Scientists Hail Earwax Test for Checking Stress Hormone Levels

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

IN BRIEF

This is incredible: researchers are discovering that you can actually measure how much continuous stress a person has been under, by examining their ear wax.

We have all felt stressed at one point or another. Stress is a normal physiological reaction to circumstances the body perceives as frightening or dangerous. However, you may not always know when you’re stressed. If you have a chronic stress condition, such as generalized anxiety disorder, you may be so used to living with stress that you don’t even notice it anymore. You may be used to pushing your stress down and ignoring it. Or, you may simply mistake it for a different emotion, or perhaps an illness. However, stress can take a toll on our bodies–in more ways than you might think. Quite recently, researchers have discovered one of those ways might be ear wax–and it could have valuable things to say. 

Ear Wax Stress Test

Dr. Andres Herane-Vives, out of England’s University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, released an interesting study on hormones and ear wax. Published in the scientific journal Heliyon, in November of 2020, he found that human earwax was a reliable indicator of the cortisol levels in the body. (1)

What Kind Of Hormone Is Cortisol?

Cortisol, also known as Hydrocortisone, is a steroid hormone known as a glucocorticoid. Glucocorticoids are the types of steroid hormones produced in the body’s adrenal gland. Cortisol receptors are present in most of the cells throughout the body, and once the cortisol has been produced, it is carried to these receptors through the bloodstream. According to the Society for Endocrinology, because cortisol is so widespread in the body it has a variety of different functions. Some of the things cortisol does are “controlling the body’s blood sugar levels and thus regulating metabolism, acting as an anti-inflammatory, influencing memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, influencing blood pressure and helping development of the foetus.” The body produces more cortisol in response to stress, which is why it is known as one of the stress hormones. (2)

Signs Of Too Much Cortisol

The Society for Endocrinology lists the following signs as things to be aware of if you are worried about your cortisol levels.

  • Changes noticeable in the face
    • Weight gain
    • Roundness
    • Redness and flushing
  • Changes noticeable in the skin
    • Bruises
    • Stretch marks, especially if they are purple-hued
    • Water Retention and Edema
  • Rapid weight gain, especially around the midline in the chest and stomach
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle Weakness
  • Osteoporosis
  • Increase in thirst
  • Urinating more than normal
  • Mood changes
    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Irritability
    • Loss of interest in sex
  • Menstrual cycles may vary, slow, or stop completely (2)

Why Test For Stress Hormones?

As we read about earlier, both anxiety and depression are marked by increased cortisol. Mental health conditions tend to be subjective. They often depend on the patient’s self-reported symptoms and behaviors; what’s more, if someone does not seek out mental health treatment, they may not be diagnosed at all, even if they do suffer from anxiety and depression. Dr. Herane-Vives believes that having biological markers of depression or anxiety will lead to greater diagnostic accuracy. Knowing exactly what to treat for, he says, is “the only way to provide the right treatment.”

This recent trial was only a preliminary start. Further research will be needed. But the team “hope[s] to transform diagnostics and care for millions of people with depression or cortisol-related conditions.” (1, 3)

The Hormone Stress Test

The study involved 37 people and two collections of ear wax over the course of 6 months. The first time, the researchers collected ear wax with a syringe–the standard methodology. The second time, six months later, ear wax was collected from one ear with the syringe. For the other ear, participants were asked to collect their own ear wax with a variation on a standard cotton swab.  Dr Herane-Vives came up with the design himself. The “tip is covered with a sponge of organic material, with a solution that has been tested to be the most effective and reliable at taking samples.” It also has a brake to prevent the swab from being inserted far enough to damage the eardrum.

“Cortisol sampling is notoriously difficult, as levels of the hormone can fluctuate,” says Herane-Vives. “A sample might not be an accurate reflection of a person’s chronic cortisol levels. Moreover, sampling methods themselves can induce stress and influence the results.”

However, the “novel technique was the least influenced by confounding factors such as stressful events or alcohol consumption,” according to their press release. This means that the cortisol levels found will be more accurate indicators of the body’s overall cortisol production–a stressful day will not throw off the results. 

The novel ear wax collecting technique also came out ahead compared to both blood tests and hair tests. For a hair test, 3 cm (1.18 inches) of hair is needed. Even then, “cortisol levels in earwax appear to be more stable,” according to Herane-Vives. (1, 3)

How To Keep Your Stress Hormones Regulated

With all the negative impacts of too many cortisol hormones, it is so important to keep your stress levels low. Below are some expert-recommended ways to keep stress under control. 

Reframe

Our self-talk can deeply impact how we view situations and react to them–physically and emotionally. But if you look at situations in a more positive light, it can reduce your stress. (4)

Walk Away

The act of taking a short walk gives you the opportunity to clear your head and reduce some of the tension in your body. Even if you just excuse yourself to the restroom, that can give you the space to calm down. (4)

Plan

“When people set goals for themselves, they have a positive sense of commitment, feel they’re in control and are optimistic,” says Dr. Ann Webster, a health psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. (5)

Breathe

Breathing deeply and evenly can trigger the body’s relaxation state, slowing your heart rate and calming your emotions. (5)

Instant Relief

Sometimes, it can be hard to calm down enough to even try other strategies. That’s where Dr. Morgan Camp’s Be Serene Instant Relief Cream can help. Apply 1-2 sprays to your temples or wrists and experience the benefits of “the fastest-acting anxiety relief possible.”

Sources

  1. https://www.bbc.com/news/amp/health-54795657
  2. https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol/
  3. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-11/ucl-esc110220.php 
  4. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/3-tips-to-manage-stress
  5. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/best-ways-to-manage-stress
  6. https://www.be-serene.com/instant-relief/ 

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About Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan is an expert in Functional and Integrative Medicine with a Strong Emphasis in stress related illnesses like anxiety and insomnia. In addition to his 20 years of work in Functional Medicine, he has expanded his practice to include work on the deeper aspects of our being that point to the root cause of our illnesses working with Mind Body Wellness, Energy Medicine, and Healing with Consciousness.
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