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You’re Burned Out, and Your B.O. Can Prove It

Future smart watches might be able to track your sweat to show you how stressed you are and stress you out even more

If your generally miserable demeanor didn’t tip you off to it, your body can tell you that you’re burnt out in other ways. The wear of burnout might make you tired, irritable, hungry or any other variety of ill moods and symptoms, but the finer clues of precisely how stress is impacting your body had previously been harder to identify. If you want to know for sure, though, scientists might have a way of measuring it — by hooking you up to a sensor and tracking the cortisol in your sweat all day. 

While we all know what being stressed feels like, it had previously been challenging to quantify. Cortisol, the stress hormone, can be detected in blood, saliva, urine, sweat and even earwax, but its presence in these bodily fluids only indicates that stress has occurred at some point — given that our circadian rhythms naturally allow for the secretion of cortisol throughout the day, this isn’t very helpful. However, researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have developed a small, wearable device that could allow the tracking of these fluctuating cortisol levels as they happen by measuring our sweat. 

The device, announced in early February, utilizes a smart patch containing an electrode sensor capable of capturing cortisol and sending this information to a platform developed by biochemical nanotechnology company XSensio, called Lab-on-Skin. Together, the technology allows for the constant monitoring of stress hormone levels throughout the day.

Currently, the device is in its early stages of development. According to the researchers, the next step will be to test the device in a hospital environment among health-care workers, for whom work-related stress can impact the natural functions of their circadian rhythms and have other detrimental effects. The researchers also hope to use the device on individuals with Cushing’s syndrome and Addison’s disease, the former relating to an overproduction of cortisol and the latter relating to an under-production of cortisol. 

In the long-term, they hope that this technology can be used to better quantify burnout and stress-induced depression. Further in the future, they believe it could even become a component of smart watches and other mass-market wearable devices. For now, we’re left guessing exactly how stress is impacting our body, but soon enough, we might be able to read our sweat for answers.