How Stressed Are You? Your Earwax May Give Answers
Collecting and analyzing earwax for levels of the stress hormone cortisol may help us track mental health.
How stressed are you? We all experience it on occasion. Stress may occur as an acute, one-time event. Alternatively, it can happen repetitively over a more extended period. No matter what type, stress is associated with physical and mental health risks. Some of us may cope with stress more effectively and recover from stressful events more rapidly than others.
Examples of stress include:
- routine stress associated with work, family, school, or other responsibilities related to our activities of daily living
- acute stress, such as related to the loss of a job
- traumatic stress, such as experienced during a war, natural disaster, assault, or a significant accident.
While stress often has negative health consequences, not all stress is bad. For example, in times of danger, stress signals our bodies to fight or flight. This preparation is associated with a quickening of your pulse, faster breathing, the tensing of muscles, and increased brain activity. On the other hand, under less life-threatening situations, stress can enhance our motivation or performance.
Measuring stress: Earwax holds essential clues
As alluded to earlier, epidemiological studies point to many stressful events associated with worse mental and physical health and early mortality. While we have high-level evidence of this stress/health relationship, researchers often use invalidated stress measures or focus on only a single type of anxiety.
We can measure cortisol in blood, saliva, or hair. Unfortunately, the blood and saliva samples measure one point in time, and cortisol levels change throughout the day. Also, to check blood levels, we need to insert a needle into a vein. And voila! The stress of that raises the stress hormone cortisol. On the other hand, hair samples are easily obtained and provide a view of cortisol levels over several months. Alas, hair analysis is pricey.
Measuring stress using earwax
Cortisol is a hormone that rapidly rises when you are stressed; it goes down when you are relaxed. Remember that “fight or flight” response about which we talked? While it is vital for our survival, it can also cause many health disorders when elevated.
Now we have a new method of analyzing earwax, one which allows for the determination of cortisol levels. Could this approach be a simple and inexpensive means of helping assess mental health? Might this evaluation be particularly useful for those with anxiety or depression?
We can measure cortisol in blood, saliva, or hair. Unfortunately, the blood and saliva samples measure one point in time, and cortisol levels change throughout the day. In addition, to check blood levels, we need to insert a needle into a vein. And voila! The stress of that raises the stress hormone cortisol. Hair samples, on the other hand, are easily obtained and provide a view of cortisol levels over several months. Alas, hair analysis is pricey.
Enter Andrés Herane-Vives, a lecturer at University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Institute of Psychiatry. He turned to earwax, a stable entity that is resistant to bacterial contamination. These characteristics allow the shipping of earwax to labs for analysis. Earwax contains a record of cortisol levels for several weeks.
The scientist developed a swab not dissimilar from a common Q-tip. On the swab’s handle is a shied, placed there so that folks don’t stick the swab too far into the ear (and potentially damaging the eardrum). It has a sponge at the end to collect wax.
Does the swab work effectively? Yes.
Researchers conducted a small study, collecting blood, hair, and earwax from 37 subjects at two-time points. For the earwax collection, they used a syringe for one ear and the new self-swab for the other. The scientists then compared the reliability of the stress hormone cortisone measurements of the varying interventions.
Here are their findings:
- Earwax had a higher concentration of cortisol than hair, making analysis easier.
- The self-swab method appeared more rapid and more efficient than the syringe method. Subjects also described the self-swab approach as more comfortable.
- Earwax measurements appeared more consistent in cortisol levels compared to the other methods.
Many questions fall out of this small pilot study. Could the earwax approach be applied to monitoring other hormones? Might it be used for cortisol-related conditions such as Addison’s disease and Cushing syndrome? What about depression?
Will the approach work with Asian earwax, which tends to be more dry and flaky? The lead researcher has ambitions and has formed a company (Trears) to market the earwax approach.
Thank you for joining me today. I hope you have a joy-filled day.