Researchers in the UK have found an innovative way to measure a person’s cortisol levels – a hormone often associated with stress – that may make it easier to track depression, stress levels and similar conditions in the future.

Ear wax sample of cortisol

Cortisol hormone levels are not only an indicator of stress, but also of other mental health problems and other illnesses. In the UK, researchers at University College London and King’s College London have developed a new way to collect cortisol by sampling ear wax, the waxy substance found in the ears.

“Cortisol sampling is known to be difficult because hormone levels can fluctuate, so a sample may not accurately reflect a person’s chronic cortisol levels,” lead researcher Andres Herane-Vives, PhD, said in a press release.

“However, the cortisol level in the earwax seems to be more stable. With our new device, it is easy to take a sample and have it tested quickly, cheaply and effectively.”

Cortisol can be found in blood samples, for example even in hair. However, these are not reliable indicators of stable cortisol levels because they are affected by food, alcohol, nicotine, UV radiation, and more.

The main benefit of having an ear wax sample is that it is not affected by these variables.

So British researchers have developed a tool to take samples and follow distanced health protocols. The new device can be used at home without a healthcare professional.

In the article published in the publicly available journal Heliyon, researchers illustrated the wax sampler. It mirrors a handheld massager and consists of three parts: a sponge, the tip that holds the sponge, and the handle. It collects samples like a cotton swab. However, a brake can prevent the device from going too far into the ear, thereby avoiding damage. The sponge comes with a solution that is used to effectively collect ear wax samples.

To test the device, the team recruited 37 healthy participants to have multiple ear wax samples. For the first sampling, a standard syringe injected tap water at 37 degrees Celsius into the external auditory canal of the left ear. The method applied slight pressure in the ear and flushed out the wax. A month later, a syringe was used in the right ear to take a sample, while the participants used the new wax device themselves on the other ear. The researchers also took hair and blood samples.

The results showed that the device obtained better ear wax samples compared to using the syringe. The wax samples also had more concentrated cortisol than hair samples. Blood samples still contained more concentrated cortisol than the other two methods.

The new cortisol sampling technique is still in its infancy. The researchers are now investigating the potential for measuring blood sugar levels and COVID-19 antibodies.

Why Doctors Can Test Your Cortisol

Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. The hormone plays a role in various functions, such as regulating the immune system and controlling blood pressure. High levels of cortisol can cause a higher risk of infection, higher blood pressure, and increased blood sugar.

An article from the University of Rochester Medical Center listed reasons that might require a cortisol test.

  • Accumulation of fat on the face, neck and upper body, accompanied by thin arms and legs
  • Thin skin that easily bruises
  • Stripes of pink or purple color on the abdomen, buttocks and thighs
  • Excess facial and chest hair in women
  • Fatigue
  • Dark spots on the skin

Cushing’s syndrome and Addison’s disease can explain abnormal cortisol levels. The first condition is usually related to very high levels of cortisol, while the second is typically related to very low levels of cortisol. Other possible reasons for abnormal cortisol levels include malnutrition and panic disorder. Ask your doctor for more information about cortisol.

Adrenal fatigue

You may have heard of the term adrenal fatigue, which is used to describe low levels of cortisol, energy, and fatigue. A post on the Harvard Medical School blog stated that adrenal fatigue is not a recognized medical diagnosis. A recent review of 58 studies found no scientific evidence to diagnose adrenal dysfunction as a cause of fatigue.

If you suffer from chronic fatigue, you can consult your doctor to find out the real reason. Talk to your doctor to learn how to overcome this fatigue.

Ralph Chen is an enthusiast for medical topics and advanced technology.

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