Anxiety and depression are extremely common mental and psychological health conditions that affect millions of Americans. Although it seems that anxiety and depression are paradoxical, as you would not feel anxious when you are depressed or you would not feel depressed when you are anxious, studies have shown that these 2 conditions can be present at the same time.
Although these 2 conditions are common, there is no single objective test that could definitively diagnose them. Doctors rely on several questionnaires and other tests to assess your likelihood of being depressed or anxious. For example, the Beck Depression Inventory is frequently used to aid in the diagnosis of depression. This Beck Depression Inventory is composed of 21 self-reported questions that assess the mood, symptoms and behaviors of people who show signs of depression. As would be expected, it is difficult to diagnose or treat the conditions effectively based on patients’ self-reported symptoms only.
The good news is, there is another method that may help.
A new way to aid in diagnosing anxiety and depression
Researchers at the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience have observed that earwax could aid in the diagnosis of depression and other psychiatric conditions.
They collected samples of earwax by using a cotton swab and found that the cortisol levels in the earwax are stable and correlated with the patients’ depression. Specifically, an elevated cortisol level in the earwax increases the likelihood of depression. By simply measuring the cortisol levels in the earwax, it could help doctors to identify patients who are most likely to benefit from antidepressants. The researchers have also found that the cortisol levels in the earwax are correlated with other psychiatric problems, such as anxiety.
Basically, the earwax test may help because the cortisol levels in it are strongly correlated with depression and anxiety.
Where does the cortisol come from?
Cortisol is a kind of hormone that is secreted by one of your endocrine organs – the adrenal glands. There is one adrenal gland on each side that is located above the kidney.
It is the infamous “fight or flight” hormone, the one that raises the alarm during stressful situations. The secretion of cortisol by the adrenal glands is tightly controlled by your brain. A brain structure called hypothalamus could increase or decrease the production of cortisol according to human needs.
What does the cortisol do?
Cortisol is a critical component of the stress-response system. It plays a pivotal role in the “fight or flight” response, which occurs when you are confronted with an acute threat to survival physically or mentally by reacting or retreating. This hormone mediates a variety of body changes that prepare you for the upcoming fight or flight.
Studies have shown that with depression or anxiety, the cortisol hormone levels change significantly. Specifically, in healthy individuals, the level of cortisol peaks in the morning and decreases as the day goes by. However, in about half of patients with depression, the cortisol peaks earlier in the morning and does not decrease as usual. Thus, the cortisol levels in the earwax may help doctors to diagnose and treat conditions like anxiety and depression cheaply and effectively. Cortisol’s precise role in conditions such as anxiety and depression is not known for sure, however. The researchers aim to use such measurements as a tool to home in on the right treatment.