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Julie Chen, M.D. Headshot

Salivary Testing for Hormone Levels: Good Idea or Not?

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I frequently see patients who get saliva testing for various hormone levels from other practitioners they have seen in the past, so this is common practice in many integrative and complementary health clinics. However, the questions my patients usually will ask me knowing that I like to practice evidence-based medicine as much as possible is whether they can fully trust the saliva testing results.

During my integrative medicine fellowship, we had a module that addressed the validity of saliva testing for various hormone levels. As we reviewed the literature on salivary hormone testing, the general consensus is that saliva testing is appropriate for cortisol levels but not necessarily dependable for other hormone levels as compared to the gold standard for serum testing.

So, in general, I still repeat hormone levels via serum testing at appropriate times of the day and month depending on which levels I am checking on. However, I will use saliva testing for cortisol checks so that we can look at the curve throughout any given day for patients who I am suspicious for adrenal testing.

I have listed some references for studies that discuss hormone testing via saliva samples at the end of this article if you are interested (references 1 through 26), but I want to be clear as to my stance on the issue of salivary testing. For most other hormone levels, there is a chance for some over- or under-estimation of levels using saliva levels especially dependent on the method of collection for testing.

So, for those patients looking for a more accurate test level that is insurance covered due to cost concerns, I would recommend serum testing. For those who have the option for saliva testing, cortisol salivary tests are more commonly covered by insurance compared to other hormone salivary tests for the same reasons I discussed in this article; insurances have looked at the literature and recognized that because of the potential for outcome variability, they are not willing to cover for salivary hormone testing except for cortisol levels.

Let's use one of my patient examples to help you see what I mean by my concerns about saliva hormone testing, except when it comes to cortisol, which I support using salivary testing whole-heartedly.

My patient who was having issues with low sex drive and erectile dysfunction and was told by his urologist that he had testosterone deficiency that was mild but could consider some testosterone therapy if he wanted it. This patient was concerned about using hormone therapy due to what he had read in the literature and wanted to avoid it. So he went to see an integrative practitioner who did testing for his hormone levels again but this time with saliva testing, which the patient had to pay out of pocket. The results from that test showed that his testosterone level was very hearty and his adrenal cortisol level was low, so he decided to take de-glycyrrhyzed licorice and ginseng for his adrenal functioning and refused to take testosterone therapy.

Despite therapy that did indeed help his adrenal functioning over the course of six months, he was still battling with low sex drive and erectile dysfunction. He asked to do repeat tests and this time his testosterone level on saliva testing was very low but cortisol level had improved. He had to again pay out of pocket for this test so he decided he wanted to re-evaluate his hormone levels so he came to see me.

When I saw him, I checked him for his thyroid functioning and his red blood cell counts to make sure he wasn't anemic to evaluate for potential other issues that may be affecting his sexual dysfunction issues. I also rechecked his testosterone level, both the total level and the free testosterone level using the serum test. I also checked him for PSA (prostate specific antigen) level so that we can get a baseline level in case we needed to treat him for testosterone deficiency. I also checked his DHEA-s level to see if he needed replacement. Sometimes, if the DHEA-s is very low, simply replacing that can help with testosterone levels if the levels are only a little low.

When the results returned, it turned out the testosterone level was similar to what his urologist had initially gotten in the first serum level and the free level was again low but the total level was fine. His DHEA-s was also low, so we replaced his DHEA as well and monitored the level closely as well as his PSA. After a few months of that, his free testosterone level improved, his libido improved and erectile dysfunction was less of an issue according to the patient.

What's interesting about this patient case is that his serum level of testosterone remained about the same on repeated testing, yet his saliva test seemed to be up then down without a correlation to his serum level. So, this was an example how the saliva testing for hormones may not be as reliable and so if in doubt, you should just get a serum level checked. You have to just make sure that the physician is checking your free and total level for testosterone as well as DHEA-s and a baseline PSA for monitoring of therapy should you end up needing testosterone or DHEA therapy.

So, while I am not regularly in agreement with many insurance decision outcomes, for this one, I agree with them based on what literature we have. This is especially important for the readers who have limited funds for medical testing because you want to utilize your funds towards getting the results you can count on instead of wondering whether the test results from the saliva sample you gave is going to be over- or under-estimating your levels.

Consistency of lab testing outcome is important whether you are paying out of pocket or not because without accuracy, you could be treated with therapies that you don't actually need. So keeping this in mind, I would recommend using cortisol saliva testing if you need to figure out the severity of adrenal fatigue, but leave the other hormone testing to your serum tests, where the studies support more consistency to the results so that you get more for the money you are paying for your health.


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