. It’s like the gatekeeper for accepting nutrients into the cell and allowing waste to be excreted out of the cell. The difference between sodium and potassium concentrations really drives this pump. So when we know what the ratio of sodium to potassium is, we get a picture of how well this pump is working and therefore a picture of cellular health. Since our cells come together to make tissues, and the tissues then come together to make organs, which then come together to form organ systems which make up the entire organism, it becomes abundantly clear that a healthy organism begins with healthy cells. So looking at the vitality of the cells allows us to consider the vitality of the body. When the sodium to potassium ratio is high, we look for stressors in the body, whether physical or emotional, and we consider inflammation as the culprit. A high Na/K ratio can drive up blood pressure as it can indicate retaining water, it can contribute to pre-menstrual syndrome, and when it’s very high, it can suggest liver and kidney stress. It can point to the stress of heavy metals being excreted from the body. A high Na/K ratio can make a person feel irritable, aggressive, emotional, and quick to anger. But while this can be problematic, it’s preferable over a low ratio, which suggests low vitality and being in a very depleted state. Immune issues, chronic infections, fatigue, allergies, sugar cravings can all be part of this depleted picture. A person with a very low ratio can feel like he’s spinning his wheels and never getting anywhere. Resentment and negativity often accompanies this low ratio.


So what do we do with this information? We look at it alongside all the information we glean from each ratio (and each single mineral and toxic element being excreted) and we formulate a strategy for allowing the body to bring it into better balance. What is involved in this strategy? Guidance for eating for your metabolic type so as to encourage optimal energy, food and supplement recommendations for encouraging appropriate movement in the mineral levels and ratios, support for the organs that do all this work on their own when they’re aren’t compromised or overwhelmed, and lifestyle factor suggestions for your particular metabolic type that will provide a healthy environment for your body to balance and heal are all part of the plan. Checking high levels of toxic elements against potential sources so we can evaluate if the exposure is ongoing is another important aspect of HTMA. Generally though, if we find there is not ongoing exposure, we actually like to see the toxic elements coming out in the hair, as this indicates that the body is actively clearing them. This is something that we watch for in retests because this is a clue that the body is able to detox more efficiently. HTMA gives us a broad look at heavy metals but is not the most definitive test for them. The information is still helpful and can shine a light on where the body needs support. In an HTMA program, you receive an extensive report where I've broken the information down for you, explaining where your results are falling in any given ratio or single mineral/metal, what sources you may look for to either raise or lower them, and what symptoms you may experience with where your particular levels land.


So, typically, with a first HTMA, we focus on the four macro-minerals. We may see other minerals out out of optimal range, but for the most part, working on these doesn’t do much good until the first four are more in balance, and they sometimes begin to do this when the macro-minerals have improved. We take note of the toxic elements showing up and begin to evaluate if there are exposures taking place that can be avoided. And we then begin to apply the food and drink, supplement, and lifestyle recommendations. Then we retest in a few months to see if changes are evident in the hair. We never want to continue on a given protocol beyond the recommended time frame because changes can occur that can indicate changes need to be made in the protocol. For instance, a person can move from slow to fast oxidation or vice-versa, indicating a need to discontinue with some of the support or a need to change from one support to another. Neglecting to do this could push a person out of balance in the other direction, which is the opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish. In a first retest, it isn’t uncommon to not see a tremendous amount of movement, but it is common instead to feel a shift in energy and symptoms regardless of small or big changes in the element values. It is normal, and even preferable, to see more toxic elements pushing out into the hair in a retest, as this shows readiness and the ability of the body to begin to rid itself of them. At this time, if the macro-minerals are responding and balancing appropriately, we also can start to support micro-minerals if there is a need.


You may be wondering how long it takes to complete this process of testing and retesting. There is no one answer to this question, as people are individuals and begin from different starting points and can have different wellness goals altogether. What is your age? How much mineral depletion/imbalance is there when we start? How well are you able to apply the recommendations consistently over time? How clean or toxic is the environment where you live, work, and sleep? How clean is your diet? What is your digestion like? Are you able to effectively break down your food so your body can access the minerals you're needing? Are there underlying infections influencing your outcomes? Are you an athlete making high physical demands on your body? Are you getting adequate, restorative sleep? How much stress are you dealing with, and how well are you dealing with it? Mismanaged stress is a huge factor in holding onto minerals vs. burning through them at a rapid-fire pace. And because of the pace at which we live our lives, the stresses we are subjected to (and we subject ourselves to!) , and the toxicity that surrounds us in our environment, HTMA can be a long-term tool for staying proactive, even once we’ve established a better metabolic picture and better mineral balance. This is a very individual decision.


And what is our target? How will we know when we’ve ‘arrived’? There is no perfect state of oxidation. There are different degrees of slow and fast. Picture a line with extreme slow oxidation on one end, and extreme fast oxidation on the other. What we are aiming for is somewhere very close to the middle. Your test result will always categorize you as either slow or fast, but healthy slow or fast metabolism is barely slow or fast. We look at the ratios, the single minerals, the toxic elements, the metabolic rate, and we’re able to determine if this is where you are landing. For clarification, healthy babies are born into fast oxidation. Children are typically fast oxidizers. Think about their energy! Their cells, tissues, and organs are new and in tip-top working order, if they’re born healthy. They are blowing and going and have periods of intense activity followed by intense rest. As we age, we tend to slow down over time and we can do so to the point of depletion. It wouldn’t be preferable to be in extreme fast oxidation as an adult, nor would it be healthy to be in extreme slow oxidation. Aging is very tied to our mineral balance. So, landing in a state of slight fast or slow oxidation is going to be our goal. We don’t want to be living in a state of fight or flight with very fast thyroid and adrenals, and we don’t want to be living in a state of rest and digest with very slow thyroid and adrenals either. Either extreme will feel extreme: very stressed and wired (and tired over time), or very draggy and sluggish. Energy balance is what we want – to be energetic and enthusiastic while being able to also fully relax and reboot with great sleep. If we’re dragging and unmotivated due to lack of energy and lack of good rest, or if we’re high-strung, feeling like our insides are running on a hamster wheel and we can’t sleep at night, our energy will be very unbalanced. There are so many factors that play into this, but minerals affect everything from digestion to hormone and blood sugar balance, to our cardiovascular, immune, and detoxification/elimination systems.


HTMA is a great tool for starting to work toward better energy and function overall. I think of it as a look under the hood to see what's been taking place over the past 3-4 months. It's a great complement to annual blood work, which is a look from another angle and from a single snapshot in time. We schedule regular tune-ups for our vehicles so they will be the well-oiled machines to get the job done day in and day out. How can we expect to run at optimal capacity if we neglect to give our inner workings any attention?


Next up: Will working with HTMA help me lose weight?