How have your stress levels been lately? Your ear
nose knows. Our bodies make the hormone cortisol when under stress, which can be found and measured in our blood, saliva, hair, and… earwax. The level of cortisol in our blood and saliva can change quickly, rising under stress and falling when stress is taken away, so a sample of either only represents our stress level in a particular moment. Hair provides a record over a period of time, but lab analysis of hair is costly. Enter earwax.
Earwax is a stable reservoir of cortisol, meaning the hormone collects in earwax and remains there without change. It is also bacteria resistant, thus free of contamination. The traditional way of collecting earwax involved water and a syringe; a process most people do not really enjoy. A new device has been developed that allows patients to collect their own earwax comfortably and send it off to the lab. Similar to a cotton swab but with a sponge instead of cotton, it also has a shield, or ring, around the shaft to prevent the sponge from being inserted too far and damaging the inner ear and eardrum.
Cortisol is useful to us because it helps produce the “fight or flight” response when we perceive danger. However, when cortisol is constantly overproduced or underproduced it may cause health issues. In that case, measuring cortisol levels can be important for patients who suffer from depression, anxiety, Addison’s disease, or Cushing’s disease. Patients with Addison’s disease (dangerously low blood pressure) may be experiencing too little production of cortisol. Patients with Cushing’s disease, anxiety, or depression, may be experiencing too much production of cortisol.
The new device for self-swab earwax samples was developed then tested in a study titled, Measuring Earwax Cortisol Concentration using a non-stressful sampling method, published November 1, 2020, in the journal Heliyon.
Many thanks to Demosthenes for being our ear and nose model tonight. (I needed a picture which included an ear and a nose, and he was the only guy available on short notice. It was either him or a ghastly picture of a plug of wet earwax. I think I made the right call.)
Question of the Night: Does anyone buy wax products for any purpose anymore?